I live in a little hamlet in Brooklyn called Red Hook. I don't really know the reason why it's called that, probably because 100 years ago a sailor with a giant red hook-hand lived there, I don't know. For all intents and purposes it is just a name (though a good one at that). It is a small, isolated part of Brooklyn right at the mouth of the East River, with spectacular views of Lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty. There is no train that runs to Red Hook, for reasons I didn't fully understand until now. but that's ok because a lack of transportation has made for a vibrant and tight-knit community of artists and artisans, killer restaurants and tremendous dive bars. I have been fortunate enough to call Red Hook my home for the past year.
When the news of the impending Hurricane Sandy came to us, I generally wasn't that worried. Yes, Red Hook is a neighborhood below sea level and, yes, Red Hook is an area that tends to flood if enough rain falls, but Red Hook had also weathered Hurricane Irene without too much damage (though I wasn't here to experience it) so most people weren't worried. When the severity of the coming hurricane was reported, my roommate and I, despite living on the border of evacuation zones A and B, decided that our apartment was far away enough from the water (a solid 5 minute walk) that we'd be fine and that there was no need to leave. Even when Bloomberg announced mandatory evacuations for all of Zone A, most people we knew in Red Hook decided to stay and weather the storm close in and around the neighborhood.
We had no idea what we were in for.
Because you can't prepare for a 14 foot wall of water. You just can't.
Most places were braced for flooding (again, we are below sea level so it isn't unprecedented). Absolutely no one was braced for 8 feet of flooding. And what Kyla and I were the most unprepared for was that the water would come all the way up to our street and, by some extreme stroke of luck, stop there as it filled all the homes and businesses behind it with icy, cold, briny water. We got extremely lucky but there was an hour where I was pretty terrified. I'm glad I ended up staying, especially in the aftermath with the transportation debacle, but there was a chunk of time where I (and my mother) wished I had made a different choice.*
What happened to Red Hook (and other parts of New York City and the outer boroughs) was astounding and awesome in the truest sense of the word. What happened to this beloved city I call home is beyond the scope of what I have the ability to really conceptualize at this moment. What happened to surrounding states, especially New Jersey, completely boggles the mind and hurts the heart. But what is really incredible to me has been the response.
Oh, the response.
Because, while Red Hook has been somewhat overlooked in the post-storm media coverage, that hasn't stopped the clean up effort. The amount of clean up to be done in Red Hook is immense. Most businesses won't be back up and running for a month at least. The lucky ones will be closed for at least a week or two as they reset. Many, many, many people lost almost indescribable amounts of personal property. It is overwhelming.
And in the wake of all of this, with no power and no heat and no hot water and everyone hurting, in the days since the hurricane (or Superstorm, should I say), most people in this isolated hamlet in Brooklyn have laced up their boots and rolled up their sleeves and turned to their neighbors and said, "You are hurting and so am I, but please let me help you so we can heal our neighborhood together." It has been astounding, the way people in the neighborhood have responded to the relief effort. Every day, people are walking down Van Brunt Street, looking what's really needed, whether that's a hand emptying out a basement or carrying bags or offering a place to charge a cell phone, all without question or hesitation or want/desire for reciprocation. People from other neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Manhattan, people who do business in Red Hook, and people have never been down there are showing up and stepping up, with helping hands and bottles of water and up-beat spirits and a desire to help. Being able to look around me and see people I've never met and people who are fixtures in the neighborhood working together (in, it should be mentioned, physically exhausting, gross work situations) is the most comforting thing of all. It makes me believe in Red Hook and its future.
The days ahead for many neighborhoods in New York and dozens of towns in New Jersey are going to be long and grim and exhausting. Entire lives and ecosystems have been altered by this one storm. But in other ways, in other deeply important ways, this storm has shown us on the East Coast who we really are and where we really live. And I've got to say, I'm liking what I see.**
*It should be mentioned that our apartment building sustained no water damage, nor did our apartment sustain any damage from the Superstorm. We have been without power since Monday night and don't expect to gain power back until next Friday at the earliest. While this is inconvenient, my roommates and I know we got incredibly lucky. We are all very appreciative of the work that the FDNY and NYPD are doing to help smooth things along, as well as ConEd and National Grid. The work these guys do is absolutely thankless and essential and I, for one, feel a little bad for being so cranky when they are doing the best they can. Keep up the good work, guys.
It also is important to mention that my roommates and I have found ourselves, since the storm hit, constantly surrounded by the kindest, most caring people in the entire world who have offered hot showers and cell phone charging and hot meals without asking for anything in return. These people are true heros and angels in this uncomfortable, inconvenient time and are making the whole thing bearable. Thanks to them can not be said enough. You guys are the best.
**If you are looking for was to help out, check out the Red Hook Initiative's website and twitter for updates about volunteering with clean up. You can also follow @XCountry4Sandy to donate to the cause as some friends of ours travel across the country back to Red Hook.