Humanity After the Storm

Humanity After the Storm
By Caron Atlas, November 22, 2012 

A group of wonderful musicians with a toy piano and bugle-shaped kazoo lead a spirited group in singing, “When the Saints Go Marching In” while a large poodle dances, shaking her hips and wagging her tail.This isn’t how you'd imagine hurricane relief, but it was one of the extraordinary moments at the Park Slope Armory evacuation shelter when we created community in the wake of the storm.

My neighborhood of Park Slope, Brooklyn was spared most of the destruction of Hurricane Sandy.Two evacuation shelters were located in the community, including one at the Armory with over 300 elderly and special needs evacuees. As I was trying to figure out what I could do to help, local city councilmember, Brad Lander contacted me about organizing cultural and wellness activities at the Armory.This ended up including arts and culture, exercise, massage, knitting, religious services, a Veterans Day commemoration, therapy dogs, and stress relief. In essence the Wellness Center we created became the living room of the Armory - a place people could come to talk, create, and build community. Artists from all over the city, and from the neighborhood, volunteered to perform and hold workshops. We had performers from Broadway and string quartets from Carnegie Hall; jazz ensembles, dancers, film screenings; and writing, storytelling, and artmaking workshops. Everyday we sang together. 


I've always known that arts and culture had the power to heal, but this direct experience proved to me how extraordinary they could be in a disaster. Above all, our work helped return peoples’ dignity and respect. They went from being an evacuee in a row of cots to being the incredible human beings that they truly are - a woman who got her PhD years before it was common for women to do so, a Jazz drummer, a torah scholar, a painter, amazing knitters. Each activity provided an opportunity to talk together and process their experience. The Wellness Center also enabled us to respond to offers the shelter couldn’t handle, and provide opportunities for artists, community groups, and schools to do something for the people impacted by the storm. Our walls were full of letters from schoolchildren letting the residents know that they weren't alone. Our email was full of people offering massages and stress reduction to emergency workers. Two girls came in, gave fancy manicures, and created the "Armory Nail Spa". Two women brought art supplies and bags of yarn and started the nightly knitting circle. 

When I was asked to take this on it was overwhelming. I was advised by one of the clergy at the Armory to use this as an opportunity to stretch myself. I think we all did. Our Wellness Center team of volunteers added new skills, talents, creativity, and expressions of compassion each day. I quickly realized that the community networks we have built over the years are vital support systems. Park Slope Parents and Park Slope Jewish Center provided key supplies for the shelter including garbage bags, disinfectant, tables and chairs. Beth Elohim and Saint Savior helped us set up religious services. Rooftop Films and the Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective made it possible to view nightly movies and the election returns. The Good Dog Foundation organized community members to bring in their therapy dogs, who became quickly beloved. The Armory provided a great example of how community volunteers and cultural and civic groups along with federal, state, and local public workers can join together to create a humane evacuation shelter and a holistic approach to relief and recovery. 

The shelter closed last Sunday. One group still can't returned to their assisted living building so has moved to another temporary space. We are bringing programs there as well to help ease the transition, and plan to follow up when they return home to the Rockaways. We are codifying the model of our Wellness Center and developing the idea of an “arts and wellness recovery corp” of trained artists and cultural organizers to support it. I’m convinced that cultural and wellness activities should be built proactively into disaster planning as an integral part of evacuation shelters and longer-term recovery programs. I'm also convinced that civic participation is of critical importance, not only when disaster strikes, but as a response to the ongoing challenges we face as a city. People want to step forward and to help, and when they do, it makes a difference. We are connected in a ways that we weren't connected before. This engagement and connection should be embraced by our policies and practices. 

Broadway performers singing at the Armory with a makeshift set 

In a letter, published by the New York Times, Miriam Eisenstein-Drachler, a resident in the shelter, described how “At the Armory we are greeted with courtesy, gentleness and goodness beyond description.” She concluded, “May the world outside these walls incorporate the outstanding dynamics of the Armory in its daily flow of human interaction. This, I believe, is the basic need of the present. May it be realized in society-at-large.”

On this Thanksgiving I am grateful that I could be part of creating this place of humanity in the wake of a storm.

Some members of the wellness team on the final day: Stacy, Jono, Julia, Casey, Caron


An Evacuee's Letter, New York Times by Miriam Eisenstein-Drachler, a resident at the Armory who wanted to express her thanks to the staff and volunteers and gave us a precious gift in her letter. 

Three Shelters from the Storm, Blog by New YorkCity councilmember Brad Lander who provided great support to the Armory and gave me the opportunity to be part of the effort.

An Arch of Sanctuary, Blog by rabbinical student Nicki DeBlosi who led the first Shabat service at the Armory the Friday after the storm.