The A train covers nearly 30 miles — from Inwood at 207th Street to the Rockaways in Queens. It’s around a two-hour journey.
But for many uptown residents, aiding Rockaway victims of Hurricane Sandy is like helping out a next-door neighbor.
“There’s a big Inwood-Rockaway connection. It’s the last stop to the last stop,” said Mary Kate Burke, a schoolteacher born and raised in Inwood. “I remember going out there as a kid.”
Though small businesses, service groups and government organizations throughout the city have coordinated relief efforts, the bulk of help coming out of northern Manhattan is led by a small but dedicated group of individuals with no other connection to the Rockaways except the A train.
Burke is one of several uptown residents leading Sandy relief efforts, reaching out to damaged areas such as the Rockaways and Staten Island. She began a blog, titled Thinking Outside the Classroom, detailing her experiences after several of her Facebook posts about her relief projects went viral.
While growing up in Inwood, Burke’s parents did charity work throughout the community. After leaving Inwood for several years — living in London and elsewhere — Burke returned, ready to continue the legacy.
“I had a conversation with my mom long before the hurricane, deciding I wanted to do something charity-related, to give back in some way,” she said. “Lo and behold, the hurricane hit, and I literally fell into it.”
There are plenty of post-Hurricane Sandy relief groups. Occupy Sandy, organized by followers of the Occupy Wall Street movement, has organized recovery hubs throughout Brooklyn with a revolving set of volunteers passing in and out daily, targeting many locations at once. And, of course, many victims turn to larger groups and agencies, such as the Red Cross and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
However, for individuals like Burke, getting involved from all the way up in Inwood is a test of self-sufficiency.
“I saw something was happening and various local efforts were trying to be organized on the fly,” she said. She soon got in touch with Jamie Hamilton, an uptown resident coordinating donation and volunteer efforts with Inwood’s chapter of the Knights of Columbus.
The Saturday following the hurricane, Hamilton helped coordinate a donation drive along Dyckman Street.
“We had no idea what we were going to get. It’s so nebulous, because the damage is so widespread that you try to go where the need is,” Hamilton said. “The Knights of Columbus put ourselves out there to organize this, but people not part of Knights of Columbus also came out there to organize. It’s an Inwood response.”
The community response was overwhelming.
“We had things halfway down the block, filling the entire width of the sidewalk. We packed 10 or 11 cars filled with items and a U-Haul to the brim,” Hamilton said. “We collected $4,000 in cash and checks just from people walking up the street.”
With community donations, Burke and several others headed to the Rockaways. The National Guard was set up on 116th Street in Queens, distributing food and water, so the Inwood volunteers began their own distribution center a few blocks away, on 65th Street.
“Once you hit the area it’s just complete devastation,” Burke said. Teaming up with a Rockaway local known as Ify allowed the volunteers to be far more productive.
“We just started organizing. People were really desperate and Ify was telling everyone we were there, and we ran out of things very quickly in terms of diapers, tampons, flashlights, batteries,” Burke said.
Hamilton recalled hearing stories from residents who, even five days after Hurricane Sandy, had received no aid whatsoever.
“Even FEMA and the Red Cross had not gotten out there within the first five days,” Hamilton said. “Then finally someone came by with bread and butter, and it was like gold. To see those people continue and bring them hot food and other stuff, it means a lot.”
The next day Hamilton and Burke returned with new goods they had bought with cash donations from their Inwood neighbors.
Octavio Blanco, a journalist at CNNMoney and resident of Washington Heights, also wanted to help after the hurricane.
Early in November, Blanco sent out Facebook and Twitter messages asking others in Washington Heights to come along for a visit he planned to Far Rockaway.
“I had been out one time before with a couple of friends and decided that it would be cool to go back,” Blanco said. “I figured I’d just put out an open call. A few people decided to respond and come along.”
Burke and Blanco, though not working together, both acknowledged how blessed they felt to have missed most of the storm’s wrath in their own neighborhoods.
“When the storm hit I was not in the city,” Blanco said. “I really wanted to do something once I got back. By that time, things up here had sort of gotten back to normal, whereas things out there in the Rockaways were a complete disaster. People were still lacking a lot of basic needs.”
Blanco and others spent the afternoon and evening going door to door, asking people if they needed help.
“It seemed the area where we were, a lot of work was done already,” Blanco said, “until we found this one house with a line of folks just throwing stuff out, and we asked if they needed help and they were very welcoming.”
He later wrote a post for the Uptown Collective about his experience and the subway ride back on the A train.
“The conductor closes the doors too fast on us and then complains over the loudspeaker for us not to hold the doors,” he wrote. “And then suddenly, the ‘B-boys’ blast their radio and the train is happy as they dance. We sit back into our chairs and finally breathe, tired and happy.”
As the holidays approach, uptown volunteers say interest in helping hurricane victims seems to be fading.
“This is the time around the holidays when people have their own causes they like to donate to,” Burke said. “The plan is to definitely get out before Christmas. There’s an idea to have some kind of fundraiser as well. People are already forgetting about it.”
Blanco went to the Rockaways again last week with United Way of New York, an organization that helps low-income New Yorkers meet short-term needs.
“Most of the people where I was, everyone had electricity and were getting heat. What they were concerned with is getting money from FEMA. How do I do all the other recovery stuff, the bureaucratic nightmares that they’re facing? I’m trying to figure out if there’s some sort of outreach I can be a part of to help folks recover and get the legal guidance they need going forward,” he said.
Blanco and other uptown volunteers urge the community not to forget the reality of the storm’s destruction.
“For the most part, our lives are pretty much back to normal,” he said. “Nobody’s life out there is back to normal.”