Expert maternity, boudoir & dog photographer in NYC

FEMA distribution experience: one volunteer’s tale

Posted by on Nov 6, 2012 | 1 comment

And then there was the food. We received carton after carton of individual fruit juices, all of which were single servings. Glass was dangerous and nowhere to be found. Gallon-size jugs were also nowhere to be found. Even water came mostly in single servings.

Coney Island FEMA volunteer grilling hot dogs. Hurricane Sandy Nov 5, 2012
Volunteer grilling hot dogs for anybody who was hungry. Note the plentiful porta-potties in the background.

FEMA and other relief organizations set up a mini city. This included a soup kitchen serving a hot rice dish. There was a giant grill cooking up hot dogs and green beans. It was free for anyone who wanted something.

There was a small, white tent set up where FEMA administrators helped people file lost and damaged property claims. It was always full.

Outside the tent, we had six long folding tables set up to hold all the goods for distribution. We had sections: first was water, then personal care items, then canned food, then packaged food (tons of MRE’s, tons of cereal bars and granola bars). The items at the end of the line changed throughout the day.

Maglite flashlight and batteries and suede workgloves probably donated by Home Depot

    We cycled through:

  • heavy duty, leather work gloves
  • boxes and boxes of dust masks
  • white (seriously?) shrink-wrapped Red Cross blankets (which looked feeble and crappy)
  • then came giant Maglite flashlights complete with batteries
  • a gigantic box of socks, and lastly
  • FEMA Clean Up Kits (these were WILDLY popular but people had trouble carrying the heavy box)

Suzanne didn’t like people dropping off home-made food

Random, private donations came in that Suzanne clearly didn’t want. We got two deliveries of individually wrapped peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They all went fast despite her disapproval. We also got a huge bag of what looked like individual pizzas. The staff pitched it citing the unsuitable squishy factor.

Suzanne had no way to deal with all the clothing donations

Clothing kept appearing but Suzanne didn’t want anything to do with it. I suspect it was simple logistics. We didn’t have the staff to sort through the bags and we didn’t have the folding tables to make it orderly. We simply piled up the bags and eventually covered them with tarps to keep people from getting access.
Coney Island FEMA center pile of clothing that went undistributed post Hurricane Sandy Nov 5, 2012
The gigantic pile of donated clothing and blankets that never got distributed

If you ask me, this totally defeated the purpose. People NEEDED what was in those bags, but Suzanne’s plan was to finish up the distribution of food and comfort items, clean up, then let the people have a free-for-all (in the dark) for clothes and blankets.

I have an enterprise-wide clothing distribution solution for this.

A line of needy individuals snaked through police barricades in front of us. There were never more than 200 people waiting, so the MTA buses must have been sweeping the neighborhoods on a crowd-control schedule.

The crowd was surprisingly well behaved, but they were eager to take any and everything we had. It was tough hearing that some of the items we gave away were for sale just minutes later only a few blocks away, but that was a rumor I never confirmed.

I read that porta-potties would be scarce; they were not. Steve told me they were gross. The one I used was not.

FEMA truck at Coney Island days after Hurricane Sandy

Who needed FEMA help in Coney Island?

I saw every color and every age in need. I heard many foreign languages and saw some frustrated faces on people asking for something in a language none of us spoke.

What was sorely lacking at the Coney Island FEMA distribution center

We didn’t have nearly enough pet food and we had no medication. I heard people asking for painkillers and we had none. I’m not sure why. We could have given out three times the number of blankets that the Red Cross supplied.

The pace of unloading trucks, opening boxes, laying out items and controlling garbage was just a hair under frantic. There were no breathers. Stuff kept coming in. Stuff kept going out. Police officers stood by, reminding people not to linger at the end of the line. But no tempers flared.

Politicians at the FEMA Coney Island site

I was too busy to crane my neck at all the politicians prancing through our mini city. Sadly, I couldn’t miss the caravan of black SUVs and blazing lights escorting Janet Napolitano around us. I also couldn’t miss Jerry Nadler, for obvious reasons. He visited twice.

However, the next politician shocked the hell out of me.

Kirsten Gillibrand worked side-by-side with us at the Coney Island FEMA distribution center

At the beginning of my four-hour shift, there was a handsome man in a black suit and white shirt standing in the way far behind the middle table. I never stopped to talk to him, but I was sorely annoyed that he wasn’t helping. I later learned that he was Kirsten Gillibrand’s bodyguard and she was standing just in front of him distributing canned food. I never saw her. I feel like an idiot.

The other volunteers who showed up were like me. No one was famous. We were a good mix of men and women. We were mostly youngish. None of us asked for instructions. No one was bossy. No one complained. Nobody sat still.

Coney Island FEMA center pile of clothing that went undistributed post Hurricane Sandy Nov 5, 2012
The line snaking around the FEMA distribution center at Coney Island post-Hurricane Sandy

The sun set at 4:45 PM. We had successfully given out everything, even the over-abundance of water. As darkness descended on the tail end of what felt like delightfully controlled chaos, I ganged up with four other volunteers to start the 30-minute walk back to Avenue X. We had a fabulous, hugely productive day that flew by in a flash.

What volunteer adventures are you having? Can’t wait to hear about them.

One Comment

Join the conversation and post a comment.

  1. violet

    Thank you!