Staten Island after the storm

Alex Tronolone speaks with two Staten Island residents about the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy and the ongoing effort to get relief to those who need it.

Debris piled outside storm-damaged homes on Staten Island (John De Guzmán)Debris piled outside storm-damaged homes on Staten Island (John De Guzmán)

WHILE MUCH of the rest of New York City returns to normal, the devastation on Staten Island is still not fully assessed.

The storm surge from Hurricane Sandy smashed into the south and east shores of the island, which are its most densely populated areas. Entire communities were washed away by the waves, and the official death count of 23 is universally snorted at by Staten Islanders. Nearly everyone I spoke with thought the real toll is two, three or four times greater.

Power was returning to those lucky enough to have their homes—though as of Monday, the local newspaper was still reporting 19,000 without electricity.

Staten Island busses resumed earlier this week, allowing Islanders a way into Manhattan and other boroughs. The Staten Island Ferry, the primary mode of transportation for most commuters on the island (60,000 a day), didn’t resume service until Saturday. City workers, who weren’t given time off by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, will be forced to used accumulated vacation time, if they have it. “I may even owe days when I go back,” said one resident who works in the City Clerk’s office.

Staten Islanders have risen to the challenge of the storm, overwhelming donation centers with supplies and volunteers. What have been lacking, residents say, are the resources only governments can mobilize—most especially housing.

Below are interviews with residents who describe what happened during the storm, the conditions on Staten Island now, and the people’s relief efforts.

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Maeanne Landgraf, a 27-year-old event planner

ON MONDAY morning at 4 a.m., I left the house during the beginning stages of the storm because our friend went into labor. Their family lost everything—one person died, and they had a baby girl in the middle of this hurricane. We spent a few hours at Staten Island University Hospital North and left to avoid getting caught in Flood Zone A. The hospital was doing a great job and had everything under control.

When I got home, my fiancé was in a tremendous amount of pain so we went to the emergency room at Staten Island University South. He was admitted with pancreatitis. We spent all of Monday in the hospital. The weather got crazy at around 4 p.m. on Monday. I relocated my car twice due to rising water from the shore, and it still got water damage, even though it wasn't in Zone A.

The hospital was complete madness. At one point during the evening, the wind and rain started breaking through the sides of the windows and coming into the room. I had to complain several times before getting assistance. They sent in a maintenance crew, which had no choice but to duct-tape the windows. I complained and caused enough of a scene that they moved us to a new single room. They left the other patient in the room with the wind, the rain leaking in and a crazy loud noise due to the duct tape.

The hospital lost electricity and, I think, a backup generator as well. It happened twice, but it came on within two minutes. But considering the circumstances, they did a pretty good job.

In the meantime, my aunt called to tell me that someone close to us was trapped in their house and had to break through walls—going from room to room to room—in order to save themselves and seven others from drowning. When they called 911, there was no response. And this was happening to several families! They called everyone they could for help, including the borough president.

Facebook was flooded with people begging for anyone to help rescue their family members. Many who were 70 or 80 years old couldn't evacuate even if they wanted to. So Staten Islanders took it into their own hands. At some point, my uncle took his truck and a jet ski and attempted to get people out, but there were live electrical wires in the water, electrocuting people.

Everyone lost electricity, but we were in the hospital watching the news. There was absolutely zero coverage about Staten Island. The first person I noticed helping was City Council member James Oddo. He put up a Facebook status asking for Staten Islanders to forward him addresses of people trapped so he could get them out. People started begging him to get their mother or their grandparents.

During the next few hours, Oddo, Staten Islanders and eventually emergency responders acquired kayaks, small speedboats and whatever else they could to rescue their family members. Everyone was telling 911, “We know they were in Zone A. We know they didn't evacuate. They made a mistake! That doesn't mean people deserve to drown and die!”

And some of the people weren't even considered Zone A. They were writing on Facebook to please get their family members and following it up with, "They are not in Zone A." It was complete and utter madness, and there seemed to be no response. I started calling friends who were on the border of Zone A and started begging them to get their family out of the house because I knew people who were close to drowning in a house only a couple of blocks away.

When everything ended, the shoreline of Staten Island was like a mini-war zone. Complete destruction. People were trapped on their roofs waiting for help, people were dying, family members were begging for help, and there was not one piece of coverage on the news aside from the tanker that crawled up onto the beach near the ferry. I kept watching the news, waiting to see if they'd show one glimpse of people getting rescued on Staten Island, and there was NOTHING. And that continued for days.

I’m a proud resident of Staten Island. And if anyone asked me why, I'd tell them to take a walk down Cedar Grove or Midland Avenue. People are cold, dirty, tired and hungry. They lost their homes and friends, family members and pets. And these people are out on the streets, cleaning up and rebuilding. And on top of it, they are not alone.

We started immediately. My first night down on Midland Avenue was to help transport blankets, coats, water, diapers, baby food and other items to the beaches. It was dark, and people were pretty much in the house, so my Aunt Jennifer Rivera started texting me addresses of people in the area who needed supplies, and we dropped them off to their doorsteps. I know Red Cross finally got there because the neighbors told us they went around with blankets earlier. But it was so empty that I couldn't really tell you who was out there helping.

The most amazing sights were the makeshift donation centers created by residents in their front yards. One in New Dorp Beach had a small generator, a bunch of clothes, soup and hot beverages. The next night we drove back down with more baby items, and when we couldn't find people to give stuff to, we donated the baby food to an American Red Cross van. (Shouldn't they have that?)

What I witnessed that night was very interesting as well. On one side of Midland Avenue were several American Red Cross vans, and the other side had a makeshift donation center. The community surrounded the makeshift donation/food location and not one person was in front of the American Red Cross vans.

Staten Island worked quickly to help its own. The amount of donations received by Staten Island residents is out of control. Half the time you can't find anyone to take everything! We have a few complications: First, there's no gas. And where there is gas, it’s hysteria—complete survival mode. So it's been hard getting the donations out to people.

My advice is, if you want to help, fill up your gas tank, and either get to the beach to help clean up, or go to an already established donation center and help them move materials. It's getting cold, and these people need to get this all cleaned up before it starts snowing.

The other complication is that these families lost everything and have nowhere to put all the donations. I dropped about eight bags of clothes off last night in a basement where people were also sleeping. There is no room. They need places to go. Today we heard so many people say they have to find an apartment, especially the people who rented. I'm assuming that's because they don't want to go to the shelters.

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Sara Frank, a 26-year-old music teacher and bartender

SINCE THE hurricane hit, I have seen the affected areas, and I’ve seen residents of Staten Island who weren’t affected coming together to lend a hand, donating food and water, bringing coffee, helping clear out homes, doing anything and everything. The response from countless strangers has been unbelievably amazing. I myself have been personally denied from various donation points and shelters because they had too much food and water!

First responders, National Guard, sanitation, fire fighters, police and EMS workers have been saving people and helping the island since day one. They have been nonstop, running around helping the community. Government and state officials have been missing in action up until recently, which has left some anger in some folks. I have recently seen many Red Cross trucks. The most affected areas were hard to get to because of all the contaminated water surrounding houses, but there is a great response now.

The current situation is still pretty bad. Midland Beach and South Beach were hit really hard. The water finally receded Wednesday and Thursday, but houses were soaking in water and chemicals and gasoline for a long time. The smell in these areas is unreal. Great Kills, Tottenville, Crescent Beach, many South Shore low-lying areas are still in rough shape with boats all around the neighborhood.

I think the death toll could be in the hundreds. Unfortunately, the more they clean, and the more areas become safe to walk around in, they are finding more and more death. I think it will double the official count of 23 dead, but I hope I am very wrong.

Staten Island needs volunteers to come down and help clean houses and streets; we need hands to help. Staten Island also really needs government and local officials to explain to us how to go about the cleaning process. No one has taken the time to tell us what to avoid and how to clean certain items and when an item isn't worth cleaning. We know salt water and metal do not mix but as far as how to clean, when to clean and with what is something we’re not sure of and are learning as we go. It would be a big help if we had more knowledge.

I would like to see the community continue to work together for weeks to come, for us to be able to rebuild in some areas and for the people in these evacuated areas to have shelter until things get sorted out. I believe that everyone (including my own mother) should have evacuated once they learned they were in Zone A. Or at least to make sure children and the elderly were evacuated if you insisted on staying to watch your house in case of a burglary. I think we should have had a more protective system near the beach decades ago as well.

I’m thinking things won't be cleared out and rebuilt until two or three years from now. There’s a lot of work to be done. Every work site needs mask, gloves, heavy-duty garbage bags, shovels, carpet-removing tools, tack hammers, propane heaters, work suits, water, batteries, blankets, cleaning supplies. All along Midland Beach, South Beach, New Dorp, Great Kills and the South Shore, they need these items. The website statenisland.recovers.org is great for keeping up to date about what’s needed and where people will be to clean.