Occupy Leads Relief Efforts in Powerless Red Hook

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Lining up for food at the Red Hook Initiative Center. Photo: Jessica Lustig

As the lights come back on in lower Manhattan, the power imbalance in parts of the city worst hit by Sandy is more literal than ever. Brownstone Brooklyn neighborhoods like Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens were able to celebrate Halloween as usual, but just blocks away, many residents of the Red Hook Houses, the city’s second-largest housing project, are without electricity, heat, or running water, and growing increasingly desperate. Red Hook, like other areas with overheard power lines, could wait another ten days or longer for juice, according to Con Edison. So far, Red Hook has received little help from the city or FEMA, and a team of Occupy protestors have been heading relief efforts.

“I can’t take this no more,” said Alisa Pizarro on Friday, wiping tears from her eyes. The lead community organizer at Red Hook Initiative Center on Hicks Street, which has become a hub for relief efforts, she is also a resident. “It’s too much. We have no light. We have no water. We have nothing. I’ve been washing with a little bottle of water. You hear stories about people looting other people’s apartments. I have pepper spray in one hand and a flashlight in the other. I don’t want to go through another night.”

In an outcropping of 30 buildings, some of them high-rises of 14 stories, the Red Hook Houses hold some 6,000 tenants, and about half the buildings remain without power. Red Hook Initiative, which usually offers services like tutoring and college counseling, has been joined by about 15 people from the Occupy movement who have set up infrastructure and logistics for running hot-meal operations serving 500 to 1,000 people every day, bringing in medics, gathering information about people who are elderly or disabled and can’t leave their apartments or get down stairs, and broadcasting calls for volunteers and supplies from flashlights to ice for storing insulin.

Two more volunteers from Trinity Grace Church in Park Slope, who have been working with the Occupy team, convinced the Housing Authority to open the Miccio Community Center this weekend as a larger base for the donations that are pouring in, and PS 27 opened as an overflow space for donations. More hubs opened on Van Brunt Street for volunteer clean-up crews (also mustered by the Occupy-ers) to help small businesses, and at Visitation Church for more donations, but the Occupy team was still running much of the nerve center at RHI—or trying to. “Today has been hell,” said Zoltán Glück, an Occupy-er and CUNY student organizer. “We’ve had hundreds of people filling out forms. We’re trying to build a database, and it flopped. It’s not like, Oh, we screwed up. It’s like, Oh, I guess people aren’t being fed or getting their meds.”

“It’s very third-world,” said Laura Papadimitropoulos, a pediatric emergency-medicine physician working as a volunteer medic. “I worked in a clinic in Honduras, and it was exactly like this.” She was sending Rick Malo, an emergency nurse from Bethlehem, PA, who volunteered in New Orleans after Katrina, as a medical runner to about 100 homebound people. “This is an already needy area,” he said, “that is now higher-need.”

“It’s crazy,” says Rasheed Johnson, who works at RHI as a youth ambassador. “My building is pitch black. No one wants to leave their house. When I go to the store for my mother, I have to knock in code or jingle my keys three times when I come back so she knows it’s me. I know people that have got stabbed and robbed for a flashlight. The police are around the area until it gets dark, and then they’re nowhere to be found.”

The Red Cross made an appearance on Friday to deliver MRE’s—freeze-dried meals-ready-to-eat—and left. The National Guard did the same in Coffey Park, and left behind a pallet of water that RHI volunteers then retrieved to distribute. FEMA delivered some informational flyers. The Housing Authority put up posters telling tenants where to pay their rent. The mayor hasn’t visited. “I don’t know who else to ask for help,” said Kirby Desmarais, one of the Occupy organizers. Private companies were starting to step in—Warby Parker, the eyeglass company, was coordinating a shipment of solar-powered bulbs from Colorado that could arrive by next Tuesday to light project halls and stairways. But the reality remained grim. “Rats and raccoons are taking to the hallways at night,” Desmarais said. “The basements are flooded, so they don’t have anywhere else to go.” And if the power stays off another week? “I’m terrified,” she said flatly.

“I’m tired,” said Deanna Cherry, a social worker on staff at RHI and a resident in the Red Hook Houses. “I turned the faucet this morning. Nothing. Tears just came down my face. My son said, ‘Mommy, I can’t take it any more.’ But we have nowhere to go.” She shook her head. “I’m used to helping other people, and now I need help.”

For more info on helping Red Hook, see https://redhook.recovers.org and http://www.rhicenter.org.