On Election Day, a week after Hurricane Sandy had brought the largest city in America shuddering to a halt, there were still lines of cars at gas station stretching for blocks. At polling stations, the lines of voters stretched nearly as far. The Manhattan skyline twinkled with light again, and most of the subway tunnels had been dewatered by the Army Corps of Engineers. The parks buzzed with the sound of chain saws. After one of the worst disasters in its history, indomitable New York City seemed to be dusting itself off and returning to some semblance of its usual frenetic normalcy.
But crossing the Marine Parkway Bridge onto the Rockaway Peninsula, the densely populated 15-mile spit of sand that shields New York City from the open Atlantic, signs of destruction and catastrophe were everywhere. Breezy Point, at the tip of the peninsula, had lost more than 100 houses in a wind-whipped conflagration at the height of the storm. For miles the sodden contents of gutted houses lay in heaps on sidewalks, ruined family photos had been laid out to dry in the thin sunlight. Convoys of National Guard humvees rolled through intersections with dead stoplights. Soldiers unloaded crates of vacuum-sealed military rations to hand out to the thousands still without power, heat, and water. The massive silhouette of the helicopter carrier USS Wasp loomed on the horizon.
Nearby, in Far Rockaway, an impoverished enclave of wood-frame houses and brick public-housing towers stacked along the beach at the far terminus of the A train, there was little evidence of the government relief effort that was assembling just a few miles west. Hundreds of swamped and scattered cars had been pushed into piles, dune grass still packed into their wheel wells. A white Cadillac Escalade sat wrecked on the median, its vanity plate reading “UENVME2.” People strained behind shopping carts of supplies in the sand-clogged streets.
A vast relief effort led by city, state, and federal agencies was under way, but the affected area was so widespread that many people, particularly along the poorer, low-lying margins of the city, felt forgotten and abandoned by their government. Lights were on in Manhattan, but a week after the storm there were still pockets, like Far Rockaway, that had received scant aid. When Mayor Michael Bloomberg visited the neighborhood a few days earlier, one desperate and frustrated woman screamed at him in front of rolling news cameras: “Where’s the help? Where’s the fucking help?”
A BLOCK IN FROM what remained of the beach and its shattered boardwalk, in a community meeting room on the ground floor of the darkened Ocean Village apartment towers, the international humanitarian-aid group Doctors Without Borders had set up an emergency clinic with a volunteer staff of a dozen or so doctors, nurses, and assorted health professionals. A folding table was piled high with medical supplies, and a sheet strung up in a corner created a makeshift private screening area. An empty Starbucks jug doubled as an ad hoc sharps disposal container. Misha Friedman, a Moldovan photographer in his thirties with a shaved head—a veteran of Doctors Without Borders missions from Sudan to Uzbekistan—was briefing a pair of volunteers about the dire health situation faced by 800 senior residents in a nearby housing complex who had had no running water or electricity for a week.
“No one’s been evacuated,” he told me. “There is no evacuation. Doctors have been flooded out, pharmacies have been closed. Some patients are on dozens of medications, and they kind of fall off the grid.”
All across Far Rockaway, high up in the darkened towers and out in the flooded houses, scores of sick and elderly people, cut off from access to their doctors and medical care, needed help. When the clinic door opened at 10 a.m., there was already a group of patients waiting.
Doctors Without Borders (known around the world by the initials of its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières, or MSF) was founded to be quick on its feet, rushing into disaster and post-conflict zones to respond to the emergency medical needs of affected populations, seeking to fill the gaps left by the often slow and inadequate relief efforts of local governments and the international community. Working with a volunteer base of doctors and other health professionals, it has conducted emergency health care interventions in over 70 countries, a roll call of catastrophe: Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Chechnya, Libya. It was awarded the 1999 Nobel Peace Prize for its efforts.