Donovan Richards, chief of staff for Councilmember James Sanders, spent the night of Monday, October 29 in an evacuation center in Jamaica with constituents during the storm. Here is his account of the night.
I was once told that real leadership requires one to lead from the front. With this in mind and an unprecedented hurricane bearing down on my district, I arrived at John Adams High School at 7:15 p.m. to check-in for the night with my constituents. Although John Adams H.S. was listed as an evacuation site, it instantly became clear that there were no plans to have anyone spend the night — there were no sleeping cots or food available for evacuees, no sign whatsoever that anyone intended to stay. I then noticed a mother and her 2-month-old baby sitting uncomfortably on a wooden chair, clearly hoping that her belongings and all she worked for would be there when she returned home after the storm. I became angered after witnessing a man with three special needs children nearly turned away and told to travel through the storm to another shelter. I learned at that moment that John Adams High School was not a shelter, but an intake site.
I was told that residents checking in at John Adams were to be re-routed to York College. Thus, I foolishly grabbed my duffel bag, which contained a single bottle of water and some pretzels, got back into my car and drove to York to ensure this wasn’t happening anywhere else. With the 8 p.m. deadline looming for Sandy to arrive, I assume I broke a few traffic laws on Rockaway Boulevard to avoid feeling her wrath. After parking my car at York College, I then battled what felt like 50 mph wind gust to open my car door, grabbed my unzipped bag and headed into the shelter entrance. I was greeted kindly by security, who checked my bag. I then took off my jacket and grabbed a volunteer vest from the evening volunteer coordinator and started greeting nearly 100 Far Rockaway residents.
Sheltered inside were the very few residents who decided to heed advice from Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Michael Bloomberg and evacuate Zone A. Many of them repeatedly said, “I decided to play it safe.” However, they expressed their concerns about their neighbors who decided to stay. In my travels around the shelter, one woman came to me crying saying her sister and four children called her screaming that she couldn’t get out and the water was taking over her first floor rapidly. I called 9-1-1, but the circuit was overloaded, so I decided to take a chance at calling my contact in the 101st Precinct Community Affairs Unit, although I knew he was in over his head. I was relieved when he answered the precinct phone after two rings and explained the situation, only to find out that they lost communication with the Emergency Service Units out in boats rescuing people. I pray the young lady and her four children made it out safely. Then I was approached by another young lady and her family who told me her neighbor was stranded on her roof. These stories kept me from sleeping the entire night, wondering what news we would wake up to in the morning. Young and old alike spent much of the night glued to NY1, learning the latest updates about the storm.
I was asked questions like: “Mr. Richards, do you think my house got flooded?” After receiving a call from Councilmember James Sanders Jr. that the water had overtaken the basement and first floor of his Far Rockaway home, I knew the answer was almost certainly “yes,” that their homes were flooded. The beach had met the bay, a scenario that could result in not only in mass destruction of property, but possibly death as well.
I knew many of us would have to return home having to start all over, with so many memories and belongings gone. The mental, emotional, and physical drain finally overtook 99 percent of the evacuees. It was so quiet in the vicinity that you would have thought you were in your home alone. At 2 a.m. I decided to grab my blanket and sleep on the couch after working for nearly 20 hours straight, to only be awakened by another volunteer offering me a cot. I decided to take him up on his offer. The cot was as hard as steel, but at least I could stretch out. I slept for just an hour and grabbed my phone to get as many updates on Facebook from my friends as possible. Over 20 volunteers unpacked additional cots from boxes and moved them around York College as three busloads of residents arrived at the shelter.
Thank God we all survived the night safely. I want to thank the first responders and volunteers who braved the weather to keep all of us safe. As harrowing as Sandy was, the results could have been far worse. In the coming days, we must all stand together to ensure that our neighbors get back on their feet and we rebuild like never before. While Sandy may have won the first round, the resolve of the people of the district will win the fight. We have always stood together and we always will!