In the wake of Sandy:
An interview with Far Rockaway
community organizer Ofelia Mangen
‘I think Sandy is a human disaster. We’re the disaster, not nature. We created it. If you call it a natural disaster, that’s a way to deny responsibility. Experts on climate change have been predicting this kind of storm for at least a decade.’
By Jonah Raskin | The Rag Blog | January 9, 2013
FAR ROCKAWAY, New York — She’s so thin she hardly casts a shadow on this cold blustery January afternoon. Ofelia Mangen is one of the fortunate ones. She has electricity and heat in her house in Far Rockaway, in a neighborhood hard hit by Superstorm Sandy.
Far too many of her neighbors — hundreds if not thousands of families — still don’t have light and heat as of January 2, 2013. Dozens of others have boarded up their homes and have evacuated the area hoping to return in spring and make repairs then. Many feel downright powerless to do anything to improve their living conditions, and it’s months after Sandy, the storm of the century, hit the East Coast.
Relief from the federal government hasn’t arrived in Far Rockaway and no one seems to know when and if it will arrive. (Two days after my conversation with Mangen, the U.S. House of Representatives approved $9.7 billion to pay flood insurance claims for the damage caused by Sandy. The Senate hadn’t acted; it would be months at best before citizens received funds to rebuild.
Volunteers have helped immensely. For months, Mangen, who is 30, worked around the clock with all the grit and gumption she could muster. Now, not surprisingly she’s as exhausted as any activist and organizer would be after living through the storm itself and then battling the political storm that followed hard on its heels.
In Manhattan for the day, she’s in need of a little relief and recovery.
Community organizer is a term you won’t find on her hefty resume, though she might add it. She’s a graduate student at New York University (NYU), with heaps of fellowships, though over the past two months, nothing new has been added to her resume. Sandy put her Ph.D. on hold.
After years of seminars, Mangen has trouble thinking of herself as an organizer in a community that sorely needs organizing and organizers. But now that she is, in fact, Far Rockaway’s most visible community organizer she inhabits the role as though she’s spent a lifetime preparing for it.
Abbie Hoffman would embrace her; Tom Hayden would cheer her. Gloria Steinem would yell, “Go Girl, or maybe Go Woman!”
A native of Ohio, Mangen earned a B.S. in visual communication from Ohio University, and an M.A. in media ecology from NYU. As a graduate student working on her dissertation, she conducted research on topics such as the use of technology in crises and how to be a catalyst for positive social change. Indeed, “social catalyst” might define her more precisely than “community organizer.”
Fierce and outspoken, she has a way of reading troubled social situations quickly and knowing what needs to be done to improve them. I’ve known her for years. In November 2012, I visited her in Far Rockaway 10 days after the storm ripped her life apart much as it ripped up the fabric of the whole community. The house in which she was living had been flooded with water from the sea, and the drywall had to be ripped out, along with all the electrical wiring and all the appliances on the ground floor.
Like everyone else for miles around, Mangen was without cell phone service, and without the ability to send and receive emails. Almost immediately, she leapt into action and began to communicate with her neighbors face-to-face and without technology. Everything she studied at school, every paper she wrote, and every article and book she read, seemed to have prepared her for the fallout from Sandy.
When I met her in Manhattan at the start of January 2013, she was just beginning to pick up the scattered pieces of her life. She wore a black cap, a dark vest, and a dark sweater. Sitting opposite me at the kitchen table in a New York apartment owned by mutual friends, Mangen began by discussing communication theory — encoding and decoding — but she soon came down to earth and talked about her own experiences and about her neighbors in Far Rockaway.
Jonah Raskin: Why did you throw yourself into relief work and community organizing after Sandy?
Ofelia Mangen: Far Rockaway, which was very hard hit by the storm, is my home and my community. I care about it and the people who live and work there. They were in need and I wanted to help them. But perhaps most of all, I did the work for myself. I haven’t been selfless about it, but rather selfish. I became involved to get my community back. I felt as though I’d lost it. I need it and want it back.
For those who don’t know much if anything about Far Rockaway can you say something about the place?
It’s a peninsula eleven miles long and a part of New York City. The subway — the “A” train — runs to Far Rockaway. It has spectacular beaches and it has oceanfront property that has lured real estate developers there. For a long time it was an out-of-the-way place. If you said you were going to Far Rockaway people looked at you as though you were going to fall off the map. It has some very poor sections and some very well-off sections. I’m in the middle.
Do you think of Sandy as a natural disaster?
No not at all. I think Sandy is a human disaster. We’re the disaster, not nature. We created it. If you call it a natural disaster, that’s a way to deny responsibility. Experts on climate change have been predicting this kind of storm for at least a decade. People read the reports about climate change, but they did nothing, made no changes. Sandy was actually very close to the storm that scientists predicted.
The storm made it difficult for you and for others to communicate didn’t it?
Very much so. All the cell phone networks were down. When we were most in need of information, we had the least possible information. If we’re going to survive storms like Sandy we’re going to have to figure out how to communicate more effectively.
When you were able to get in touch with people who did you call?
My sister. I only had a minute. I wanted to let her know I was okay. After I called her, she called my mother and then my mother and sister phoned everyone else in the family and friends, too. They had a kind of phone tree. Now I have a zillion emails to answer.
How effectively did newspapers cover the storm and its aftermath?
The Wave, the local paper, isn’t very good. It hasn’t had a print edition since before the storm; it’s only online now and I don’t trust it. I never did. The information is often inaccurate.
What about The New York Times?
The reporters from the Times didn’t provide a sense of context for the stories they wrote. They didn’t understand that there’s a difference between the Rockaway Peninsula and Far Rockaway, for example, which is a specific community on the peninsula. The nomenclature was off. The Times reporters came and looked around and went home at the end of the day. They didn’t take the time to get to know the place.
Did you become a hub for communication?
I did on my block, Beach Ninety-Second Street. I went around and asked people if they needed anything. I didn’t tell anyone what to do, but if neighbors asked for assistance I provided it. Unlike many residents, I had access to a car and could drive to Manhattan where I could watch TV and read newspapers and find out what was going on. People in wheelchairs, for example, had little mobility and were often isolated. I was able to act as a go-between for them.
Are you able to gage the mood of the community?
What I’ve noticed is that, as the storm passed and receded in memory, people didn’t calm down. In fact, they felt an increasing sense of frustration and despair. When they took the time to reflect, they became more and more angry. Some people are also stuck in depression now.
I would think that in a storm like Sandy the social veneer is peeled away and you see the rifts in the community.
Yes, that’s especially true of the east end of the Rockaway Peninsula, which has been a violent place with poverty and gangs for years. There’s been more violence and more gang activity after the storm. The whole environment has been fractured. Some people probably won’t get their lives back together again; some people and some business will be permanently broken. Others are finding a sense of purpose. I know artists who have come out here and have become community organizers.
Can you stand back and reflect on your own personal experience?
My whole life was upended. I was a college student working on my Ph.D. Sandy wasn’t an intellectual experience. In many ways it was weird. I’m just beginning to understand it. I was at home and in my own house, but I felt that I was in a foreign country and a traveler for two months.
How did you cope?
Well, I have a great support group and a real network of friends. My brother, Andrew, came and he has been a help. I was trying to be Superwoman. I pushed myself to my outer limits. Now, I ‘m resting, eating well, and doing yoga again. I’m getting myself back again.
Did you feel that there was a storm inside you?
I was tossed and turned. All of my emotions were heightened. Everything I did I did intensely. I had moments of anger and I expressed my anger. I put it out there.
Do you think people in Far Rockaway are suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?
Oh, absolutely! Some people are just now finding out that they have PTSD. Other might not find out for a month or even a year. Some people were on the periphery of the storm and not at the center, but they were still powerfully affected by it, though they’re just discovering how and in what ways.
Does it make sense to compare Sandy to Katrina?
No, I don’t think so. They’re radically different. Katrina affected all of New Orleans. Sandy only affected parts of New York. Katrina was in August, Sandy in November when it’s cold. Now, it’s below freezing; in New Orleans people didn’t have to deal with the cold. Katrina was officially designated a hurricane; Sandy was termed a “Superstorm.” The Gulf Coast is accustomed to hurricanes. New York wasn’t used to anything the likes of Sandy.
Was there disaster tourism in Far Rockaway?
Madonna came out with her entourage in black SUV’s and gave out copies of the Kabala. Some people drove around in their vans and never got out of their vehicles. They looked from behind closed windows.
What about New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg?
His convoy came through. He’s very unpopular now in Far Rockaway. He could do so much; he’s done so little.
I’m reminded of the lines from Roman Polanski’s movie, Chinatown, in which the top L.A. cop tells the detective played by Jack Nicholson, ”It’s Chinatown.” There always seems to be a “Chinatown” — a place that’s written off, a place where the laws and the rules don’t apply, a place ignored and pushed off to the side.
That’s Far Rockaway. Actually, designating Sandy a “superstorm” prohibits insurance companies from charging a hurricane deductible. Some insurance companies have been documented trying to do so, even though they aren’t permitted since Sandy wasn’t technically a hurricane when it made landfall. This is a disaster in which ordinary people sorely need the government to help. The government isn’t doing nearly enough to help them. The crisis isn’t over yet.
[Jonah Raskin, a frequent contributor to The Rag Blog, is a professor emeritus at Sonoma State University. The editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution and the author of James McGrath: In a Class By Himself, he has published interviews on The Rag Blog with Bernardine Dohrn, Eric Foner, Steve Halliwell, Michael Klare, Fred Klonsky, Gus Reichbach, and Allen Young. Read more articles by Jonah Raskin on The Rag Blog.]