It Wasn’t the Day, It Was the Night, and the Morning After

[Reposted from Rockaways – Hurricane Sandy News group on Facebook.]

Today across New York City many people commemorated the landfall of Sandy. Yet it all seemed so ahistorical to me. Because Sandy will ever be irrevocably linked not with the daytime of October 29th, but with the night.

At this time three years ago I was at no personal risk. I was across the nation, in San Jose, California. Yet I was still very much riveted. I was hunched over my laptop in the darkness here, listening to the FDNY Queens fire scanner. I typed out what little tidbits I could put together from squawked and clipped conversations spoken between dispatchers and engines in the midst of the flood waters.

I knew Sandy had been approaching for days. I knew, too, my stubborn Irish-American mother had refused to evacuate. She was determined to stay put in the same house she had lived in since 1970. I also knew that she so-often fell asleep early, and moreover, preferred to sleep in a room in the basement.

So I listened all that night to the FDNY on headphones, praying that there was one block they did not have to go to. Long after everyone else here in California was asleep, I kept listening and typing away here on Facebook, and on Twitter. I heard from the FDNY scanner the fire trucks getting stranded and breaking down in the flood waters. To bypass a fire raging out of control to go to another fire beyond it. Of trucks unable to reach Breezy, and the growing alarms as the blaze raged out of control. I shared what I learned with friends: P.S. 114 and Beach Channel classmates from decades ago. We made a loose confederation of news collection points during the night. There were a few scattered reports from the ground before cell service was cut off. We heard about the fires and the floods. For a moment there we had false alarm St. Francis de Sales was ablaze. By some miracle (and I do not use that word lightly), the flames did not reach that bastion of Rockaway’s faith.

Ruth Domb DeSantis, elsewhere in California, was in tears and begged me to “do something.” I promised her I’d do it.

The next day, October 30th, I started this group. Over the coming days, I soon discovered Katie Honan & team’s indispensable Rockaway Emergency Plan. Rockaway Community News (Rockaway100). And so many other voices! More and more folks started getting plugged in. More and more of a picture of what had occurred began to emerge.

So for me, for all times, I shall ever remember it was the night when Sandy made her fateful landfall. And it was the morning after, in that wan dawn of devastation, when Rockaway began to reunite, recover, and rebuild.

Three years now later, we can celebrate all that has been accomplished for the rebuilding of so many lives, so many homes. It has taken years to put back together what was devastated in just one night. We must also recognize the unevenness of the recovery: for every family that can celebrate, there are still others who have yet to feel that sense of normalcy since the night of the storm. We must commemorate those who survived yet lost so much, and those lives who were lost forever.

Though we can look to the past so vividly, we must also look forward with similarly intense vision. We can look forward to the work that lies ahead. I would like you to use this date of commemoration of loss to find some cause you yourself would like to pledge your efforts towards. It need not be an abstract philosophy or far-flung cause around the world, either.

As those who are so actively working on community gardens, free flea markets, elder care, youth programs, ecological causes, lively arts, holiday efforts for those-in-need, and so much else can attest, there are many ways to do good, and so many unmet needs, right in the 1169x zip codes.

For me, the work on Rockaways – Hurricane Sandy News has now led me to do disaster recovery via social media as a pretty intense personal cause. In the past month alone I have been active on Hurricane Joaquin / SC Flooding, Hurricane Patricia in Mexico, Typhoon Koppu in Philippines Typhoon Aid, Pakistan Earthquake Response, and more.

My hope is to take the lessons learned with Sandy and apply the best practices, tools and methodologies to other communities-in-need. And to expand from disaster response and recovery to deal with other crises and conflicts using social media to help bring communities together in times of dire need.

Such activities also intersect with my work and interests monitoring war and extremist violence around the world. In Afghanistan, for instance, earthquake response is being complicated by the presence of the Taliban. And also just tonight, I am monitoring a cyclone that may hit war-torn Yemen in a few days.

Let me know if anyone would like to be volunteers in such work. I’ll repeat an expression I learned in the relief tent across from St. Francis on a cold day, “There’s plenty of disaster to go around.”

My best prayers and wishes are with you all.

Peter Corless