Virginia Dobles walked out of her house in the Belle Harbor section of Rockaway Beach Tuesday, Oct. 30, to assess the damage wrought by superstorm Sandy. She found 5-foot sand drifts that had washed inland. Homes that had collapsed like cardboard. Charred remnants of buildings ravaged by flood and fire, among them the 38-year-old Harbor Light Pub, owned by Dobles’ brother-in-law, Bernie Heeran.
“It looked like a bomb exploded,” Dobles told ABC News.
She’s a local realtor who grew up in the neighborhood, which made national headlines in November 2001, when an American Airlines flight crashed there, killing everyone on board and five people on the ground.
“No one was there,” Dobles said. “It was just residents walking around in a fog, without cellphones, Internet service or cars that worked. There was nobody I could go to and say, ‘Hey, how should people be plowing the streets? Where should they put their garbage so when you do come, we’ll know what to do?’”
Dobles’ experience has been echoed throughout towns and regions destroyed by the storm. By the morning of Friday, Nov. 2, for example, the Red Cross had not yet opened the three temporary mobile kitchens that it had promised to erect in Riis Park in the Rockaways, at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens and on Staten Island, The New York Times reported.
In the Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, volunteers gathered in St. Jacobi Lutheran Church to donate food, clothing and warm blankets, according to Slate. The unofficial hub was formed not by the Red Cross or FEMA, but by a grassroots community called Occupy Sandy, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street.
“This is what we do already,” Ethan Murphy, who was helping organize the food at St. Jacobi and had been cooking for the Occupy movement in the past year, told Slate. “Build community, help neighbors, and create a world without the help of finance.”
While communities waited for official disaster relief, some small-business owners took it upon themselves to help out. On Sunday, Nov. 4, Seth Stern, the CEO and owner of Something Different Party Rental of Paterson, N.J., called Gieto Nicaj, co-owner of Pasha Events, in Manhattan, which was to cater the food for the marathon, which had been cancelled.
“He said, “If you have empty trucks, we could send the food out,’” Stern, 42, told ABC News.
With help from Diane Terman Public Relations and Harriette Rose Katz of Gourmet Advisory Services, both of whom galvanized volunteers, Stern deployed four trucks brimming with orange juice, milk, sandwiches, fruit salad and yogurt to Staten Island.
But Stern and his crew were turned away from an OEM site there. Still, it never occurred to him to leave. “I wanted to distribute it to those who needed it immediately,” he said.
He drove around the destruction zone, certain he would find people in need. He did: Ariana’s Catering Hall, a makeshift shelter in the New Dorp Beach neighborhood of Staten Island, which, along with Midland Beach, had been decimated in the storm.
As with so many others, the help at Ariana’s was community driven. Not long after the storm hit, Gina Kohm, the banquet manager of Ariana’s Grand of Woodbridge, N.J., and her boss, Frankie DiMattino, transformed the company’s recently acquired New Dorp location into a relief center.
“I called every resource that I possibly could,” Kohm, 24, told ABC News. “We were going up and down streets with carriages, making sure people were getting what they needed. I’ve never experienced anything like this, giving somebody a baggy with toothpaste and a toothbrush and seeing them cry.”
Within hours, the hall was overflowing with hot and cold food, water, clothing, blankets, diapers, toiletries and soon, the items from Stern’s trucks. Kohm said she did not receive any official help until Tuesday, Nov. 6, when the National Guard arrived with trucks full of food and water.
“It’s pretty amazing the way the locals got together and accomplished so much,” said Stern, who also transported palettes of Marathon Finish Line bags containing apples, Gatorade, water, almonds and power bars to the Visitation Catholic Church Mission in Red Hook, Brooklyn. He also helped distribute goods from a clothing drive organized by the Town School and Town Residential, a real estate firm in Manhattan, to churches in Coney Island and Staten Island.
Back in the Rockaways, locals and Occupy Sandy volunteers organized a refuge at Francis De Sales Church, along with Team Rubicon, a crisis-response group that uses military veterans to rapidly deploy emergency response teams into crisis situations.
“We come in often before the big aid organizations can even get their act together,” Kristin Robinson, a Team Rubicon spokesperson, told ABC News, adding that the Sandy mission was dubbed Operation Greased Lightning. “I don’t mean that in a bad way. But we can get there within 24 hours. We don’t have the red tape.”
Team Rubicon had arrived in the Rockaways Oct. 30, the same day Dobles first wandered around seeking help. They told her to appoint one person per block as team leader who would report to her. She, in turn, would transmit their needs to Team Rubicon, who would organize help.
And that is what she did, “Running up and down streets like Mel Gibson in ‘Gallipoli,’” she said. Dobles said she did not see any official help in the Rockaways until Saturday, Nov. 3. To ensure her neighborhood is never put in such a helpless position, she created a community service outreach program, believeinbelleharbor.com.
FEMA spokesperson Dan Watson told ABC News that his organization had been in Staten Island since October 31st, and that it had gone to other areas “as soon as the flood waters receded.” So far, more than 356,000 people in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have applied for assistance, he said. Nancy Greco of OEM told ABC News that coordinators had been pre-deployed to each of the five boroughs a day or two before the storm hit, and that they have been there ever since.
Anne Marie Borrego, a spokesperson for the Red Cross, told ABC News that her organization “Continues to provide meals, shelter and comfort to people across New York and New Jersey,” and that is is coordinating with local officials in all five boroughs, Long Island and Westchester. “I understand that people have high expectations of us being there, but this is a very large disaster and it’s larger than any one organization can handle on its own,” she said. “We are working with our partners to make sure we get the job done.”
Meanwhile, on Friday afternoon, while talking with a reporter from ABC News, Kohm received a call from the Red Cross, asking her what she needed in Staten Island. “I was like, ‘You got to be kidding me!’” said Kohm. “This has got to be a joke. This is the Red Cross, and they’re calling citizens who are running things to ask what’s needed? … That’s insane.”