September 16, 2001

Although I still want to write a chronology of my experience and witnessing (on Tuesday I walked all the way down to the cordons and was about four blocks away from World trade 7 when it fell, at a triage center there, and then over at the West Side Highway among the miles-long, three lanes of emergency vehicles; I was further down then the stand-up news you saw; they had them penned in up at Houston where there are still sopres of satellite vans. On Wednesday night I was in Soho. South of Houston was closed, in fact, you needed ID to get into my own neighborhood, and until Friday there was no traffic, no traffic laws (emergency vehicles came right through red lights, pedestrians walked the center of the streets), no air traffic, silence. But I happened to walk past Houston and greene right as my yoga teacher was at the barricade to escort her students in, the cops were very nice about this, and, although I did not have yoga clothes, I took a class, probably a mistake as I have never ever been so out of body.. I pulled an inner thigh muscle by not listening to my body. Anyhow, when I came out I was then past the cordon and able to wander through and entirely deserted Soho, like NY in the 18th Century probably, given that it's cobblestone streets down there and the old, famoust iron-facade architecture. I saw only two open restaurants, both thronged with locals watching the news, I felt like and interloper going in. A couple of bodegas, but food and necessities for people south out Houston on the West side were hard to come by. many buildings, like all of Battery Park City, were evacuated. Canal street was entirely heavy equipment and rescue vehicles, a nighttime scene of purpose and urgency, no activity that was not somehow related to the operation.)

So, yes, I want to write this for you and myself. However, I've never felt less able to follow a train of thought. Right now, and since Thursday, I've been involved in an impromptu volunteer effort, which has given me a sense ofusefulness and purpose as well as insight into what constitutes "help". A few things: First, not everyone who was lost has huge family or community searching for them. I myself have worked intermittently at the World trade center towers as a temp, and since assignments come in last-minute and you just go down and no one knows where you are, I imagine there are people like me who were either temping, visiting, or even worked or lived nearby or even came up from the subway at the very worst time, or came over after the first hit to watch and were caught by surprise by the second. lots of New Yorkers are solitary, just go to work and liuve their lives. I'd ask that if you live in the commuting area and have not seen a quiet neighbor in a while, that you make an effort to find out they're okay. I'm especially concerned by their pets. even those with engaged and active family elsewhere, those families could not and may still not be able to get here, and it's up to neighbors or acquaintances to go to the apartments, get the super or building management to help you, and water, feed, and walk the pets. the ASPCA has a help center and database for this, please see their webpage, call your local chapter, or go through AOL's surprisingly good resource page to find the numbers. Many animals are still trapped in evacuated buildings, and, in the cases where their owners are lost, the center may not have information to locate the pets (there are special escort police officers for this, and with the information, they try to get in and bring pets out.) Secondly, I've been over on the west Side Highway with a civilian group, not organized through the Red Cross or anything, who first began handing out water and juice to workers going in, and sort of mushroomed to a drop-off center and tent city. It's right before Pier 40 (the Port Authority terminal), a few blocks north of Canal. Now, the problem is severalfold. Firts, the media... they are way behind the curve. if you live outside the area, please do not come in to volunteer. Almost immediately, a lot of police resources had to be allocated to control eager volunteers who arrived with shovels and hard hats as if they could just go dig. Betwen the FBI investigation and structural engineering concerns, and the direct loss of some of the top brass of rescuers (New York City's Emergency/Crisis Chief for the Fire Department, for example, died after showing up in the initial response, along with other top Emergency coordinators, which is impeding organization), throngs of well-meaning, even professional rescuers (chiefs of companies from pennsylvania, SWAT teams from Connecticut...) are more in the way than helpful. Putting people to work efficiantly is very difficult. Also, if you want to help, please donate MONEY. That might seem cold, but the emergency funds and Red Cross are expert at using the money for the right stuff, getting resources to the right place. And.. pleae, act locally. Severe crisis has a wave effect, with traumas and needs at lots of geographic remove. You might think that you need to be HERE, but, in fact, you can do a lot where you are. For example, distant family members may need babysitting or use of a car or someone to do some errands. The displaced people from Battery Park City are mainly staying with friends and those friends might use practical or logistical support. As each wave distant becomes affected, your everyday actions can have a profound effect in a positive wave back. If you're a grocery clerk in Toledo, your kindness in opening an extra express lane, for example, could be the drop of water that reduces the stress for someone involved. If you can't get here and hug a professional comfort dog, hug you own dog; it's a real act, it makes a real difference.

As for our own little operation, I'm learning a lot and feeling quite frustrated. Most of the "official" donation sites are swamped, so people have been bringing even trailor-truckloades of donations to the side of the highway. The problem is that it's the blind leading the blind. We unload the trucks and try to organize the jumbled goods, but we have no database, communication, or official channels for getting the supplies to where they'll do the most good. I spent hours yesterday trying to get administrative help from the red cross or emergency management team. They're overwhelmed coordinating the thousands of simultaneous operations at the direct site. Meanwhile, official centers, like the Chelsea Pier, the Javitz Center, Shea Stadium, and all of the hospitals and the Armory where families come to register the lost, are overwhelmed coordinating throngs of volunteers and donations. Please, remember that the news is several hours behind the curve, and when they were calling foir blood, I already knew that ALL NY hospitals were turing everyone awya who did not have type O negative blood. Similarly, calls for food, clothes, and Union workers all came after the response had already overwhelmed the ability to coordinate it usefully. We really really need a liason with Emergeny management to move these donated goods effectively within the perimeter and to consolidate all of the drop-off points (churches, Union Square, Red cross and Salvation Army). I am concerned about waste and spoilage. I was overseeing toiletries/first aid/ and medical donations and we have literally tons of boxes stacked high, and thousands of volunteers undoing one anothers' work. (We separated the goods and made personal care packages, then new volunteers would come in and grab stuff willy-nilly out of the just-made packages.) We also received donations of high-tech and quite specific medical supplies and do not know where they're needed. Further, unless they stumble upon us, lots of workers or evacuees who could really use this stuff don't know it's there. There have been some nice moments. I helped one evacuee who just happened to come down assemble clothes and toiletries; we were able to give boxes of hard hats and flashlights to construction vehicles coming down the highway, and one triage center finally found us and came for ointments, creams, and saline solution. What we've had most demand for is: batteries for flashlights, ben-gay and vaseline and Vapo-Rub, small vials of eyedrop, hard hats, steel-toed boots, and, over and over, coffee and cigarettes. The guys really want hot coffee, and there are no stores down there to just buy some. And... you'd think with the choking smoke no one would smoke, but, out of stress and anxiety, everyone is. Even me, and my throat is raw, my eyes are gritty, my lungs hurt. So.,. in short, money donations and local acts of kindness are much the best right now. If you Do feel compelled to drop things off, please sort and label everything. Someone has to look at every package and separate the goods, and either transparant bags or clear packing lists really save time.

As of last night, boots, hard hats, flashlights, and heavy-duty work gloves were most taken (we have, as I said, no computer or radio contact with the interior... we have no running water or anything, it's just a hot, dusty under-construction side of a highway), but truckloads of workers will call from their vehicles "water!" or "masks" and we run them over. Respirators, not cloth masks, but the plastic hardware, are very in demand. And, as the work progresses, vapo-rub and vaseline for grit and smell will be more in demand.

In terms of the wave effect I spoke of... everyone initially wanted to pull injured people out; that's the collective national picture and fantasy of heroism. But only five people were pulled out in total. If you didn't get out of that cloud of debris in the initial hour and a half...
So what the donations we're trying to sort and get to the right place are for is for work crews. Meanwhile, we're getting dehydrated and tired, so people are dropping off hot food for us (Katz's deli brought by tons yesterday). So it's like the help gets pushed along, back out from the epicenter, but every bit as crucial. And it's really a crapshoot. People came with a whole vanload of dog food yesterday. Fortunately, I just happened to have found out where the dog food was being collected and was able to send them there. People came by wanting canine booties (the 600 dogs are cutting their fet on glass). We did not have canine booties or canine saline solution or salve, yet I know tons has been donated.

What I've learned is this:: little wrapped gift packages made by church groups and send with letters are sweet and moving, but chances are will not get directly in anyone's hands who has time to read and savor. We've been giving the letters to workers or taping them to tent posts, but mostly we disassemble and sort the goods. Perfumed and vanity items are not of much use. It amazes me what some people have brought down. Bundles of used clothes, unsorted are just so much garbage, really. Large crates of sturdy socks, briefs, handkerchiefs, and t-shirts are, however, useful. It frustrates me that I know that the church group in Wisconsin, for exapmle, bought boxes of first aid stuff, had their boys and girls clubs, make little care packages, and then we basically undo and re-sort them so that we know what we have and it's easily grabbed and distributed. Also, when we load up a truck, I know if just drives slightly further south to another staging area where another group of volunteers unloads and sorts it again. The redundancy and waste of all of this good will is very tiring.

The media has glamorized and glorified all of the volunteers, interviewing people "I just had to be here, do what I could" say weary EMTs from Hawaii or whatever. The truth is, it's a crapshoot who was let in initially, and now is very codified and hierarchical and professional in terms of direct search and rescue. We need help at the more distant points; specifically, I'm going to spend today trying to get us some liason and communication among the civilian donation centers to the more official operations. But the larger thing I've learned is:: collateral damage in major disasters takes many forms. It's cuts and scrapes, it's people stranded in Omaha, it's tons and tons of garbage (do you know how much packaging waste our consumer society creates, when you have the equivalent of several Wal-mats' worth of stuff out on the side of a highway, and over-adrenalined, unorganized people ripping boxes open when someone calls out "do we have any hydrocortisone?" and silly little gift soaps come pouring out into the dust?), it's donated tents and barricades and rolls and rolls of "do not cross' tape and magic markers and posterboard, none of which will ever find its way back if it's not used. It's tired volunteers with headaches opening new bottles of aspirin instead of using the opened supplies from our own mini first-aid station I set up last night. It's knowing that when I go back this afternoon, nothing will be as I left it and it will be all new people.

But here's the deal. All those donated sandwiches and even little packages or barbecued ribs (very bad to hand out; who has handi-wipes, well, we do -- cratesfull, but the ribs station is 50 yards away), people want them, imagine them in the hands of heroic firefighters. Maybe a few of the traffic control cops will stop over, Port Authority workers do come by, and sometimes we load up a truck, hoping it will get further down... but the real lesson here is that those sandwiches help even if they end up going to a local homeless shelter. Huge trauma tends to focus in the mind on specific images, a certain location, but it's generalized, and brings home ways in which our society was already traumatized but unwilling to respond. We've had some drifter-types come by and ask for toothbrushes and deoderant. You kinow what? That's not the image those donors had about the destination of their largesse, but it's entirely appropriate, and will be appropriate long after this outpouring of good will trickes out. I'd always thought that images in Samalia, or Bosnia, or Rwanda, or Turkey, were remote and irrelevant; that the only response, if you weren't a doctors-without-borders person or a government diplomat, was powerlessnes and hand-wringing. Now I see that is not true. This is now a global economy. In a direct sense, the people who've died were world citizens (Fuji Bank etc.) or had friends and colleages in other countries. But even in natural disasters in third-world countries, the effect is real, as "oterh" and "distant" as the media images make it seem, and local response DOES help. Here's how I see it. As a dancer with severe scoliosis, I often have back and leg pain. Now, you think, your right hip hurts, you must focus on that directly. But the bodymind is a system. Acupressure, Alexander technique, massage, and yoga all know, and I have experienced directly, that realeasing a tensed-up toe or clenched hand or tight jaw can directly release the muscle system that's creating the hip pain. It's about releasing the energy gently, breathing through the whole body, honoring the connections, and allowing all that is held to flow. So it is here. There is a crater in Manhattan. But you don't have to come here, bring things, know somebody, dig through rubble. It is DIRECTLY a relief if you express your concern according to your best nature, locally. If you feed and clothe your local homeless, if you offer a place to stay to someone whose flight's been delayed, if you loan your cellphone to a stranger, if you drive courteously, if you take the kids swimming; this is all crucial to the relief of the country, and, not in a bogus new-age or esoteric mystical way, to us here. You might have seen the unbearable moving interview with the CEO of Cantor-Fitzgerald (not ONE of their employees made it out. 700 people) in which he keeps saying "hug your kids, stay home". This is not merely the platitude of an overwrought businessman, but a direct insight that it is being good to who you love, where you are, that is most helpful and most true.

Now I'll stop grandstanding. Of course, the best thing for me to do would be my damn freelance work, but I, too, still want to "be there". I'm going to call around and go down and see if we can't create some sort of infrastructure for distibuting these donated goods that will allow for less waste and redundancy and some continuity even as most of us have to stop living on the side of the highway and begin to move our own lives forward.

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