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Two Days As An Evacuation Center Teacher-Volunteer

I got the first call Thursday afternoon. A recording asked if I could volunteer at a shelter during the hurricane. Press 1 for yes or 2 for no.

I felt a wave of the familiar not-working-but-still-getting-paid-teacher-in-summer guilt. I thought about the fact that I didn’t have kids and what my mother would say. I pressed 1, mentally crossing my fingers I wouldn’t be called to volunteer. That evening a voicemail message told me to report to Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn Friday morning for my 12-hour shift. I was in shock. I played the message for my roommates and they howled with laughter, especially when the awkward automated voice said “12-hour shift.” At this point, I didn’t know these calls were only being made to city workers.

The next day I made my way to Clara Barton. I knew it was the right thing to do, and honestly, feared I might get in trouble if I didn’t show (the message was unambiguously in the imperative). There were about 15 of us that day — an industrious bunch — and we got to work unpacking the large bins that had been stored at the school for years for an event like this. They were filled with instructional videos and books, forms, walkie-talkies, flashlights, notepads, signage, batteries, tape, markers, pens, and more. Along with the three other teachers in the group, I drooled over this abundance of brand-new school supplies — particularly the oodles of Post-It brand poster paper (with the sticky back!) that every teacher knows cost 30 bucks a pop. Our schools might stop just short of putting campus safety in charge of supplies, but apparently the city’s Office of Emergency Management had plenty to go around.

We were to be an evacuation center: a place for evacuees to check in before heading to a “satellite” hurricane shelter. I ended up with the job of entering information on the website OEM uses to keep track of its staff and evacuees. By now I knew of course, that only city employees had been asked to volunteer. I wondered why there were so few teachers — most people were from the Human Resources Administration. Eventually I heard back from the teacher friends I had texted. Many of them had been contacted; they had all said no. Two were away, the rest were just not interested. I didn’t get the sense that anyone had refused out of spite for the Department of Education or the city; it seemed more that they weren’t keen on spending a hurricane working at a shelter.

I liked my computer-based job because it involved sitting in an office and typing quickly — both of which made me feel official. Around 6 p.m., the school’s custodian came in and yelled for everyone to stop; we were being shut down. There was a collective sense of disappointment: all that work for nothing?

We went home. The next morning I got another call asking me to report to the center. When I arrived it was as if the previous day had never happened. I didn’t recognize any of the volunteers (there were now more like 40). Eventually I did find two of the people from the day before. The atmosphere was noticeably busier. I noticed a guy intently opening and charging walkie-talkies, which struck me as strange since we had done that the day before. An hour later someone found the walkie-talkies we had unpacked, charged and labeled the day before.

I soon resumed my position at the computer and began registering staff and recording time in and out. It turned out this was an important job since, rumor had it, we were to be paid for our time! I was doubtful that this could be true, but one of my co-volunteers was convinced (and ready to work through the night and the next day — she had credit card debt to pay off). I learned that the second day’s much larger group was attributable to the latest round of messages, which emphasized compensation. There were still very few volunteers from the DOE — perhaps their faith in the city’s credibility was a bit low? I’m not Bloomberg’s biggest fan — but I was impressed that the city was claiming they would pay us (then again, I thought of my grandmother’s saying, “Promises are free”).

Around 6 p.m. I left, before the end of my 12-hour shift, as I had not brought supplies to stay overnight, and I was afraid of not being able to get home later. I said goodbye and made my way home in the drizzle, glad to have done a mitzvah.

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