Hurricane Sandy is New York’s Katrina: Floods, fear, and FEMA failures

By Nick Pinto, Nov 21 2012.  Source: The Village Voice

The morning after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, many people woke up to a more or less normal day. People switched on their lights and radios, turned up their heat against the morning chill, took a hot shower, and met up with friends at a diner to share stories about how they spent the night: board games and hot chocolate, NY1 on in the background.

Other parts of the city were hammered. Power was out in huge swaths. Flooded tunnels cut off whole regions from the rest of the city. In Lower Manhattan, Red Hook, Coney Island, the Rockaways, and much of Staten Island, everything from electricity to heat to potable water was in short supply. Hospitals were being evacuated after power failures. Bodies drowned in the storm surge were being recovered. The news media began to show the first images of Breezy Point, burned to the ground, and houses up and down the coast torn apart by wind and water.

In the coming days, as power and subway service were restored to more of the city, it became easy for many New Yorkers to forget about the hurricane entirely. Money was flooding into the Red Cross from across the country. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was on the scene. Everything was going to be all right.

But just a short distance from the areas where normalcy was restored or never left, in the neighborhoods most affected by storm, nothing felt all right.

As temperatures dropped toward freezing two weeks after the storm, residents in public-housing apartments from Red Hook to the Lower East Side to Rockaway were still without power, water, and heat. Displaced homeowners surveyed the wreckage of their lives and wondered how they’d ever build back. And almost everywhere, the vaunted presence of FEMA and the Red Cross was next to invisible. Weeks after the storm, many New Yorkers in storm-damaged neighborhoods had yet to see any sort of institutional relief at all.

As much of the rest of New York returned to business as usual, those in the affected areas began to wonder where the help was. Three days after Sandy, with the basements of the Red Hook Houses still flooded and apartments still without light, heat, or working plumbing, resident Toni Khadijah James summed up the neighborhood’s sense of isolation.

“This is our Katrina.”

At the time, James’s words seemed like an overstatement. Katrina displaced upwards of 1 million people and wreaked an estimated $150 billion in damages. Destructive as it was, Sandy didn’t come close to that.

But as the days stretched into weeks and thousands of people continued to live without the basic necessities, as it became clear that the storm had only exacerbated and laid bare the fissures of inequality that already riddled New York, James’s analogy began to feel more apt. Just as in New Orleans, in the absence of any timely response from the Red Cross or government agencies, neighbors and grassroots volunteer networks tried to fill the void. New Yorkers did it for themselves as best as they could, checking on the homebound, standing watch, hauling supplies from borough to borough and up pitch-black housing-tower stairwells. It was better than nothing. It was better than the plodding machinery of the disaster-relief industry. It wasn’t good enough. Weeks after the storm, there were still New Yorkers living in the cold, in the dark, without food or medicine, who had received no help or human contact at all.

So: This is our Katrina.

Nine days after Sandy, the night the nor’easter hits New York, the Rockaways are quiet. Snow blankets the streets, and visibility is at a minimum.

FEMA has shuttered its emergency-response stations throughout the city and withdrawn its disaster-recovery personnel, citing, to the disbelief of stranded residents, inclement weather.

The mayor has ordered another evacuation, but with no power for radios or television, many people on the peninsula don’t know it. Even if they did, it’s not clear how they’d leave. Public transit isn’t running normally, and those who had functioning cars 10 days ago probably don’t now; seawater has totaled them. In the next few days, advertisements for commercial car-junking services will start popping up on telephone poles.

So the streets are empty, but the Rockaways aren’t. Behind closed doors, in cold, dark rooms, people are hunkered down. Neighbors are checking on one another, and volunteer groups are beginning to get food, water, and warm clothes to the people who need them. But in the absence of transportation, and with most of the medical clinics and pharmacies on the peninsula closed, a growing number of people are in need of medication.

That’s why Nastaran Mohit, a 30-year-old labor organizer, is on the road tonight, piloting her SUV down snowy streets still piled high with wreckage and displaced beach sand, making deliveries of badly needed medicine. Mohit has no medical credentials or experience, but she’s running Occupy Sandy’s medical team, a group of doctors, nurses, and untrained volunteers trying to bring drugs and treatment to patients abandoned after the hurricane shuttered doctors’ offices, clinics, and pharmacies.

As she drives, Mohit riffles through a disorganized binder packed full with wrinkled forms, names, and needs, the results of Occupy Sandy’s patchy medical-needs census, begun a week after Sandy hit but still ongoing.

“We’re doing the government’s job right now, surveying people’s needs,” Mohit says. “For the most part, we’re seeing a lot of chronic medical conditions: asthma. Diabetes. High blood pressure. In some neighborhoods, we have a lot of HIV/AIDS patients and a lot of methadone users. We need HIV meds. We definitely need a lot of psych meds. That’s a big one.”

Mohit doesn’t really want to be on the road in the storm, but she promised a homebound resident an albuterol delivery before the day is out, so she’s still going. She makes the drop-off on a dark stretch of Beach 117th Street, then swings around for a last pass at the only open pharmacy. Unfortunately, the pharmacist tells Mohit, her paperwork doesn’t contain some information needed to fill the script. Mohit nods, exhausted. She’ll deal with it tomorrow. She heads back to her improvised headquarters, a high-ceilinged storefront that was, until the storm, a fur shop. During the day, volunteer doctors and nurses see patients in a curtained-off corner, and an army of untrained census takers comes and goes, adding to the ever-growing list of isolated people in need of drugs and medical care. At this hour, with the snow falling and the nor’easter’s tide about to crest, the makeshift clinic is empty, and Mohit is alone in the space, standing under the collection of coats and stoles that still hangs from the pressed-tin ceiling.

“It’s a lot,” she says, sighing. “Because it’s not just the storm. Long before Sandy, Far Rockaway was devastated by a different kind of hurricane, called poverty. But it’s really frustrating. We need doctors and nurses and social workers and psychologists and EMTs. We’re doing our best to fill the gap, but we need a lot of help.”

Less than a mile away from the Rockaways as the crow flies, just across the Marine Parkway Bridge, the institutional disaster responders are massing at Floyd Bennett Field. FEMA and the National Guard have set up a headquarters at the former airfield, and upwards of 150 ambulances and EMT crews are gathered from across the country.

In the first rush after the storm, these emergency medical responders were frantically busy with the evacuation of NYU Langone and Bellevue, transporting patients out of the damaged hospitals to safer facilities.

But after that burst of activity, the orders suddenly stopped coming. EMT crews idled for days on end, waiting for direction, growing increasingly exasperated as the hours and days ticked by.

A private recovery worker providing transport and logistical support to the first responders told the Voice about receiving a request for blankets and sleeping bags needed at Floyd Bennett Field. He was confused­wasn’t that the FEMA headquarters? Shouldn’t goods like that be going out to the city?

“I called my contact back for clarification,” the logistics worker tells the Voice. “He says to me: ‘We’re firefighters and EMTs and nurses. We’ve been here for days, and they haven’t let us off the compound, they haven’t given us marching orders, they haven’t even given us our equipment. We’ve been sleeping on plastic chairs since we got here.’”

Through his work with other relief operations, the logistics worker knew there was acute need just down the road for medical checks, prescriptions, and other work for which the medical workers would be perfectly suited.

“I asked, ‘Why haven’t you been sent out?’” he says. “Then he just lays the story on me, tells me about all the personnel they have out there, more than 100 ambulances, two paramedics per ambulance, everybody waiting for marching orders.”

Horrified, the logistical worker offered to help transport them to a place where they could be useful.

“He said they couldn’t do it because FEMA had them all under contract, and they couldn’t go out without FEMA’s say-so. They were so frustrated. They came all this way, and now they’re not going anywhere, and there’s something in their contract telling them they can’t even throw up their arms and say ‘Fuck it’ and go into the city and do good.”

Trying to get an official explanation for the idle EMTs only reveals further interagency confusion. A FEMA spokesperson told the Voice the federal agency was only at Floyd Bennett Field in a support capacity, and EMTs were under the direction of the state and city offices of emergency management. The city OEM didn’t return requests for comment. A spokesperson for the state OEM said the EMTs had federal contracts and directed inquiries back to FEMA.

Geographically speaking, Cross Bay Boulevard roughly bisects the Rockaway Peninsula. But the socioeconomic terrain of the Rockaways makes geography almost irrelevant. West of the midpoint, in the higher-numbered streets, homes are bigger and residents more affluent. Public-housing projects and single-room-occupancy apartment buildings in the lower-numbered blocks weight the population heavily to the east. Three-quarters of the population of the Rockaways lives east of Cross Bay Boulevard, including 80 percent of the children and two-thirds of the senior citizens living alone.

A week after the storm, the city had deployed three “warming buses” to the peninsula and one emergency-distribution service center, and designated two sites where emergency buses would pick up residents and take them to a shelter. None of this infrastructure was located on the eastern half of the peninsula, where the overwhelming majority of the need was.

When I ask the director of a nonprofit with close ties to Far Rockaway whether she thinks the aid isn’t making it to the poor minority population on the periphery because of institutional racism or just disorganization and the challenges of infrastructure and geography, she snorts: “Both. It’s the same thing.”

By the second weekend after the storm, the picture in the Rockaways is beginning to change. The institutional responders are finally beginning to show up in numbers, even if they still have to ask the volunteer groups who preceded them what’s going on and how they can help. Medical teams from Floyd Bennett Field have crossed the bridge and are out in the neighborhoods.

Volunteers and donated supplies are flooding into the Rockaways. Religious groups, for-profit recovery companies, Williamsburg kids in skinny jeans and inappropriate shoes, thousands of vehicles and people are pouring onto the peninsula in numbers that choke the Cross Bay Boulevard and Marine Parkway bridges, backing up traffic for hours.

But still, the huge discrepancies in distribution of all these resources persist. The overwhelming bulk of this flood of well-meaning people doesn’t make it deep into the Rockaways at all. The plaza at the foot of the Cross Bay Bridge is transformed into a sort of relief carnival. Loud music blasts from big sound systems run off almost equally noisy generators. Verizon and T-Mobile have dispatched heavily branded trailers where people can charge their phones. Food trucks hawk their wares. Volunteers out for the weekend talk and mingle, bouncing their heads to the music.

At the northern end of the plaza, a big group from the Iglesia ni Cristo, a Philippines-based church, has its own sound system running. Church members in matching T-shirts are clambering in the trees to hang multiple banners bearing the church’s insignia.

Moses Kadusale, the senior church member on-site, tells me the group is giving away food and blankets today as part of a regional recovery tour, running similar events in parts of New Jersey and Staten Island before culminating 10 days later in Times Square.

“We’re going to have even more people than this for the one in Times Square!” Kadusale says, beaming, as he gestures at the scores of church members who have descended on the plaza.

Huh. Times Square?

“There will be a lot of people in need in Times Square, I’m certain of it,” Kadusale assures me. “Everywhere we go, we’re inviting them.”

Across the street, a small group of Sikhs standing over trays of hot Punjabi food stare in polite bafflement at the Iglesia ni Cristo banners. The church arrived first today, taking over the spot where members of New York’s Sikh community have headquartered their Rockaways recovery operation for weeks.

In the first days after Sandy hit, one of the most visible­indeed, one of the only­outside presences in the Rockaways came from volunteers from gurudwaras in Queens operating under the umbrella of United Sikhs. Ranjit Singh, who runs an air-conditioning business in Long Island City, estimates his group has served about 15,000 hot vegetarian meals in the Rockaways since the hurricane.

Serving food to strangers has been central to Sikh identity all the way back to the 15th century, when Guru Nanak challenged caste conventions by asking aspiring followers from all backgrounds to eat together before he would agree to teach them. Today, two gurudwaras in Richmond Hill serve about 5,000 meals every week.

Of course, there’s another aspect to the Sikhs’ recovery effort here. It’s not lost on Singh that the sight of bearded, turbaned men being among the first and most consistent people to help a battered community has special significance in New York City.

“Things have been difficult since September 11,” Singh says. “Every time something happens, we get scared. After the massacre in Wisconsin, I was thinking about my route home. But that’s starting to change. Maybe people see this and will talk to each other: ‘Oh, the Sikhs came first.’”

Still, the Sikh approach in the Rockaways has been low-key in contrast to the circus unfolding across the street.

“It’s a different approach,” Singh says, staring. “We come, we serve, we go.”

Two miles east, the swarms of volunteers thin to nearly nothing. Outside the bleak concrete towers of Ocean Village, Tina Winston, a five-year resident of the housing complex, says conditions are still close to unlivable.

“One tower has water today,” she says. “One tower has no water. Nobody has hot water. Nobody has electric.”

The complex is privately owned, but most of the residents use HUD benefits to make rent. It was sold in November, and Winston says many of the units are empty as the new owners evict residents. Still, she says, about 300 people remain.

The bodega in the complex’s ground floor has been broken into, “but that was just people surviving,” Winston says. Worse is the violence that has escalated in the darkness left by the storm.

“Gunplay,” she says, launching into a taxonomy of recent shoot-outs. “Between the two towers.” She gestures across the street: “Hood to hood.” She gestures down the block: “Hood to hood to hood.”

In the second week after the storm, a Red Cross truck pulled up at the corner.

“But they turned people away because they said it wasn’t life or death,” Winston says.

Occupy Sandy volunteers have set up a distribution node in the housing complex’s common space. “They’re making this bearable, barely,” Winston says. “Otherwise, no one has been out here. We’re alone.”

On 112th Street, Terri Bennett is coordinating 10 crews equipped with gas-powered pumps to empty the water still standing in most of the basements nearby. Bennett is here with a handful of friends she met doing recovery work in Haiti after the earthquake. Calling themselves Respond and Rebuild, they’ve continued to work together on logistical relief in subsequent disasters, and compared with the wide-eyed tenderfoots flooding the Rockaways today, they constitute a sort of volunteer Delta Force.

Bennett and her teammates have partnered with Occupy Sandy, leveraging that group’s glut of volunteers to multiply what they’re able to do. With 100 people on the pump crews, she estimates they’ve pumped about 75 homes in the past week.

Respond and Rebuild has already brought in mold-remediation experts and other specialists to train Occupy Sandy team leaders for the next phase of recovery. Today, they’re teaching them how to strip and clean flooded basements and first floors, using a house across the street from an Occupy Sandy headquarters as a sort of model.

It’s a hard day for the owners of the home, Colleen Dalton and Jeff Vielandi, who are watching the trainees take apart their walls and haul the ruined vestiges of their life out into the yard for disposal.

Dalton is one of 12 siblings, and the house has been in her family for more than 60 years. A retired New York police officer, Dalton still can’t believe the failure of the institutional response after the storm.

“The government didn’t come,” she says. “For the first time in my life, I felt completely abandoned.” With the lights out and a minimal police presence, Dalton says she and Vielandi spent the first week after the storm scaring off would-be robbers.

“If the government can’t get to me for five days, there should be martial law, a curfew,” Dalton says. “To be an American, in 2012 . . .” She trails off. “I’m lucky I’m armed.”

Dalton has a pair of bulldogs, and in the stairwell down to her ruined basement, there’s still a poster of a specimen of her favorite breed, looking especially hangdog and emitting a mournful speech bubble: “I’ve had a RUFF day.”

Standing amid the warped and buckled floorboards of her living room, Dalton is unsparing in her critique of the institutions that failed her.

On the Red Cross: “The Red Cross stinks,” she says. “All that money, they should have been here. I don’t think anyone in my family will donate to them again.”

On the Long Island Power Authority: “LIPA has no excuse. I heard on 1010 WINS they hope to have our electricity back by Thanksgiving. So based on their track record so far, I’m trying to figure, that means what, by Christmas?”

On the state and city offices of emergency management: “Our local governments have failed us greatly. From our major loss, the gain of the volunteers and people we’ve met has been invaluable. But I’m not going to say I’m glad this happened.”

“Whatever I lost here, I gained more than I lost,” Vielandi says, choking back tears. “We went through hairy times. But these kids took my head out of my hands.”

The devastation in the Rockaways is vast, the amount of work still to be done­physical, organizational, emotional­is overwhelming. But it’s only one corner of the city, and there are many more where the storm hit just as hard. In Coney Island, Sheepshead Bay, Red Hook, and Staten Island, the problems are all slightly different. But the commonalities are striking.

On a Sunday two weeks after the storm, the New Dorp section of Staten Island still looks like it was hit by a hurricane. The tiny bungalows down in the flats are mostly ruined. On many of them, you can still see the mark­five and six feet high in places­where the storm surge crested. The streets are full of debris: a sodden couch, a door, deck lumber, the waterlogged ruins of a life piled into heavy black contractor bags waiting for the omnipresent Department of Sanitation trucks to haul them away.

On the broad grassy plain of Miller Field, a white tent glitters in the sun. White trailers cluster in the park, and the heavy trucks of the National Guard idle in orderly rows. It took more than a week after the storm, but FEMA has arrived in New Dorp.

Neighborhood residents are largely unimpressed.

“They’re in their little tents, waiting for people to come to them,” says Steve Chati, who lives in a brick single-story on Topping Street. “It’s ridiculous. You set up all the way over there, we’re supposed to come to you? Where were you for the first week? It’s offensive.”

Two blocks away, a parking lot on Cedar Grove Avenue is swarming with people. Donations are rolling in: huge boxes of hand sanitizer, toilet paper, work gloves, the ubiquitous and universally problematic loads of unsorted clothes. To one side, the staff of Rachael Ray’s television show are cooking up hot dogs and baked ziti.

This recovery station has been around, in one form or another, since the day after Sandy hit New Dorp, more than a week before the massive FEMA camp was erected on Miller Field.

It was set up by members of the Hallowed Sons, a Bay Ridge motorcycle club that crossed the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that first night to check on the family of one of the club members and never left.

In a far corner of the parking lot this Sunday, Bobby Hansen is lying on his back underneath his 2007 Harley-Davidson Sportster, working on changing a tire wrecked after he drove his bike through floodwaters and over building debris. Hansen is wearing a week’s worth of white stubble, glasses, and a soiled gray waffle tee and black jeans, with a seven-inch knife sheathed on his belt. Speaking in a slurred staccato, Hansen recalls the scene when the club first arrived.

“When we first rode in, we were like, ‘Holy shit!’” he says. “Everything was flooded. There was debris everywhere.”

By Tuesday morning, the waters had receded, and the Hallowed Sons had set up camp in the Oceanside Park, serving food and sending teams out with residents to their small, single-family homes to remove wreckage and junk out of the ruined basements and first floors. On a bedsheet they spray-painted the words “Hallowed Sons MC, Just Ask for Help.” Aside from the shell-shocked residents, they were the only people on the scene.

Some of the homes in New Dorp were completely destroyed in the storm surge; others are still standing but ruined. The Hallowed Sons kept the food coming and worked with residents to canvass the neighborhood, checking on the homebound, assessing property damage, finding out what people needed and getting it to them.

In the process, the Hallowed Sons became the de facto recovery operation in New Dorp. With no one else on the ground, volunteers from unaffected parts of Staten Island, Manhattan, and as far away as Ohio made their way to New Dorp and attached themselves to the motorcycle club.

Hansen and the other Hallowed Sons brought a biker’s swagger and a certain lawless initiative to their relief work.

After their recovery station’s food stocks were raided one night during the first week (“Mexicans,” Hansen opines), the gang suspended a warning hangman’s noose over their operation and posted Hansen, complete with his menacing Crocodile Dundee knife, to stand guard overnight next to an illegal bonfire.

When the nor’easter battered the neighborhood all over again 10 days after Sandy, residents found themselves trapped, without means of evacuation. Hansen, a 15-year veteran of the MTA, found a public bus idling on high ground.

“I told the driver, ‘You want to be fucking useful? There are people down there who need to get out of here,’” Hansen says. “I made him go down and get people to a safe place.”

Perhaps because they were literally the only recovery operation in the neighborhood, police tolerated the bike club’s presence in the park until, the following week with the nor’easter approaching, they told them they’d have to move. Unfazed, the Hallowed Sons moved across the street to a flooded-out storefront, commandeering the space over the objections of both the property owner and the cops.

They cleaned out the space and ran their operation from the storefront for several days until the landlord started to demand rent. Hansen couldn’t believe it.

“I told him, ‘I just became clairvoyant,’” Hansen recalls. “I said, ‘My two crystal balls’”­he gestures to his crotch­”‘are telling me you’re gonna regret this. Four thousand people in the neighborhood are gonna know you threw us out. You might have an accident, step on a nail or something, and when you do, you better not come to us for help.’”

After the loss of their squat, the Hallowed Sons are now running their operation from a third location, a nearby parking lot. Hansen is clearly exhausted. He’s also broke and verging on homelessness. He’s spent his unemployment checks buying supplies for New Dorp residents, and the landlord of the Bay Ridge building where he works as a super is tired of Hansen neglecting his duties in favor of hurricane relief.

But for the moment at least, Hansen is undaunted. He feels good about the work he’s doing, and it is not without its perks. “Look at this,” he says, pointing to the cell phone that will be disconnected for nonpayment in the next week. It’s a string of text messages from Lillian, a woman about 30 years younger than Hansen who lives far away and has never met him but was moved by a press account of his storm relief.

“This girl says she wants to marry me!” Hansen says with pride. But he’s more impressed with Lillian’s other token of appreciation, tendered in a currency close to Hansen’s biker heart: a photograph of herself hoisting her naked breasts in salute.

The lot where the Hallowed Sons are now set up belongs to A Very Special Place, a local nonprofit that trains and employs people with mental disabilities. A Very Special Place was devastated by the storm­the café where they employed many of their clients is shuttered, their offices down by the water are ruined, and more than 150 people dependent on the organization were totally displaced, says Diane Buglioli, the group’s head.

Where the bikers are boisterous and profane, Buglioli is staid and decorous, but she says she’s happy to have the Hallowed Sons in her lot while she begins to rebuild A Very Special Place.

“The people in this neighborhood have felt so abandoned,” she says. “For a long time, these guys were the only ones showing that anyone cared at all. In a storm like this, of course there’s an inevitable amount of chaos. But I would have thought that someone would have come down here, set up zones, started checking on people. Instead, there was a total void. If they had done that, there wouldn’t be such a bad taste in everyone’s mouth about FEMA and the Red Cross.”

Buglioli is quick to concede she’s not a disaster-relief expert. But she feels certain that something went badly wrong in the institutional response to the storm-damaged areas.

“I just hope nothing like this happens again,” she says, surveying the improvised operation that has taken over her parking lot. “I hope there will be some way, when it’s all over, for the people who went through this to voice what their experience was, what went wrong.”

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One response to “Hurricane Sandy is New York’s Katrina: Floods, fear, and FEMA failures

  1. Pingback: Hurricane Sandy is New York’s Katrina: Floods, fear, and FEMA failures « usDART

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