Give Me Shelter: The Sociology of 4 Days in 3 Sandy Evacuation Centers, pt. 1


A typical cot in a Sandy evacuation shelter.

This is my attempt to capture my experiences as a Sandy evacuee in 3 different shelters over 4 days. I want to tell the story from a sociological point of view and from my personal view. It’s fascinating how social roles are invented and created and how our ordinary roles get strained in the process whether you are a volunteer or an evacuee. 

As a professor who teaches in several disciplines including ethnomusicology, anthropology, racism and newly teaching two courses in sociology–a political sociology course and two sections of an introduction to the discipline–becoming a Sandy evacuee was never a possibility in my mind.

On Saturday and Sunday I went shopping for necessities long before Sandy was expected to hit on Monday. Lines in the Essex Street Market were a little longer than normal but there was plenty to buy.

Living alone in the Lower East Side having had only casual hellos with familiar faces in a complex in which I am relatively new got me thinking. I wondered would I be safe alone on the 16th floor? The water would never reach me there from the East River below.

Complacency has one of my favorite definitions: “self-satisfaction in the face of imminent danger.”

The comfort of my stocked supplies stole any attention to thinking about the basement of the building flooding or having no electricity for days and finding alternative shelter with friends. So much for having a Ph.D. Living alone sometimes blinds you to the need to rely on others, being socially integrated in times of need rather than accumulating isolation. I thought I could make it on my own, so I posted on Facebook Sunday night:

October 28 at 11:59pm

I’m in Zone C not far from Zone A. OK. This is giving me a little concern and I just read my building may turn off hot water and heat, and the elevators were probably turned off at 7pm. I’m on the 16th fl. Better shower now for the night while there’s still hot water. Then filling the tub.

The fact that there was actually only one street separating my apartment complex from Zone A near the base of the Williamsburg Bridge didn’t register as alarming. Having walked 15-20 miles a week on the bridge, I was well aware how close to the water’s edge I resided. My proximity to Zone A didn’t break the complacency until Monday morning as an eery silence fell over the building.

Urgency set in around 10am. I was online trying to complete a job application when I heard a muffled loudspeaker bellowing from the street below. I opened my living room window and heard the urgent call to evacuate from a bullhorn atop white city van. All residents must evacuate by 7pm.

Oh shit!  They don’t send vans to this part of the Lower East Side, the working class NYCHA complexes that are right next to my building, unless there is a real threat of imminent danger. It was only then that I realized I could not get to any friends’ homes after Mayor Bloomburg had shut down buses and subways 7pm the night before.

October 29 at 10:46am

Decided I need to head to the shelter nearby. There’s a truck with loud speaker roaming the nearby street insisting we evacuate before 7pm tonight. Here’s where I am heading (See map for Seward High School). I’m close to the bridge and water and alone here. Since public transportation is down, I think I better head out soon. Got my list for my go bag last night. Get food and pack and leave here by noon.

But then back to complacency. I thought I should try to complete my job application putting job security before my own physical safety until I thought: If all the people in this area evacuate, there won’t be room in the shelter later. So I better move now. By 7pm the area where I lived was flooded from the storm surge.

I grabbed my 3×5 card and started packing a pullman. I packed two pairs of athletic pants, a couple of t-shirts, 7 pairs of underwear (in case I couldn’t return as soon as imagined), flip-flops, my travel pillows (one is teddy bear), a non-aerosol orange air freshener (which I always travel with and came in handy when the men’s bathroom started to wreak after one day), two wash clothes, a small towel, and Dr. Bonner’s Magic Hemp Tea Tree Liquid Soap among other things.

These items were not on my list but medications were. I packed them too. Don’t like being without personal comforts away from home. So I also packed shea butter. Can’t have cracked skin on top of being in a shelter. The wired geek in me also said: Bring your laptop and the router. Get there early. Camp out near an outlet. Those with access to the Internet have a voice and maybe leverage in an emergency situations.

I left after a post on Facebook at 11:51am letting people know where I was headed. The elevator had been shut down so I walked down 16 flights of stairs weighed down with my two pieces of luggage. I arrived at Seward Park High School on Grand and Essex Streets just after noon and checked into the shelter.

When I got there, there was no line. Volunteers checked me in with a half sheet form asking for my name, age, occupation, address. and phone number. The volunteers wore plastic “construction site” orange vests clearly identifying them to evacuees. The three women at the table were noticably concerned about following procedures which made me think their operations were just being consolidated.

A couple days later I would learn that these “volunteers” actually worked for the city and and we “clients” as they called us–“persons receiving social or medical services”–were learning new social roles that were forced upon us by Sandy. An emergency situation or disaster can cause strains on our roles as autonomous citizens and interdependent adults create new relationships based on expectations and unarticulated needs relative to being displaced. Even I as a professor cannot live outside the social constructions set in motion by a hurricane in one of the most densely populated metropolitan areas in the nation. No human is an island in the Big Apple as much as we like to believe otherwise.

They gave us each a blanket bearing a city seal, a bag of toiletries and had us scout out a cot where we would sleep for the night. “Dinner will be served from 6-8pm on the fifth floor.” That was the first “service” offered to clients. It was more like a command than an invitation. It felt like returning to elementary school, not even high school. Do what you’re told. Stand in line one by one. Eat when told. But no one had actually said this. The expectations of roles are there to be enacted in such a situation.

On the fourth floor and every other floor, they had set up green cots along the walls of the corridors. The classrooms in the large high school were locked and as I heard the wind picking up speed, it rattled the loose doors separating us from the classrooms and I was thankful we were in the hallways. I had lost a new umbrella in the wind on the way over. It was  already starting to feel treacherous outside but the heavy rain had not started.

There were only about 5-6 people on the floor. I was glad to be there early. I noticed there were only two outlets in the hallways. I stacked out one near a huge rattling window and had second thoughts about sleeping in that corridor. But I didn’t want to lose access to the outlet.

A Dominican woman came down the hall and I asked her to join me. She too was searching for an outlet to recharge her phone. I asked if we could look out for one another relative to the outlet and our things and we quickly became allies.

We decided to move to an inner corridor once we found the second outlet was still free around the corner. We sat and then began waiting. I set up my router and we both got on our computers.

Dinner sucked. We both skipped the meal offering. She had checked in with her dog. It was great that they provided animal shelter too. She decided to head out for a meal. I gave her some cash and she returned with, of all things, Popeye’s fried chicken.

I assumed she was going to get real chicken from some local Dominican place. I hadn’t eaten Popeye’s for years. can’t remember the last time. She spent all of my eleven dollars on a box of chicken. LOL. And I ate ever piece of skin in there. Distress, I thought after the whole ordeal, puts us into a mode where we need comfort and calories.  It’s a biological impulse of a sort. Having food available means safety to our reptilian brains.

It was about then that I met Miss Lucy. Luz Martinez was her full name. A black Latina who I immediately felt affinity for. That’s why I called her “Miss” after she told me her nickname. In times of uncertainty we seek out familiarity and affinity though speaking Spanish, gender identifications, or ethnic affiliations.

When we were opening up the plastic bag of toiletries that including a travel size of Johnson’s Baby Powder, a thin but clean wash cloth, a toothbrush with toothpaste and a thin black comb, we both mentioned that this was not for our hair. The kind of combs whose teeth are far too close to comb through the natural kinky curls of most people of African descent who identity as “black” or “african American” without causing pain.

Miss Lucy had had a hip replacement on her right side and a bad knee needing an operation on her left. She walked with a cane and said she had taken a fall that morning and decided that it wasn’t safe for her to be alone. So she headed to the shelter without any aid. She forgot her go-bag and even her ATM card. What was odd in comparison was that a couple of homeless men who took cots near us in the hallway just called 911 and asked for police to pick them up and ferry them to the shelter. NYPD to the rescue. We women, living alone, never even thought to ask and Miss Lucy deserved to.

Miss Lucy was a stocky woman. Independent despite her physical limitations standing only about 4 feet and a few inches tall. She wouldn’t sit on her cot at first. She stood up, balancing on her cane or leaning against the wall for quite a while. I saw her try to sit on her cot once but the cot was too high for her hip to balance on with her short legs. I offered to ask a volunteer for a chair for her to be more comfortable as she voiced her concern about being able to get in the cot or even sleep at all. She hadn’t slept for 3 days straight. too much coffee, she said.  She’d also hurt her back a bit with the fall she’d taken that morning. So I decided to look out for Miss Lucy.

October 29 at 4:47pm

[I’m at] Seward High School (HS) in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Hanging with Miss Lucy an older woman dealing with a hip replacement and Millie a little younger than me who was forced to evacuate with her dog or pay $1000. The Ofc of Emerg Mgmt is serious about getting people out of public housing.

The name Miss Lucy is a common reference in the research I do on black girls’ musical handclapping games, cheers and double dutch rope jumping in my book The Games Black Girls Play: Learning teh Ropes from Double-Dutch to Hip-Hop. It comes from a popular handclapping chant:

Miss Lucy had a baby
His name was Tiny Tim
She put in in the bathtub
To see if he could swim

He drank up all the water
He ate up all the soap
He tried to eat the bathtub
But it wouldn’t fit
Down his throat.
Behind the ‘frigerator
There was a piece of glass
Miss Lucy (or more often Miss Suzie) fell upon it
And it went straight up her
Ask me no more questions
Tell me no more lies
The boys are in the bathroom
Pulling up their flies.

The point of the hand-clapping game-song is that almost each verse leads up to a rude word or profanity that is eluded in the next verse as part of an innocuous word or phrase.

So much about the experience of being in 3 different shelters in 4 days is reminiscent of eluding the profane. In this case, eluding feeling like you were a helpless and homeless victim and all the profane experiences of being treated without dignity or a say in how things go as you are displaced from your home.

The green cot became my only claim to a territory for several days and me and while Miss Lucy and I became fast friends, family like–looking out for each other and sharing our lives briefly and intimately in circumstances that were not ideal for the volunteers or the clients–we were not home and the strain from our displacement often when unnamed and unacknowledged by them and by ourselves.

More on Sandy soon.


2 thoughts on “Give Me Shelter: The Sociology of 4 Days in 3 Sandy Evacuation Centers, pt. 1

  1. I’m really delighted to uncover this web page. I wanted to thank you for your time used on publishing this fantastic article. I most certainly really liked every single bit of it and i also have you book-marked view new articles or blog posts in your site.

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