Brannan’s Bay Ridge: Four years later

Hard to believe, but this weekend marks four years since Superstorm Sandy paralyzed the greatest city on the planet.

I was an aide to Councilmember Gentile at the time and remember touring the district together once the sun came up, both of us thinking, “Well, that wasn’t so bad.” Then, the calls started coming in. While our neck of the woods had emerged relatively unscathed, save for some damage caused by downed trees, it became apparent that many of our neighbors were far from fortunate.

One of the first calls we received was from the concerned Public Advocate, Bill de Blasio, offering his support and the full resources of his office and team to meet whatever challenges our area had suffered. I’ll always remember that.

Within a few hours, and without any real discussion, Councilmember Gentile’s office on Third Avenue turned into a makeshift Sandy call center, operations HQ and donation drop-off point. It was amazing.

Without any hesitation, everyone on the staff worked around the clock doing the best we could to answer the phones and help people find their way, making referrals, providing advice and assistance, basically doing whatever we could to try to help our neighbors who had been hit very hard by the storm.

Facebook and Twitter were both crucial as we learned who needed what and where in real-time. Just as quickly as supplies came in, they were sent right back out to where they were needed most –whether it was an urgent call for diapers and baby formula from Coney Island, food for elderly folks stuck in their homes in Red Hook, boxes of flashlights and batteries for Breezy Point or used winter coats for Midland Beach.

As we also can all painfully recall, gasoline was in very short supply for a while and very hard to come by so it wasn’t easy getting the stuff where it needed to go, but somehow, through the cooperation of local public officials and local agencies, not least NYPD, FDNY, EMS, concerned businesses and just regular folks who showed up to pitch in, somehow it all got done.

For, after all, there comes a time in your life when you realize that you are the person you’ve been waiting for and nobody else is going to do it for you. You’ve got to roll up your sleeves and get involved. I will always remember when a bunch of us showed up in Coney Island to deliver another truckload of supplies, and a man asked us, “Hey, are you guys from FEMA or OEM?” We answered proudly, “No, sir. We’re from Bay Ridge!”

Somewhere along the way, some friends and I started a soup kitchen in the basement of a local church. Thanks to an army of loyal volunteers with hearts of pure gold, over the next few months we ended up preparing and delivering over 25,000 meals to some of the hardest hit areas. That’s how Bay Ridge Cares really got started.

In the days and weeks after Sandy, people not only emptied their cupboards and embarked on Costco shopping sprees just so they could do their part; they emptied their wallets and opened their hearts and homes to absolute strangers. It was really beautiful. It really was, hands down, New York City at it’s very best.

Four years later, while most of us have resumed our regularly scheduled lives, some are still putting the pieces back together and rebuilding. Build It Back, New York City’s peerless and unprecedented program to repair roughly 20,000 Sandy-damaged homes, despite some wrinkles and challenges inevitable in an innovative program of this scale, anticipates 75 percent of homes will be completely rebuilt or reinforced by the end of 2016 – with work ready to begin or already in progress at the rest.

Four years later, I am reminded of the way we all came together and the things we were capable of doing when we were all on the same page. It taught me that while government can do its part in an emergency, such as first responder services and programs like Build It Back, there’s always room for people like you and me to roll up our sleeves and jump in to try to do the right thing.

Four years ago, without blinking an eye, we all did what we knew others would have done for us. No questions asked. It didn’t matter. Why? Because we are New Yorkers and when push comes to shove, we take care of each other, proving, yet again, that we’re all in this together.

And together we are better, and stronger, than we are alone. And as I learned, sometimes, when a crisis hits, there are no miracles. There’s just us. And sometimes that’s all we need.

Justin Brannan is a community activist, born and raised in Bay Ridge. He and his wife Leigh own a small business on Third Avenue.

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