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Posts Tagged ‘Hurricane Sandy’

What do we owe one another?

In aging, behavior, culture, domestic life, family, Money, news, politics, religion, urban life, US on November 19, 2012 at 3:28 am
Donations

Donations (Photo credit: Matthew Burpee)

In 1984, Canadian writer, academic — and later politician — Michael Ignatieff wrote a book, “The Needs of Strangers”. In it, he says:

“A decent and humane society requires a shared language of the good. The one our society lives by — a language of rights — has no terms for those dimensions of the human good which require acts of virture unspecifiable as a legal or civil obligation.”

In the United States, those who give money to charity, it turns out, are least likely to give it to those most in financial need, writes columnist Eduardo Porter in The New York Times:

Religious organizations receive about one-third of the nation’s total charitable contributions, not including donations to religious hospitals, schools and social charities. Donations to human services charities, by contrast, which work to ease poverty, feed the hungry and the like, amount to less than 12 percent of the total.

It’s a question I ask myself frequently – what, if anything beyond our taxes, do we owe to others in our world, whether that’s in our town, county, province/state, country, hemisphere?

Others’ needs for help are boundless and our individual resources with which to alleviate them — unless we are very wealthy or have no need, ourselves, to earn a living — extremely limited.

In the same edition of the Times containing Porter’s column is the full-page ad announcement of a multi-million gift to a college, bearing, of course, the generous donor’s name.

Asks Porter:

As the government grapples with how to address the nation’s deficits over coming decades, Americans have an opportunity to reassess the role of philanthropy in addressing the nation’s problems. Should we continue to provide lavish tax breaks? Should we demand that in return for preferential tax treatment, programs target more clearly the needs of the poor?

Many Americans might think that keeping tax breaks for donations to build, say, a new university football stadium when so many poor students can barely afford college, is not the best way to spend scarce resources.

Those on the right end of the political spectrum scoff at the notion of handing money to the poor and indigent, arguing that it merely enables them to continue their shiftless, lazy behaviors. Those on the left feel it’s immoral to let needy people starve, suffer and die from restricted or non-existent access to the basics of human dignity: food, shelter, medical care.

Last week my church, a small Episcopal parish in a wealthy town north of New York City, held its annual clothing sale, in which we donate our own clothes and shoes, for adults and children, sell them for low prices, then distribute the money earned to local charities. I worked a few days at the sale, and a few people asked when prices would drop to half-off, when they could better afford a wool hat at $2.50 instead of $5, or a pair of leather shoes for $7 instead of $14.

We raised more than $50,000, far more than if we’d been asked to open our wallets individually.

It’s humbling and sobering to see what sale shoppers need and can afford, and somehow ironic that the sale depends on volunteer labor — all the stay-at-home mothers with high-earning husbands flee at 2pm to pick up their children — and the only people who can offer their time are retired, unemployed or, in my case, who work freelance and may have a flexible schedule.

Those who came to shop included parents buying children’s clothes, teens snapping up fun stuff and a nun in her habit who, after I folded and bagged her sweater, asked with a smile: “Do you do closets?”

For many of us, the world has become a place where we rarely encounter, touch or speak to people whose lives are circumstances are unlike our own, whether richer or poorer. We attend different schools and colleges — if at all — travel by different conveyances, shop in different stores.

The clothing sale brings us together in a week-long fellowship. Like many people in this economy, I’m liquidity-poor, but time-rich.

I also serve on the board of a 30-year-old volunteer group that offers aid to non-fiction writers who have hit a financial crisis. We can mail a check for up to $4,000 within a week of getting an application. Usually, they have suffered the “triple whammy” — they’ve lost work, lost their health and lost the financial support of a spouse or partner.

Every letter we receive is a “there but for the grace of God” experience.

If I didn’t have a generous, loving husband with a steady job and excellent health insurance — which so many people do not — I might be writing one of those letters myself.

Few of us will escape our lives financially unscathed, without a crisis in which we desperately and suddenly need help from people who do not know, or owe, us — a dying parent, an ill child, a lost job (or several), a hurricane or flood — or both.

Poverty, misery and physical devastation are frightening. They smell bad. Storm-ravaged houses, crying children, old people huddled around a trash can fire. No one wants to be that person.

It’s easier to pretend they don’t exist than meet them face to face, seeing in their weary eyes and lined faces the existential terror that, one day, might be ours.

Blaming the poor and indigent is an easy out. There are few quick, simple solutions, as the miserable and angry survivors of Hurricane Sandy are still learning.

What do you think we owe one another?

Are taxes the only way to re-distribute funds from the better-off?

Do you do volunteer work and/or give money to charity?

Actually, this is the reporter’s job

In behavior, blogging, books, business, culture, journalism, war, work on November 13, 2012 at 12:50 am
Red Hook

Red Hook (Photo credit: mercurialn)

The New York Times’ new public editor’s last column praised the paper’s reporters and photographers for climbing stairs in the dark to find and interview and photograph victims of Hurricane Sandy:

That’s just one example among many in which Times reporters went to extraordinary lengths to get the stories of ordinary people’s suffering. I was equally struck by Cara Buckley’s and Michael Wilson’s’s front-page article about life without power in New York’s public housing projects.

It included this passage: “As light drained from the skies above the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn on Thursday, Sharlyn Marin, 18, huffed her way up 140 steps to visit her godmother, Judith Rodriguez, on the 10th floor. Blind and in a wheelchair, Ms. Rodriguez, 62, relied on Ms. Marin as her sole conduit to the outside world.”

Such articles, involving shoe-leather reporting at its best, are not easy to get. The only way to get those scenes is to be there — in this case, to climb the stairs in a dark and dangerous housing project.

Ms. Buckley told me about her experience in an e-mail: “It’s actually a 14-story building, and the photographer, Ruth Fremson, and I went to the top twice and then worked our way down. No matter the time of day, the stairways were pitch black, windowless and without power.”

That’s their job.

These days, the expression “shoe leather” journalism seems unfamiliar to many reporters, especially those who came into the field assuming that Google has the answer to everything. Instead it means leaving the cozy, familiar newsroom and building and neighborhood. It means walking/climbing/hiking — doing whatever is necessary on foot (and by plane/car/bus/donkey/boat) — to get on-scene to witness and report the gritty details of a story.

It demands guts, street smarts, preparation — knowing what to wear and what to carry, finding and hiring fixers and drivers and interpreters.

Great reporters tells us what the air smells like, what the baby was eating, the color of the walls and the size of the windows. They capture tone, light, anecdote, vernacular, nuance. They bring us into that place and make us feel what those in that place are feeling, whether joy or terror. They smell the blood, sometimes even slipping in it.

They do not phone it in. They do not Google it or look at a Google map to see what the devastation looks like or watch it on TV or read it out of someone else’s story.

Great reporting on tough stories like this one mean getting, literally, down and dirty, joining the story where and when it’s happening. It means that reporters and photographers will indeed also end up hungry, thirsty, tired, sore and worn out  – like the people whose lives they’re there to describe to readers many miles away, safe and warm and dry.

Great journalism is fueled by compassion. Not every story requires it, obviously, but when reporting on war, poverty, violence, crime, natural disaster or medical mishap, a reporter unwilling to live it firsthand is only going to report a dessicated, sanitized version of the facts.

My husband and I have both done this sort of reporting work, I as a writer and he as a photographer. In winter, he spent six weeks covering the end of the Bosnian war. He had to sleep in an unheated metal cargo container and his Christmas meal was a small packet of dried soup. He and the reporter and their interpreter, their car car stuck, were towed out of a snowbank at dusk because Jose had thought to pack a carabiner in his luggage.

I’ve seen car windows sheeted with blood after a head-on collision, and — nauseated and terrified — walked toward the vehicle to see what make and model it was. I’ve walked across frozen fields, climbed muddy embankments, knelt on dirty floors.  I flew to Winnipeg, Edmonton and Toronto on a medical investigative story, and watched the women  I interviewed shake and cry as they related their misery to me. It was exhausting and emotionally draining for all of us.

That’s the point.

Shoe-leather reporting can also be lethal, killing legendary New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid last year, when he suffered a fatal asthma attack from the horses carrying him and his photographer across the Syrian border; the photographer, Tyler Hicks, carried his dead body into Turkey.

It killed photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros last year in Libya and it killed Marie Colvin, the American-born journalist working for the London Sunday Times. She had already been blinded in one eye by shrapnel while working in Sri Lanka.
Here’s a great profile of this amazing woman, in the August 2012 issue of Vanity Fair.

Stony Brook University, on Long Island, NY, is raising $1 million in her memory to fund its Journalism Without Walls program, which sends young reporters into the field.

Boots-on-the-ground detail-gathering is what readers need and deserve.

It’s necessary for us to truly understand our world.

It’s what we should expect.

Huge snowstorm now hitting New York area. Enough already!

In behavior, cities, domestic life, life, nature, news, urban life, US, Weather on November 8, 2012 at 2:16 am

It’s hard to make this up….with tens of thousands

New York City in Winter (NASA, International S...

New York City in Winter (NASA, International Space Station, 01/09/11) (Photo credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center)

of New York and New Jersey residents already suffering after Hurricane Sandy without heat, light or even a home, we’re now in the midst of a huge snowstorm with high winds. I just measured five inches of snow on my sixth-floor suburban balcony, so thick and deep I could barely shove the door open against it.

My husband, again, is staying in Manhattan at a hotel (paid for by his employer, The New York Times) but this time sharing a room with his co-worker of four years, whose own wife is now huddling in a small studio apartment with her own daughter because she has no heat or light.

The euphoria (for some of us) of last night’s win by Barack Obama is now tempered by the freezing, windy, snowy reality of a closed railroad on Long Island and a closed highway there as well.

I’m lucky, right now, to have heat and light and a generator for our building. I know and like my neighbors. I made a huge roast chicken and vegetables tonight and baked banana bread and painted bookshelves, oddly grateful to be snowbound….as a native Canadian, I miss snowstorms and their silent aftermath.

I stocked up today with dozens of batteries for the radio; have multiple flashlights and candles and plenty of food and water in the apartment.

But I’m not pregnant or old or frail or ill or caring for small children, as many others are here tonight, some of them huddled in three layers of clothes and four layers of blankets in their dark and cold homes.

Please say a prayer for them!

Trick or treaters, sirens and gas shortages

In behavior, business, cities, domestic life, life, nature, news, politics, US, Weather on November 2, 2012 at 10:27 pm
Photo of a Halloween trick-or-treater, Redford...

Photo of a Halloween trick-or-treater, Redford, Michigan, United States. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As I write this — sitting on a friend’s sofa who has power and wi-fi — I hear two sounds, the wailing of sirens and the calls of little kids out trick or treating in their Hallowe’en costumes.

But I also heard a third lovely sound, the rumble of the commuter train once more heading north.

Life post-Sandy is weird indeed.

I went out today for a business lunch and had a great three-hour meeting with a potentially really interesting and valuable client. The restaurant was full, the lights on, the music playing, the food delicious.

Then it took me 30 minutes to drive back to my town, normally about a 10 minute journey, because the line-ups for the very few gas stations that are open right now stretch for miles.

The New York City marathon got cancelled today, the idea of starting the race on Staten Island — where they are still digging bodies out of the rubble — too offensive for many people to stomach. From CBS News:

The New York City Marathon was canceled Friday by Mayor Michael Bloomberg after mounting criticism that this was not the time for a race while the region is still recovering from superstorm Sandy.

With people in storm-ravaged areas still shivering without electricity and the death toll in New York City at more than 40, many New Yorkers recoiled at the prospect of police officers being assigned to protect a marathon on Sunday.

An estimated 40,000 runners from around the world had been expected to take part in the 26.2-mile event. The race had been scheduled to start in Staten Island, one of the hardest-hit areas by this week’s storm.

“We would not want a cloud to hang over the race or its participants, and so we have decided to cancel it,” the mayor said in a statement. “We cannot allow a controversy over an athletic event — even one as meaningful as this — to distract attention away from all the critically important work that is being done to recover from the storm and get our city back on track.”

I read friends’ posts on-line and hear horrific tales: exploding cars, homes on Long Island and New Jersey utterly destroyed, people putting up old, ill family members in their tiny apartment, the sudden value of a camper’s headlamp for reading and getting safely around a darkened home. (We have two. Yay!)

The challenges now are:

1) stay warm, dry, bathed, fed, safe, connected; 2) making sure your vehicle has enough gas; 3) not driving to make sure the gas you have lasts; 4) checking up on neighbors to make sure they are OK and offering them whatever help you can that they need, from sharing your fridge to using your power and/or wi-fi.

What’s really interesting is how (we pray, oh, how we pray) this terrible disaster may also affect the Presidential election, which is scheduled for November 6, only a few days away. There is a video clip making the rounds of Mitt Romney saying how immoral FEMA is. Perfect!

FEMA is the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

You’re right…what were we thinking? Disaster relief is for losers and government-dependent leeches, says dear Mittens.

It’s hard right now know what to focus on — work? friends? groceries? gas?

I’m still doing as much of my work as I can, checking in with clients and sources in Michigan, Minnesota, Georgia, Florida and Toronto. But it feels surreal and annoying to have to do any work at all when we all feel so disrupted and ill at ease.

Yet it’s good to be able to keep the machinery moving, to send an invoice and be able to deposit a check. My friend needs to find a new job and get some freelance work lined up and a week without Internet or power means another week of financial anxiety.

I hear a woman on her cellphone say: “I have no idea what time it is anymore. I feel like a cavewoman.”

I suspect there’s a lot of that right now.

Life in New York after Hurricane Sandy

In behavior, blogging, books, business, cars, cities, culture, journalism, life, Media, news, urban life, US, Weather on November 2, 2012 at 3:28 pm
Satellite imagery demonstrating the core of th...

Satellite imagery demonstrating the core of the New York City Metropolitan Area. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Welcome to an 18th century world.

One without electricity.

One in which –– like rural villagers shoving and pushing to reach a communal well for water –- strangers cluster around an extension cord snaking out of someone’s house who does have power. Every open public library is now a refugee camp, open early and open late, with every table and corner jammed with people clicking away on their laptops, notebooks and cell phones in a frenzy of collective, relieved connectivity.

I sit down this morning at the library, whose small parking lot is jammed as soon as it opens,  and the gray-haired bearded guy beside me is the same guy sitting at the other end of the table last night. I move to another spot and see a neighbor, a retired woman on my apartment floor, who has no power. Her neighbor across the hall does. The person below her has none.

It makes no sense.

And Americans are big on individual freedoms, not suddenly enforced intimacy or inter-reliance.

The world has changed and we’re not ready for it.

Today, one-third of the American workforce does not have an office, cubicle, staff job or steady paycheck. Many of us are now – willingly or not – entrepreneurs and freelancers, temps and contract workers. Like many others in today’s shaky economy, without access to power and Wi-Fi, I can’t earn a living.

Most of us, certainly in urban areas, no longer have kerosene or oil lanterns at home or fireplaces on which to cook or gain light and heat. If you do not have a backyard or firepit or grill, and can’t cook outdoors, you’re toast. People who rely on medications that need refrigeration are endangered.

Here, we live in cities and suburbs designed for automobile transportation — crippled without ready access to gasoline, oil and electricity. You can’t gas your car or bus if the gas station has no electric power, so there are now long line-ups at the few stations that are able to stay open.

It was reported yesterday that two children, ages two and four, were swept out of their mother’s arms during the storm, their bodies found in a marsh. Bangladesh? Somewhere in Africa?

 Staten Island, one of New York City’s five boroughs.

A politician wept as she heard the desperate pleas of victims there shouting: “Where is FEMA? Where’s the Red Cross?” The Red Cross has already received $11 million in donations to help Sandy’s victims.

In the 18th century world, you rise when you once again have natural light and it’s safe enough to venture outside. You go to sleep earlier, having dined (if you can) and read by candlelight. Like some earlier ancestor did, I placed tall candles in front of a mirror, to double and reflect their glow.

There is a generator – thankfully very much 21st century – grinding away below my apartment window. It gives our 100-apartment, six-story building enough power to use our elevators, offer heat and illuminate our long hallways. Luckily, our kitchen was one working outlet and we have a gas stove, so we can cook. We also, now, have heat; in former power outages, becoming “normal” here, we fled the freezing temperatures of February for a local hotel. No one repaid us the cost of two nights there.

We paid $80,000 to buy the generator last year, a cost every resident here is sharing.

The storm’s aftermath – scarcity, fear and frustration — naturally, brings out the best and worst in people. There are fist-fights, already, at gas stations because it gas is now a more difficult commodity to obtain and has suddenly jumped again in price as damaged oil refineries shut down. Other people are sharing their homes, food, shelter and kitchens with one another.

A six-outlet power strip is de facto helfpul. (I brought mine to the library.)

One immediately sees the divide between those with electric power – literally, the powerful – and those without. I was able to go to my regular salon and get a manicure this morning and enjoy an important business lunch at a local restaurant, depriving the original spot we’d originally chosen because – right beside the Hudson River –– they’re closed right now.

I’m lucky that my husband, Jose, is a former news photographer who has survived multiple hurricanes for work. He knew what to do. It was he who filled the car with gas (many stations now have no power, creating long lines at the two local ones that have it) and put it into the garage; bought dozens of bottles of water; stocked the fridge and freezer, lined the balcony door with plastic and towels in case it flooded or the glass shattered. (Neither happened.) He’s been in a hotel all week across from his office at The New York Times, working double shifts for colleagues who cannot get to work with most of the subway so badly damaged.

I toured our town yesterday, gasping in dismay at the shattered ancient trees, the smashed wooden and metal fences beneath them. A cabbie tells me the Hudson River rose so high that it has damaged the computers in the police station – which sits a good half-mile from the river’s edge.

 In the town just north of us, Ossining, a 40-foot sailboat sits on the train tracks where the commuter train normally ferries workers into Manhattan.

I was in Minneapolis, giving a speech to retail students and retailers at the University of Minnesota about my book Malled, when the storm hit New York. I never turned on the radio or television – but read Facebook – where my friends in New York and New Jersey posted photos and updates that told me everything I wanted to know.

The number of dead remains fairly low, now at 38, but some of these are tragic – like the person who stepped into water that held a loose electrical cable.

Jose will be home tomorrow, now that the trains are running north to our suburbs again.

Some people are calling Sandy the “storm of the century.”

I doubt it. We’re only 12 years into this century and, given the tremendous violence of weather patterns here in the past few years – drought, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, forest fires – I think this is our new normal.

We have no money for it. We have no infrastructure for it. We have no offices or homes or modes of transportation – horses? carts? canoes? – built for it. Doctors no longer make house calls.

We have no idea, or methods for, how to bathe and cook or wash clothes or offer medical care without electricity; Bellevue Hospital, a major downtown Manhattan facility, shut down and had to transfer all its patients.

From The New York Times:

Bellevue Hospital Center, New York City’s flagship public hospital and the premier trauma center in Manhattan, shut down Wednesday after fuel pumps for its backup power generators failed, and it worked into the night to evacuate the 300 patients left in its darkened building. There were 725 patients there when Hurricane Sandy hit.

At a news conference Wednesday night, Alan Aviles, the president of the Health and Hospitals Corporation, which runs Bellevue, described third-world conditions, with no hot water, no lab or radiology services and pails of water hauled up the stairs to use for flushing toilets.

After pumping out 17 million gallons of water from the basement, the water is still two and a half feet deep in the cavernous basement where the fuel pumps apparently shorted out and became inoperable — unable to feed the 13th-floor backup generators, Mr. Aviles said.

Welcome to the 18th century.

Care to gavotte?

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