David Sharps felt the storm before he saw it. He felt it in the morning tide that ripped in from the Upper Bay and slapped angrily against the large rocks at the foot of Conover Street. He felt it in the heavy air and the warning cries of the gulls. He’d spent much of his life at sea, first as a cruise-ship entertainer and now as the proprietor of the Waterfront Museum, an antique barge he’d bought for a buck back in 1985 and restored by hand. He knew the damage water could do. But he could not bear to leave his boat, and so that Monday afternoon Sharps stood on the aft dock and watched the water rise. The first tidal surge carried the barge up with it, until the ropes that hold it to land were creaking and the wood underfoot was slippery and black. “The ocean, in Red Hook, it’s our greatest asset,” Sharps would say later. “And here it was, roaring up to get us.”
Sandy Serrano heard the power go. A sucking sound, then a high-pitched whine, then click—the entire apartment was thrown into darkness. She was in her home on the fifth floor of 22 Mill Street, a brick cube in the heart of the Red Hook Houses, the largest public-housing project in the borough of Brooklyn and the second largest in New York City. The place, cramped on the best days, was chock-full: There was Serrano, and her husband, and her 82-year-old mother-in-law, and her 12-year-old daughter, and her 25-year-old daughter, and her 5-year-old grandson. In the hallway, Serrano saw light under her neighbor’s door. There was no logic to it, but the guy still had electricity—would he mind if she ran an extension cord from his place to hers? “No problem,” he said. An hour later, his power went out too.
Omar Chavez was worried about his dog. The water, a trickle at first, had busted in the windows and was gushing into the ground-floor apartment he shared with his brother, nephew, and pit bull. The dog was going nuts, bounding up on the furniture, his ears flat against his pile-driver skull. Chavez, an amateur boxer and a counterman at F&M Bagels on Van Brunt Street, considered evacuating, but how? Red Hook was at this hour an island separated from the rest of the city by the surging sea. Then the doors above him were swinging wide, first one apartment and then another—strangers welcoming the whole crew inside, pit bull and all.
St. John Frizell recognized the smell of grease. Tuesday was grease day, the day the crews came to haul away spent oil from Frizell’s restaurant, Fort Defiance. But no grease truck was coming today—Sandy had spilled all the grease out of the traps and onto the floor. Frizell and his girlfriend, Jen Watson, spent a good few hours on their hands and knees, side by side, scouring the wood with wire pads. “There’s too much to do,” Frizell said finally. “We need a plan.”
Red Hook has always been a place apart. Before the BQE went up in the fifties, all but sealing it off from the rest of Brooklyn, the neighborhood was a clamorous port town, more than a little rough around the edges. Al Capone became “Scarface” in Red Hook, thanks to a wound he received in a local brawl. Dockworkers occupied rowhouses built atop former marshland filled in by Irish and Italian immigrants; a shantytown sat where the projects now rise. Gentrification brought a Fairway and an Ikea and artist studios and hipster commissaries but did not change the sense that this is a place for iconoclasts. It feels fitting that one of the main thoroughfares is called Pioneer Street. In Red Hook, you can feel like you’re on the frontier, for better and worse.
The muggers—Frizell could still remember the attack clearly, though it had happened back in August—stopped him before he could cross to the other side of the block. One of the kids had a gun, and it shook in his hand as he waved it at Frizell. Not long after, Watson was also held up; over a two-week period, there were seven muggings in the same area around Van Brunt. The police suspected spillover from a raid on the Houses: Deprived of drug income, the theory went, gangs had turned to other enterprises. The crimes set nerves on edge and exposed divisions. But on this morning, in the wake of the storm, neighbors were zipping up and down those same blocks armed with shovels and rakes and bottles of bleach, pitching in where they could, nodding grimly when they couldn’t, hugging, shaking hands. The coming days were going to be shitty, Frizell thought as he watched his employees haul debris from the basement, but at least they were wading through the shit together.
Chavez headed out of his building. On his way, he stopped to check on his apartment—the water had receded, leaving behind brown stains on the walls and dark freckles that he guessed must be blossoming mold. When he got to F&M Bagels, he found two of his bosses, Ben and Mario Nitti, already there. They were working a water pump they’d rented from a place off the Gowanus Expressway (it was the last one left), powering it with gas given to them by a guy on Rapelye Street who knew their old man. The Nittis had pumped out a few houses next to their shop. As Chavez joined in, they turned their attention to the rest of the block. Once in a while someone came by to ask for fuel, and the Nittis gave what they could. “Let’s make sure they’re all taken care of,” Ben Nitti said. “Then we’ll do us.”
Sharps also had a pump—living on a ship, you had to. The storm blew out some of the barge’s skylights, but his boat, being a boat, was intact and relatively dry. He figured the folks on land, with homes not meant to float, must have had a rougher go. He went door-to-door down, offering his services at Sunny’s bar and a few houses on Dikeman, his pump clattering over the cobblestones.
Serrano was afraid to go outside. Her friends were telling stories about a part of the Houses that everyone called the Two Towers, on account of their fourteen-story height. There was word of rapes, assaults, holdups. But Serrano had a job to do. She could not just hunker down. Passing through the courtyard of the projects, she saw a few kids splashing in the deep water near the playground, paying no attention to the frayed wires that dangled overhead. Then she headed a couple of blocks north to the Red Hook Initiative, the community center where she worked as an administrator. A small line had assembled outside the door: people needing a warm place to stay, an outlet to charge their phones, food for their stoves. Around five, Serrano called her husband, told him she’d be home late. “Do what you need to do,” he said.
The volunteers came from all over. Many were locals who did not have the option of decamping to the warmly lit streets of Park Slope when night fell. But they came also from the Upper East Side, Texas, California, and the sun-dappled campus of Clemson University. They were black and Hispanic and “yuppie”—the throwback term still preferred among old-time Red Hook residents and Houses folks. Deutsche Bank sent 50 employees—50 employees possessing scant familiarity with prevailing agricultural methods—to the Red Hook Community Farm to aid in restoring its swamped fields. An Occupy Sandy tent city went up in Coffey Park near the downed limbs of an elephantine oak tree. A med student from New Jersey put together a stopgap medical clinic long before fema arrived.
Sharps had more helpers than he knew what to do with. They kept showing up: poking their heads through the door of the barge, letting themselves into the cargo hold, asking how they could be of assistance. His reply, as he took newcomers’ hands into his own callused grip, was to thank them, say how grateful he was that they’d come, but that he was okay.
The donations filled the shelves at the Initiative. Families came and took what they needed, but as a mathematical proposition, donors seemed to always outnumber the needy. In the lobby, boxes were piled high with knots of clothing—T-shirts, cargo pants, wool sweaters. In mid-November, the staff created an overflow room, just to house it all.
Chavez was behind the grill again. F&M Bagels had its power back, and the free cups of hot coffee that Ben Nitti had given out during the first three days had given way to the regular orders of the regular crowd—dockhands, warehouse workers, projects kids, artists, college professors. Without people from other parts of the city coming to the neighborhood to eat or drink or furniture-shop, the neighborhood could be desolate, but at F&M customers got to sample what it would feel like when Red Hook made it back to business as usual. Chavez worked his station with one eye swollen shut. His boxing gym had reopened, and he was passing much of his downtime there, sparring with other guys who’d been battered but not beaten by the storm.
The benefactor—it was weeks before Frizell would learn his name—walked into Fort Defiance one morning and thrust a folded envelope into Frizell’s hand. Around him, his employees were sweeping, mopping, and hammering the dining room back into shape, and Frizell, distracted, didn’t think much of what had just happened: Small donations from strangers had become manna for the restaurant owners of Van Brunt. He didn’t get around to opening the envelope until well into the afternoon. Inside was five grand in crisp $100 bills.
Serrano first encountered Abe in church. He was in his late forties, with a lined, pouchy face and thinning brown hair, and he’d shown up one afternoon at the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, where Serrano worshipped on Sundays, and, post-Sandy, spent weeknights manning a donation table. Her life after the storm had taken on a simple rhythm: wake up in the dark; make the kids breakfast; truck to the Red Hook Initiative to hand out supplies and coordinate volunteers; end the day at Visitation doing the same in its chilly nave. “Can I take one of these?” Abe asked, pointing to a can of soup. He had an accent—maybe Russian, Serrano thought. She noticed that he smelled of gasoline. It was because of the smell that his name stuck in her brain, that she remembered him among the stream of outstretched hands she’d filled.
Serrano saw him the second time at the Red Hook Initiative on a Friday. Abe picked his way through the crowded lobby and over to her and they got to talking—and there was that smell again. He explained that since Sandy he’d been living in his car with his girlfriend. He stated it as a fact, not a complaint: He said he knew others were worse off and that they were strong and relatively young and would survive. Abe plucked a box of granola bars off the shelves. “Wait here,” Serrano told him and went off to fetch a social worker who took down Abe’s information. The next day, the social worker told Serrano that she’d found Abe and his girlfriend a place to stay, a clean, warm room at a temporary-housing facility in Manhattan.
She had just one question. “Here’s what I don’t get,” Serrano asked the social worker: “Why did he always smell of gasoline?” The social worker smiled. Abe, she said, owned a small apartment building. The storm had ruined his property, but he’d managed to salvage a portable generator from the basement along with a few fuel containers. He’d been carting that generator around by hand, loaning out electricity like some gas-soused Santa Claus before returning to his car to rest. Needing help, he instead was putting all his energy into helping his neighbors. Serrano’s eyes filled as she heard this. There was to her only one word for what Abe had done, for the kindness and fellow feeling she’d seen so much of: “It’s a miracle,” she said.
35. Because 311 Didn’t Crack Under the Strain.
The much-mocked city-services hotline received 1,329,540 calls the week of Hurricane Sandy—approximately 190,000 calls per day, or four times the average. And acquitted itself—well, okay anyway.
36. Because Long Island City Accounted for Sea-Level Rise.
And its new EastCoast condos were spared as a result.