Red Hook Autumn: Losing and Gaining Power During the Disaster

Friday, January 18, 2013
By Lisa Cowan, Board President, Red Hook Initiative
One hot day last summer, a group of our staff and board members sat together working on our application for the New York Community Trust—New York Magazine Nonprofit Excellence Awards. It was a long meeting, and it was hard work for us to try to articulate what exactly makes Red Hook Initiative the original, effective and responsive organization that we need to be to serve young people living in one of the city’s largest public housing complexes—the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Red Hook Houses. We talked through many of the challenges that we face—the terrible school completion and jobless rates in Red Hook, the lack of adequate local high schools and few public transportation routes into or out of the neighborhood. Our over-extended Executive Director and working board struggle to meet our budget of under $1 million a year. Given the many needs of our community, we have to be disciplined and focused in order to stay on mission and not get diverted.
By doing this well, RHI has become a foundation of support for 10–24-year-olds during critical stages of their lives—addressing education, employment and health needs while allowing young people to empower themselves to create change in their own community. 95 percent of our small staff lives in Red Hook; many of them work part-time while also attending school. From the very beginning, the young people who are part of the Red Hook Initiative have played a critical role in co-creating the programs that serve their peers. Together we listed our strengths and our challenges, and put together our application.
Months later, in early November 2012, we got a call that we were finalists for the Nonprofit Excellence Awards. Instead of the celebration such news would usually produce, that message was quickly buried under an ever-growing pile of urgent notes on our desks. On October 29th, when Hurricane Sandy hit NYC, the Red Hook Initiative suddenly became a disaster relief organization, responding to the many needs of people in Red Hook living in the wake of the storm.
Most of Red Hook sits in Zone A, and the Red Hook Houses underwent a mandatory evacuation order. Many residents decided to “shelter in place” and were left without electricity, heat or hot water—and some without running water—for weeks following the storm. Like other waterfront neighborhoods in the city, Red Hook residents were caught off guard by the severity of the storm, and all of us—residents, neighbors, community-based organization (CBO) staff, government officials, city workers, utility workers—were overwhelmed and confused in the days and weeks that followed. NYCHA residents lived in the dark and cold, some of them forced to climb long, unlit stairwells to the 14th floor each time they left or came back home. With no running water, people were forced to live with their waste or store it in the common hallways, so scary, dark and disgusting became the new normal.
Through random chance, the Red Hook Initiative retained power and heat through the storm. We quickly became the hub of volunteer relief efforts. Residents without power in their homes showed up to plug in their phones, seek out the latest updates on recovery and look for help in getting their basic needs met. Business owners and homeowners stopped by to check on neighbors and look for news and supplies. Volunteers showed up one at a time, or in groups—bringing baked ziti, flashlights, candles, blankets, coats—both literal and symbolic band-aids.
RHI sat at the intersection between neighborhood residents in extraordinary need and those who sought to help them in extraordinary number. Systems emerged and then fell apart, and then re-grew, a little bit stronger. Volunteer cooks ran the food line, serving lunch and dinner each day. Lawyers showed up to help with food stamps and FEMA applications. Medical students and doctors worked with volunteer canvassers to get emergency medical services to people who could not leave their apartments. RHI staff used Twitter and Facebook to call out for more food, less food, more volunteers, fewer volunteers—the demand and supply waxed and waned, changing every hour. Other networks—local CBOs, Occupy Sandy, Occupy Red Hook, small business owners, City Council members and staff, funders and larger nonprofits and relief organizations, and city, state and federal agencies—showed up on different days and organized in partnership, at odds, in parallel formations. There were not enough kitchens but far too many cooks. And everyone was hungry and confused and scared. And cold.
During those unimaginably challenging days, we at RHI faced questions that no small youth-serving CBO should have to deal with. Where should FEMA bring 4,000 blankets? How should we distribute 130 space heaters to 6,000 people? Where could we go to learn what the city was doing to get the power back on, and how should we communicate that information? Where could people get enough to eat? Should they move out of their homes, and if so, where to? What shelters were available? When would the health clinic reopen? What would happen when it snowed? When would this nightmare end?
During those days, the RHI team agreed that we would stop asking each other, “How are you?” We greeted each other each morning like loving comrades-at-arms, but no one was doing well, so there was no reason to ask. Nonetheless, our work was made possible by the incredible dedication and determination of our staff, board, allies and volunteers. When we had a rare moment to reflect, we were reminded of the conversations we had and the strengths we had listed as we worked on the Nonprofit Awards application.
Those strengths included: staff that lived in the neighborhood, who crossed the street the day after the storm and opened our doors before anyone else could arrive to serve the community; a youth workforce with the skills to man the phones and greet visitors; our ability to use social media to help manage the tide of supply and demand and share what scant information we had; and, critically, the partnerships we had created with local businesses, other nonprofits and city agencies.
But more than anything, it was our unrelenting focus on what young people in Red Hook and their families need that led us through the storm—that allowed us to be flexible enough to bring in the services and partners they needed to get through the emergency, and then work with those partners and services to move them back out of RHI smoothly and restore the programs for our young people once the worst part of the emergency had passed.
It was messy, and it was hard, and we made many mistakes along the way, but the work that RHI did during the storm—like the work we had been doing for ten years before that—was based on the needs of the young people living in the Red Hook Houses, and carried out by them in partnership with caring adults. We fervently hope that we will never find ourselves in the emergency-relief business again. But it is comforting to know that the mission and management practices that have served us well as a youth development agency are strong enough to see us through a test like this one.
Editor’s Note: You can see more of the the RHI hurricane relief efforts talked about in this blog post in the photo essay Red Hook Story: Rethinking Power.
On November 15, 2012, The New York Community Trust, New York Magazine, the Nonprofit Coordinating Committee of New York and Philanthropy New York announced the three winners of the 2012 Nonprofit Excellence Awards. Red Hook Initiative was awarded the Gold Prize for Overall Management Excellence.
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