After the Storm in Chinatown: Community Care At Its Best

When Hurricane Sandy hit New York City on Oct. 29, it caused devastation on an unprecedented scale. The public transportation system completely shut down; entire neighborhoods were without electricity, heat, and hot water; and waterfront communities like the Rockaways, Coney Island, and Staten Island were destroyed. 

Chinatown and the Lower East Side weren’t spared. We quickly realized that residents in there were both literally and figuratively in the dark—with no electricity, no cell-phone service, many without heat and water, and with no news going in and out of the neighborhood unless people were able to leave and come back.

There was no sign of any city agencies, the Red Cross, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency—the agencies and organizations one typically thinks are the first responders after a disaster of this magnitude. Few people were prepared for a situation where they would be without food, water, and electricity for days. Lower East Side and Chinatown residents, especially the elderly and those living in high-rise buildings, were in crisis. 

At CAAAV, we sprang into action. As a neighborhood organization working on housing and tenants-rights issues in Chinatown and other Asian immigrant neighborhoods, and as one that believes a strong community provides mutual aid and support, we decided that rather than wait for aid, we would fill the gap and provide it ourselves. 

Over the next few days, along with Occupy Wall Street and many other community-based groups, we organized to meet people’s basic needs that were being neglected. We charged people’s cell phones, using a portable generator that was donated to us; gave residents food, water, batteries, candles, and other needed supplies (almost all of which was donated to us), and organized hundreds of volunteers to canvass the neighborhood and go into buildings to check on people. 

We met hundreds of residents who told us no one else had come to their door to check on them, elderly residents who desperately needed medication, and people who were running out of water and food but were unable to leave their apartments. We provided these basic necessities, often carrying them up more than a dozen flights of stairs, days before FEMA arrived in the neighborhood. 

This was truly a community-based relief effort, born out of crisis, necessity, love, and solidarity. Together, we were able to fill a gaping void left by the city, state, and federal governments, along with the Red Cross. We were able to take a situation that was isolating and scary, and create a space that allowed residents to take leadership in caring for one another. 

The power came back on after four days in most of Chinatown and the Lower East Side, but thousands of people in other neighborhoods, especially in public housing in Red Hook, Coney Island, and the Rockaways, still had no heat or electricity two weeks after the storm. Our work to hold our government accountable for its failures still remains. 

 

Esther Wang is project director of CAAAV’s Chinatown Tenants Union.