Providing a Safe Haven

PortSide NewYork is being honored as a Champion of Change for the leadership they demonstrated in their involvement in response and recovery efforts following Hurricane Sandy.

PortSide NewYork is a non-profit organization based in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Our diverse programs relate to water issues, and waterfront history and contemporary events.  We focus on the BlueSpace the water part of the waterfront, to help New York City make better use of its extraordinary waterways. 

PortSide NewYork’s Sandy story has two parts, one about our home in the water, and one about our community service ashore. 

Our first Sandy priority was to protect the MARY A. WHALEN, a coastal oil tanker that serves as our home, our offices, and a floating event space and museum. She was listed on the National Register of Historic Places just days before Sandy.  Built in 1938, she is 172 feet long and weighs 613 gross tons.  At her size, she could do a lot of damage if she broke loose; by saving her, we also saved the property of others.

The PortSide team worked for five days preparing for the storm – moving the ship to a more secure location, clearing decks, arranging for volunteer crew – while arranging for weather service updates from Weeks Marine and other mariners.  As the storm hit NYC on Monday, we learned that a 12’ surge was expected. The two crew aboard, PortSide Director Carolina Salguero and volunteer Museum Curator Peter Rothenberg, tied together a series of docklines and attached them to a pier 265 feet away to prevent the tanker from riding up onto the pier.

After protecting the ship, Salguero and Rothenberg came ashore on Wednesday. Prior to founding PortSide, Salguero, who had worked as a photojournalist covering foreign areas of unrest and disaster, as well as 9/11 in NYC, immediately recognized that Red Hook was devastated. We decided to help.

The vicissitudes of PortSide’s real estate story prepared us to respond. PortSide has been seeking a permanent home since our 2005 business plan while operating as a pop-up, both on the water and on land.  We know how to rapidly identify opportunities and forge agreements.

On Thursday, Salguero began assessing what other groups were already doing, and where PortSide could help. She identified a storefront at 351 Van Brunt Street, on a slight rise, as one of the few Red Hook buildings still with power. She then contacted the occupants, Realty Collective and the art gallery subtenant Gallery Brooklyn, and secured permission to use it. 

By morning, it was decided that facilitating aid applications would be PortSide’s first offering. PortSide gathered volunteers off the street to get six computer workstations, office furniture and equipment from PortSide’s offices on the tanker. These were set up at “351” so Sandy victims could apply to FEMA, file insurance claims, use email. The internet was down, so Rothenberg ran a Clear wireless hub up a tree for two days until a PortSide contact at the Port Authority, who had worked to establish the cellphone network in the northeast, helped get Red Hook’s Verizon internet and cellphone service reconnected.

“351” became a haven for people -- to escape the cold, to charge cell phones, iPads, and power tools, to check e-mail to blow up a new air bed, to start the FEMA application or an insurance claim, or to wait for an escort to enter an apartment building whose electronic doors didn’t lock without power. Sandy victims remarked that the gallery environment with bright art on the walls was uplifting. The Director of Gallery Brooklyn, Jenna Weber, was so moved by the scene that she offered to donate 10% of exhibition sales to Red Hook relief.

PortSide’s MO was to respond to initiatives or needs coming from the community, through both action and communication. Emergency information replaced real estate listings in the storefront window. “351” was the first small business recovery center in Red Hook, before IKEA’s aid center opened or the FEMA trailers arrived, and served as a hub for Red Hook residents and business people to learn about aid programs while gaining emotional support and tips from one another. Residents and businesses could use the space to set up their own meetings – one day included overlapping sessions with a restaurant supply vendor and a legal aid clinic with 20 lawyers. Realty Collective invited Katrina-savvy architect Jim Garrison from the Pratt Institute to talk to a packed house about resilient ways to rebuild. PortSide served as a conduit to and from the growing sources of outside aid: elected officials, the Mayor’s office, FEMA, and the Department of Small Business Services.

Residents of Pioneer Street showed extraordinary initiative and cooperation on their one block and brought many ideas down the street to PortSide, who helped manage them and shared them with other Red Hook residents.  One example was our coordination of the services of angel electrician Danny Schneider, who arrived from nearby Park Slope in Brooklyn and went on to inspect 60 homes at no charge and to repair many.  (He also volunteered in the Rockaways.)

PortSide closed the center in early December. During PortSide’s time ashore, the shorepower connection to the tanker MARY A. WHALEN was knocked out, and PortSide operated for 35 nights with flashlights and one 15 amp extension cord.

Today, we continue providing Sandy relief work via other social media, working with elected officials and on post Sandy initiatives from the Mayor’s office, and by responding to requests from residents and businesses. We are developing plans for programs that will help Red Hook learn from its own response and develop response plans for future floods. PortSide wants to bring its two constituencies, the world ashore and the world afloat, together. We want to help train inland people in the mariner knowledge base that enabled us to prepare the ship for the storm and which might have prevented a lot of the damage.

Our nominator for the award, the District Manager of Brooklyn Community Board 6 Craig Hammerman wrote “PortSide’s work is an example of the community-based, mutual-aid system that has caused the heavily-damaged neighborhood of Red Hook to become a model for New Yorkers looking for lessons in the Sandy story.” 

PortSide NewYork is a nonprofit in Red Hook, Brooklyn, focused on waterfront issues. Since 2005, the organization has operated from the Mary A. Whalen, an oil tanker on the National Register of Historic Places.

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