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FEMA distribution experience: one volunteer’s tale

Posted by on Nov 6, 2012 | 1 comment

FEMA distribution experience: one volunteer’s tale

I had survivor’s guilt after Hurricane Sandy.

During the storm, I sat nervously in my little Midtown Manhattan apartment with plenty of good food, fun neighbors, wine and of course my little dog, Charlie. When all was said and done, the most excitement we had in the ‘hood was the crane collapse.

Seven days after the Hurricane Sandy landed, I was frustrated. I had filled out forms and submitted my name, hoping to be called to an area where affected people simply needed an extra set of hands.

The information I received back was inflexible and disappointing.

Monday morning, a week after Sandy landed, I saw something on Twitter that looked promising. It led me to the Coney Island website listing a specific location where FEMA would be. They didn’t ask me to fill out a form or email anybody; they said just show up suitably dressed.

     The Coney Island website was one of few offering a straightforward location and a request for help

West Chester Latex Coated String Knit Medium Multi-purpose Gloves

What to bring (and not bring) when volunteering for FEMA

    I packed:

  • a backpack with a hammer (wishful thinking that I would be moving debris)
  • a Leatherman (box-cutter would have been smarter)
  • paper towels (definitely didn’t need)
  • toilet paper (did use that)
  • apples (never ate)
  • water (definitely didn’t need that)
  • gloves with the blue rubbery stuff (perfect choice for handling boxes and picking up garbage)

It was a little cold outside, about 40 degrees. But the sun was shining and there was little wind. I put on my hiking boots and some layers, my super cute pink fleece hat and left the comfort of my unscathed abode.

Getting to Coney Island from Midtown took almost two hours

My journey began in Midtown Manhattan at 11 AM. The MTA Subway Recovery Map indicated how close I could get to my destination, so I caught the A at 59th Street and switched to the F at Jay Street/Metro Tech. I exited the F at Avenue X and started the long walk.

I went alone because I thought I’d be amongst a stream of other people headed out to do the same thing.

I couldn’t have been more mistaken.
FEMA distribution experience: one volunteer's tale of getting there. F Train Avenue X long walk to Coney Island post Hurricane Sandy
The long, lonely walk from the F train Avenue X subway stop down Shell Road to Coney Island

Perhaps a hundred people exited the F at the last stop, but no one else looked like he or she was off to fling debris or hand out water.

I walked in the direction of the ocean. I figured I’d run into an opportunity one way or another.

The Coney Island boardwalk appeared unscathed

I turned into the amusement park complex just west of the Aquarium near a roller coaster. I climbed onto the boardwalk and stood shocked by the view.
Coney Island boardwalk post Hurricane Sandy Nov 5, 2012
The Coney Island boardwalk in good shape post-Hurricane Sandy Nov 5, 2012

Coney Island boardwalk post Hurricane Sandy Nov 5, 2012
The Coney Island boardwalk in good shape post-Hurricane Sandy Nov 5, 2012

For all the stories of record-breaking flooding, I saw no twisted metal, no broken signs or blown out glass.


The entire amusement park appears unscathed, the boardwalk perfectly flat if a little piled with sand and random fish.

This is not to say that the area escaped flooding. Flooding was a massive, pervasive shock to at least two, long-running avenues of this barrier peninsula. This included the Aquarium which, ten days after Hurricane Sandy’s landing, is still trying to figure out how to save its creatures.

Coney Island boardwalk and Nathan's Famous hot dog stand post Hurricane Sandy Nov 5, 2012
Amusement park appears in good shape just days after Hurricane Sandy

Coney Island boardwalk appearing in good shape just days after Hurricane Sandy
Amusement park appears in good shape just days after Hurricane Sandy

So I walked.

And I walked.

At about 1 PM (two hours after I left), I came upon four women lackadaisically picking at garbage jammed against the boardwalk. They looked bored. They acted as if the long trash tongs were insufficient to stay contamination-free. And this was nice garbage!

I chose the woman closest to me and asked if I could help. Her answer was slow in coming. I wondered if she spoke English. She hemmed. She hawed. Then she finally said, “We work for the Parks Department and my supervisor isn’t here. But a FEMA tent is over there. You can ask them.”

Ah, the FEMA tent.

It was just seven blocks away from where the website said I would find it. I walked over, tapped a police officer on the arm and said, “I’m here to volunteer.”

“Hey, Suzanne. Got another one for you!”

Suzanne from the Mayor’s Office is a finance type who’s good at systems

Suzanne is a finance type at the Mayor’s Office. She had no disaster or relief training, but she likes systems and she’s all business. The Mayor re-assigned her to this FEMA center. Later I found out that Suzanne ran the best of the four FEMA operations centers, according to the FEMA staff members.

Suzanne didn’t waste words. She said simply, “Pitch in. Unload that truck.” That was it for instruction for the rest of the day. No one gave orders. The fifteen-odd volunteers who showed up that day just took action.
Coney Island FEMA center post Hurricane Sandy Nov 5, 2012
The mini FEMA city set up in Coney Island post-Hurricane Sandy on November 5, 2012

I jumped in to help Steve, a tall guy with the perfect five o’clock shadow, and a few others hurriedly emptying a small truck. We carried boxes about thirty feet to an “organization” area. Throughout the day, we unloaded clean, well-wrapped boxes of toilet paper, paper towels, diapers and feminine products.

One Comment

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  1. violet

    Thank you!