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Where do you start when the fabric of life is torn to shreds?

A report from Far Rockaway Queens.

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Mount Carmel Baptist Church took a baptism. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

Today, it was a dry sunny day. One could even feel exuberant amidst the rubble.

“Hot chili tastes good on a cold day,” exclaimed volunteer Yvonne Thevenot. However, the good feelings are mixed into a day of troubles. She is using her day off from retail banking to check out how her church can assist Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Far Rockaway, Queens.

On Beach Channel Drive, dump trucks and garbage trucks are rumbling with pickups of torn out dry walls from the damp ruined basements in the area. Police and National Guardsmen are heavily present.

Mount Carmel Baptist Church is opening its doors to church members and volunteers. Church vans and church trucks are arriving from Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, Christian Cultural Center and other places. They begin to sort out emergency supplies left over from the day before. Yesterday, the church received shipments of goods via FedEx and UPS.

The most in demand items are marshaled outside of the church. Food, bottled water and baby diapers are the frontline against the despair that is settling over the neighborhood from Hurricane Sandy’s lingering effects.

There are regrets about not heeding warnings. While visiting the church, one local resident vows that she will never ignore evacuation warnings again.  She is more fortunate than some. She observes that during the storm, some of her neighbors ran through the flood waters to the safety of her house which sits on higher ground.

Jennifer Blair, a member of Mount Carmel, began organizing relief from the church shortly after the flood waters receded. Blair's boss called her up to offer supplies and asked her where to bring them. She observed that she didn’t know where she was going to stay herself but that the church would operate no matter what. “I don't have a place to live, so you can't put it in my house,” she told her boss. “Bring it to my church.” Blair improvises. “I do it day by day, that’s the best I can do.  If I can feed you today, come back tomorrow.”

Before the church started giving out items in the morning, a church van loaded with food donations came by, followed by another.  Throughout the day goods continued to arrive as did the many people that needed them.  Many of the people coming through were from the large housing development next door.  Some people coming by the church had electricity, none had hot water or gas.

Rev A. R. Bernard brought a load of supplies from Christian Cultural Center. Abyssinian Baptist Church is gathering more supplies. Mt. Carmel's Ferguson (left) and Bernard talk about next steps. Photo: A Journey through NYC religions

Mount Carmel’s pastor Darren Ferguson updates Dr. Calvin O. Butts III of the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Butts installed. Ferguson as pastor in 2008.

Later in the morning Reverend A.R. Bernard of Christian Cultural Center brings a truck full of goods. Bernard observes that the many churches in the city are a huge recovery resource for the city. “There is so much strength if we would work together,” he observes.

People are also stopping by the church this morning to get out of their wet damaged homes. Many can’t go to the local shelters because they are already full. They talk about their cold, smelly existence that makes it so tiring, particularly for those people who were already struggling to make ends meet.

One neighbor expresses her frustration with staying in a damp, cold house without electricity or heat that smells moldy.  She and her husband say that they haven’t found any other place to go with their four children.  Another woman laments the conditions for sending her granddaughter to the emergency room three times since the storm. Church seems a good place to lament. The volunteers comfort her.

Inside Mount Carmel is a jumble of relief goods and damage.

The storm closed off short term credit options that the local poor count upon in an emergency. After the storm, the credit card networks went down so poorer people couldn’t stock up on cash to see them through for a couple of weeks. Blair says, “If you didn't have cash, you were eating military rations.”

Blair observes, “We were already below the poverty line before the storm, so if you lost everything, whatever cash you did have two weeks ago--it’s done.”

If locals have a few coins, they can’t spend them to get clean clothes. A former employee of the Rock-A-Mat Landry, which is across the street from the church, says the laundromat is closed because vandals broke into the washing and drying machines to snatch the coins out. The thieves rendered inoperable any machines that weren’t ruined by the flood waters.

People can’t keep personally clean because their showers and bathtubs are dry. Blair mentions that the recovery efforts have particularly fallen short in this area. “They have a mobile shower trailer at the back of the projects, 10,000 people for four showers,” she says

Further, the damage to cars means that many locals can’t get to work very easily, if at all. So, they can’t build back up their cash reserves. Several talked about a looming crisis about whether to pay rent or buy supplies.

Jennifer Blair started the organization of Mt. Carmel's recovery efforts. Photo provided.

Even the church, which is a standard emergency station for people seeking help in the area, can’t provide the cushion of help that it normally provides. The entire contents of the church basement were ruined by the storm and now sit on the church lawn waiting to be hauled away.  Pastor Darren Ferguson of Mount Carmel says that an architect donated a new plan for restoring the church but it doesn’t have the funds to implement it. The rescue plan is just on paper at the moment.

The failure of the local electrical grid means that the church’s recovery efforts are mainly relegated to daylight hours until they receive word to turn the electricity back on.

“I still have to do my own FEMA stuff, but I'm going to do this first,” Blair says.  FEMA just opened a station next to the local grocery store to help residents file for federal relief.

In the afternoon the Red Cross will drop off cleaning kits in two rental moving vans.  Tomorrow, the church will host a meeting for a labor union to talk about employment opportunities.

The church continues to collect and distribute cleaning supplies, toiletries, first aid supplies, baby care items, underwear, socks, shoes, blankets, canned food, water, books, toys, and flashlights.  The church is also looking for grief counselors and medical attendants.

This report was filed from Far Rockaway, Queens, Wednesday, November 14th.

The church is located 348 Beach 71st Street, Arverne, New York. 718-318-2304, 646-620-2214, pastor@mountcarmelbaptist.org, twitter: @fergsongs

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