21 Aug 2014
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Volunteering After the Storm: A Trip to Far Rockaway

White Plains resident and Yorktown native Elyssa Rothe writes of her experience bringing donations to Far Rockaway, Queens.

White Plains resident and Yorktown native Elyssa Rothe spent $300 on needed items and delivered them to Rockaway on Saturday, Nov. 3. As soon as she returned, she reported the devastation she saw there on Facebook. Here is her detailed account of conditions there and what she learned: 

Today I went to the Rockaways with a car full of donations and what I experienced was beyond belief. I drove from JFK to Belle Harbor and the destruction far surpasses anything I was capable of imagining. Here is a collection of thoughts about the day that I hope will help with the relief effort.

MOST IMPORTANTLY:
• People need WORK GLOVES. They WANT to work, ...but it is very difficult without any resources. Most in demand are work gloves, heavy duty garbage bags, warm jackets, gloves and hats.

..............................................................................................
• There is ZERO power, heat, phones, internet, water or cell service. Rockaway is truly cut off from the rest of the world, and have no means of communication. Because there are no phones, there is a huge lack of organization. People don’t know where to go for resources so most people are wandering the neighborhoods looking for what they need.
• Don’t go at night. The area is pitch black at night and people are (understandably) extremely paranoid. There are signs everywhere warning that “we will shoot first, ask questions later.” Many people armed. Help as much as possible during daylight hours, and then leave the area. 

Things I didn’t realize until I got there:
• It is FREEZING! I didn’t realize how much colder it would be out there because it is right on the water. It is super windy and much feels much colder than in Westchester.
• The scope of this damage is immense. I had no idea how large this area is. In my mind, I thought there would be several hundred homes. There are thousands and thousands of people on the streets, in need. 10.6 miles of land from end to end, with everything in sight damaged.
• Most of the things ruined were on the first floor. Things on the second floor are more salvageable. People were not AS in need of things that would be in the bedroom and bathroom. Most needed are things that would have been in the basement and living room. For example, I brought soap, washcloths, toothpaste and toothbrushes which were not in severe demand by homeowners. However, these things are in demand by people who were previously homeless or in distress before the hurricane. 
• People are working hard all day, sweating, dirty, exhausted, but then cannot shower afterwards. They are washing by using a cold bottle of water and a washcloth. They are 5 days in.

The unexpected:
• “Organized” distribution sites don’t exist. The 2 areas I saw set-up were overflowing with goods, but most people didn’t know about them so there was no way to get the goods out. The best way to distribute items was to drive around the streets offering what we had to individuals.
• People have a small supply of diapers, but no baby wipes. If you are bringing diapers, bring wipes as well, or even just wipes alone.
• Currently, people seem to have canned goods, sandwiches and water. They also have basic clothing. There are many tee-shirts and boxes of clothing strewn throughout the streets, untaken. What is needed is WARM clothing: long sleeves, jackets, gloves, hats, blankets.

Where to go:
• B29 had a large gathering of people who would take ANYTHING- I think they had little to nothing to begin with, before the storm.
• I heard from several sources that B59 had a distribution center, but could not find it.
• B129 has a functioning indoor shelter and distribution center, but they are currently stocked. 
• Most successful was to drive up and down streets distributing goods to individuals. 

Items Needed:
• Work Gloves
• Heavy Duty Garbage Bags
• Flashlights, C and D Batteries
• Sweatshirts and Jackets
• Underwear
• Diapers and Wipes
• Blankets
• Towels
• Tampons
• HOT food

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Elyssa's posting inspired me and friend Nicole DeMaria to do the same on Sunday, Nov. 4. Thank you to all of the Yorktown, Cortlandt and Peekskill residents who saw our call for donations on Facebook and gathered and delivered them to us in Yorktown with only one hour's notice. And thank you to my friend Nicole who volunteered to drive, using up most of her gas and spent the whole day helping out. The community support and generosity was amazing. People were very grateful for the well conditioned and nice items you donated and we pass on their "thank you." Your items went fast!

Here is how our day went:

We headed to B29, but couldn't find a distribution site. A local reporter there directed us to one on 44th Street. We found one at a New York Housing Authority 40th Street Community Center. 

While unloading the car to bring to the center, we offered people walking by our warm items. Everyone was asking for blankets first and warm jackets second. One Patch reader's donation of warm food was excitedly welcomed by a young couple with a small baby and an elderly woman. 

Winter gear was also in high demand; people were eager for scarves, gloves and hats to keep them and their children warm at night. 

People told us they had no power or hot water for days. Cell service had only been restored in the area on Saturday, according to the people we spoke with.

We never made it to the distribution center because we were too busy digging through piles trying to find the crowd that gathered the sizes and things they were in need of. After about an hour we moved everything across the street where a United Latino Professionals group from the Bronx was working with the First Gospel Tabernacle pastor and members to cook burgers, hot dogs and serve hot chocolate to people coming by. They also had tables with clothing set up.

We organized clothes into mens, womens, childrens and by size. This made it much easier and faster for people to find what they needed. 

As the sun set, the pastor of the church had to break down the tables and advised us to get going before darkness settled. We took three large bags of leftover donations (we had arrived with about 15 large bags only a few hours earlier), to the community center where dozens New York Cares volunteers were also packing up the donations before dark.

We were not in the area where houses were burned to the ground, where Elyssa had visited, but every house around us had flooded. We drove through neighborhoods surrounding the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial bridge, and every home had destroyed furniture, appliances and items from inside the house out on the sidewalk. We saw a row of several large dump trucks sitting in the traffic leading to the bridge and on the bridge.

People were around cleaning out houses and walking around. The sun set while we were driving north towards Route 878. There were no lights in most of the section we drove through, which was several miles. We saw a boarded up McDonald's spray painted with a message to potential looters: "Nothing Here to Take, Ur 2 Late."

Gas lines were longer than we've seen anywhere in Westchester and we saw many people filling several gas cans.

Our biggest takeaway is that people need blankets and warm jackets and winter gear the most right now. Organizing donations is important to help people find the things they need. When donating organize into men, women and children piles and by size if possible. We had people asking for things we had but couldn't find until we organized everything and they were already gone. Also, no one wants anything too old or with stains. Extra-large and larger sizes were in demand for men's clothing. 

We did not meet people who were there cleaning their homes, but while driving through those areas, it was clear that what Elyssa wrote above was right- people need work gloves, garbage bags, shovels and other items necessary to clean out an entire home. 

While we definitely did reach people who needed warm items by going ourselves, we recommend teaming up with a group or organization that is planning a trip if you want to help out to make the most of your trip and donations. We saw several different volunteer groups with dozens of people. New York Cares seemed overwhelmed by the amount of work and people who they were there to help. It was clear every volunteer counts. 

If you are organizing and effort or want to share information please do so on your local Patch's  Facebook page or by creating an announcement on Patch. 

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