As Howard Beach struggled through the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the neighborhood stood shellshocked by an unexpected storm surge and blackout of undetermined length. Stores on Cross Bay Boulevard were closed, and while some had cars to drive north away from the disaster zone, many lost their vehicles in the floodwaters and were stranded in their devastated neighborhood.
At the St. Helen Roman Catholic School on the extreme northern end of the community, food trucks and tables with relief supplies began popping up outside the gymnasium at 157th Avenue and 84th Street near the entrance into the neighborhood from Lindenwood, much of which never lost power during the hurricane.
A NYC Relief Distribution Center has been operating out of the location for a week and a half, giving out clothing and items such as batteries, toilet paper, towels and other household necessities to residents who were left without them as a result of Hurricane Sandy.
Though the power has come back to most of Howard Beach and many in the neighborhood are again able to live in their homes, there is still a need for the site.
“I don’t know exactly how many people come, but I can say it’s thousands,” said Laurie Heedles, a volunteer at the relief center. She said a lot of people arrive from the Rockaways and Broad Channel, which were harder hit and where many residents cannot return to their homes.
There is no organized mode of transportation to the center, Heedles said, but many were finding it on their own. At one point buses in the parking lot across the street from the gym were being used by residents who had no heat to keep warm.
Food trucks came to serve meals and local eateries such as La Villa in Lindenwood, Gino’s Pizzeria, Ragtime and Tuscany Deli donated food to be served.
Without phone or Internet service, people in Howard Beach had to find out about the center the old-fashioned way — word of mouth.
Heedles said informing residents left in the dark in the days and weeks after Hurricane Sandy has been tough, “A big problem is that there’s very little information for the community.”
The center was operating with a generator until Sunday when power returned. Heedles said the majority of the people who have come for help are elderly, a group that makes up a large portion of Howard Beach’s population.
“There are a lot of old people,” she explained. “They’re frightened, they don’t want to open the doors because they’ve heard of the abuse, they think that people will come to take their things.”
The relief center garnered the attention of one of the neighborhood’s most famous natives — singer Pia Toscano, who competed on American Idol.
“I flew in from California to help out in any way I can,” she said.
Toscano spent Tuesday afternoon unloading boxes of supplies and had previously ordered a stack of pizzas for people eating at the church gymnasium.
The center is still open and Heedles said it would remain there as long people keep coming.
“How long will we keep doing this?” she said. “Well, as long as there’s a need.”