Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 10, 2012

From a relief worker in the Rockaways

Filed under: disasters — louisproyect @ 2:39 pm




via Jen Roesch:

(Apologies in advance for the crazy long post, but I know people are looking for information on what’s really happening in NYC after the hurricane. And I, probably like thousands of other people going through this, feel a need to talk about this experience)

“I went to volunteer in the Rockaways yesterday and I realized that it took a few hours for the full impact of what I saw and experienced to hit me. I had gone expecting the worst of the worst – especially since my initial plan had been to go door to door with medical supplies for people. I didn’t actually see the worst stories – the people completely immobilized and without food in their homes; the freezing baby saved by a volunteer nurse on SI yesterday; people completely without shelter; the people who had to swim out of their homes. I never made it to the makeshift medical clinic that I was headed for because when we went to drop off baby supplies at a church that was acting as a distribution center, it was clear that they desperately needed volunteers. They had a line waiting to get in and receive supplies and still needed help organizing things and then helping people who came. So for a few hours, I just went from person to person escorting them through the church, listening to their stories, trying to help them get what they needed – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. There were people who had literally lost everything. But most were “only” without power or heat or had had some damage but kept their home. It was hard to even think about what we were seeing and there was a way in which it quickly became almost normal or routine – rationing out to each family 2 rolls of toilet paper, 2 bars of soap, 1 pack of diapers, 1 set of wipes, 1 cereal box, 1 blanket, etc, etc. It was heartbreaking, but could feel manageable.

“It was only after we drove away that the full reality of the situation sunk in. There are literally thousands of people there who are completely cut off from the outside world. They have no power, no heat, no grocery stores, no supplies, no gas to go anywhere, no way to get to a job. They are completely dependent on the makeshift networks of volunteers that people have set up. When we ran out of baby wipes and soap and blankets, there was nothing I could do but tell them to try tomorrow or try to find another site. And given the scale of the devastation we saw, I can’t imagine basic functioning being restored sooner than a month and it could be many months. Unless something drastically changes, this is their new reality: standing in line at distribution centers, hoping there are still batteries for their flashlights, food, and other basic necessities. It is a chronic situation in which minor problems now (cold fingers or toes, slight hunger, asthma, a sick baby, an isolated senior) could easily escalate.

“And it was after this realization, that I could feel the full weight of the individual stories I had heard or things I had seen. And now I can’t get them out of my head. There was the woman who said she was starting to get depressed and didn’t want to get out of bed because all that was ahead of her was standing in line, making do, just trying to live through the day. There was the man who could barely speak as I asked him what he needed and was in an almost catatonic state. The man who kept telling me how cold his fingers and toes were who couldn’t find a pair of warm adult-size socks in a bin filled with only baby socks. The father who came in with a list that had “diaper cream” in huge big letters at the top, underlined twice and starred; we had no diaper cream and I can’t stop thinking about a crying baby with a bad case of diaper rash and an overwhelmed mother trying to cope. The mother with a three-year old at home (same age as my son) who lunged for this stuffed doll thingy in the toy box and eagerly showed it to her husband to see if he agreed that it looked enough like the one their daughter had lost in the storm that she might think it was the same.

“And then there was the last woman we helped. She was 70 years old and had come down 10 flights of stairs in the dark to get a flashlight, some food and a case of water. We walked her back to her building to carry her stuff up the stairs. The building was surrounded by rubble that we had to pick our way through to get to the front door. There was spilled food and broken glass in the pitch dark stairs. She had a nebulizer, was having trouble breathing and it took her almost half an hour to get up the stairs. On the way up, she told me that she had respiratory distress and had been intubated twice recently. I asked her if there was a social worker or visiting nurse or anyone who knew she was there. There wasn’t. Her ex-husband had come to help, but she confided in me that he was “mean” to her and that she had to tell him to go away because it was putting her in more distress. Luckily, when we got to the top of the stairs, someone from the makeshift medical clinic (our original destination) had come with her medicine. The team at the church and the team at the clinic had managed to coordinate and figure out who she was, where she was and what her needs were. But I am not sure that she can make it up and down those stairs again; the volunteers put her name and address on a list, but there is such turnover and so much need that I worry about her slipping through the cracks.

“And then I returned to upper Manhattan where everything seems normal. I got the NYT today to see a full-page story about how wonderful it is that they got the subway system restored (not really) so quickly. The media/Bloomberg message is that things are coming back to normal and that they are meeting people’s needs. This is not even close to true. There are thousands of volunteers but it’s totally make-shift, completely dependent on continued attention and donations, not fully coordinated and not nearly enough to meet the immense need. There are army trucks and national guard and police out there, but all they are doing is patrolling and sometimes assisting the volunteer relief effort. There is no independent government relief effort. And it’s painfully clear what’s needed. The people who are most in need and who are willing to leave need to be evacuated into real housing with water, heat and power and be given money, food and other necessities. They need to be assigned social workers and health professionals to follow up with them and make sure they are okay. If there are people who are staying out there, there needs to be a massive operation set up with tents, generators providing heat, a kitchen, cots/beds and a full, paid, stable staff of workers, cooks, childcare professionals, social workers, mental health professionals, nurse and doctors. There need to be outreach teams that are systematically sent door to door who establish a database of need and then set to work to meet it. And then there needs to be many thousands more workers who are hired to clean the debris, work on restoring power, clean the buildings, drain the water from basements and get the area working as quickly as possible so people can move back home. Instead, our government is leaving people to rot. Literally.

“I’ve been a socialist for 20 years and I’ve never doubted those convictions. And in that time there have been horrors on a much bigger scale than what I saw yesterday. But to see up close how easily people could be saved – and see instead how they are left alone to be forgotten, and even die – is a particular kind of experience. I know a lot of people will be out volunteering this weekend and trying to fill that gap. I will be out there again next week with them. But I am very glad that I get to spend tomorrow at the NYC Marxism Conference: A World in Crisis A World in Struggle. We desperately need to figure out how to build a movement that could demand that our government meet these needs. And it’s painfully obvious that we urgently need to build an alternative to a system that creates these horrors.”


  1. Instead of just “figur[ing] out how to build a movement that could demand that our [sic] government meet these needs”, how about organizing people in New York right now to combine making demands that the government bring troops and, especially, support personnel back from Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. to deal with the needs of the people who are suffering with taking direct action (by experienced activists, persons in need, and other supporters) to satisfy those needs, including occupying expensive hotels, restaurants, government buildings, etc., in the better-off parts of the city?

    Comment by Red Snapper — November 10, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

  2. Have you sent and/or taken your observations and suggestions to the mayor, the governor, anyone else in city or state government who could actually do some of this organization and mobilization?

    Comment by Monica — November 12, 2012 @ 9:58 am

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