And the first shall come first

November 8, 2012

Sandy Boyer, the co-host of Radio Free Eireann on WBAI, explains what the power outages after Hurricane Sandy tell us about rich and poor in New York City.

HURRICANE SANDY struck New York City, and hundreds of thousands of people lost their electricity. When you got your power back has depended not just on where you live, but on how wealthy you are. The richer you are, the sooner your power has been likely to come back.

Perhaps inevitably, the first priority for the mayor and the utility Consolidated Edison was to get Manhattan back up. Manhattan is New York City's economic hub. Millions of people work in its offices, financial houses and service industries. It's home to multinational corporations, banks, world-famous department stores and the stock exchange. City and state government offices are still centered in Manhattan.

Manhattan is also home to New York City's mega-rich. The wealthiest 20 percent of Manhattanites take home at least $391,022 a year, more than 40 times what the lowest 20 percent earn. Manhattan's income gap is surpassed by only a few developing countries like Namibia and Sierra Leone.

By Saturday, November 3, less than than a week after the hurricane hit, the media were joyfully reporting that Manhattan had power.

Public housing complexes on the Lower East Side are still without power
Public housing complexes on the Lower East Side are still without power

But some people in Manhattan still can't share the joy as this article was being written on Wednesday. People in the vast complex of public housing projects that stretch for nearly a mile-and-a-half along the East River from 14th Street to Delancey Street are still living in the dark. Many have no heat or hot water, and the elevators in the 12-story buildings can't work without electricity.

At the Baruch Houses, near the Williamsburg Bridge, neighbors helped an older woman down numerous flights of stairs because she was feeling ill. After an ambulance emergency worker gave her oxygen, they helped her back up to her apartment.

People gathered around fire hydrants outside their buildings to collect water they carried up the stairs with buckets, sometimes just to flush a toilet. Precious Anderson lives on the 12th floor and her mother has asthma, so Precious has to carry everything up and down for her.

Shanell Adorno told World Magazine he came across an elderly woman carrying water up the stairs. He asked what floor she lived on. "She didn't speak English," said Adorno. "I'm like '10? Let's go!' "

Without refrigeration, food soon spoiled. People who rely on food stamps can't buy anything to replace it because stores are unable to process their EBT cards when they have no electricity.

Like the people along the East River in Manhattan, people in the Red Hook Houses in Brooklyn have no electricity. But they know that just a few blocks away, in the gentrifying parts of the Red Hook neighborhood, the power is on. The monster Ikea furniture store, located right on New York Harbor in Red Hook, is wide open for business.

Mario Davila who is in a wheelchair and lives on the third floor, has eased his way downstairs for cigarettes and food from Meals on Wheels, a step at a time, one hand on the railing and one on his chair, and then waited for his brother to help him crawl back up.

People have to lug plastic jugs of water up dark stairs, with flashlights in their teeth. Someone released water from a pump down the stairs to alleviate the stench, and the Red Hook tenants were afraid it would freeze as the temperatures drop.

When it gets dark, people lock themselves in their apartments with candles and flashlights because they're afraid of being robbed. Mareln Mieles told The New York Daily News: "Make sure you're upstairs before dark. Don't answer to anyone--no matter whether they say police. We do not answer our doors."

The people who live in New York public housing are predominantly African American. There are also growing numbers of Latinos and Asians, and there are still a few white families left. Almost half (49.8 percent) of public housing tenants are living in poverty according to the Community Service Society of New York.

IN THE so-called "outer boroughs" of Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx and Staten Island, a different group of people has been living without electricity. They are white working class families, mostly Irish and Italian. They tend to be cops, fireman and skilled construction workers.

Many live in close-knit, compact, communities like the Rockaways, New Dorp, Howard Beach, Broad Channel, Breezy Point and Gerritsen Beach. Like the public housing tenants, they are largely ignored by the mainstream media until they're hit by a disaster.

Power outages are nothing new in Brooklyn's Gerritsen Beach. Dennis Olsen told The Huffington Post, "It's been going on for at least 20, 25 years. ConEd doesn't do the job it's supposed to do for this neighborhood. It seems like Gerritsen Beach is the last neighborhood on Earth. As far as City Hall goes, this neighborhood doesn't exist."

His neighbor Kenny Cardone, was keeping his house warm by boiling pots of water on the stove: "It feels like I'm living in 1812, lighting it with a match, the old-fashioned way."

In the Rockaways in Queens, sometimes called, "The Irish Rivera," 75 percent of the households were still without power six days after the hurricane hit. Monique Arkward told the New York Times, "We're living like cavemen. It's like we're forgotten. It's like they say, 'Okay, when we get to them, we'll get to them.'"

Nora McDermott said, "It's all about Manhattan. It was unbelievable, to see Manhattan get power. Was I surprised they got it quicker? Not really. But I was like, 'Damn.'"

When New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg made an unannounced visit to the Rockaways his security detail had to hold people back. described how a woman shouted from the crowd, "When are we gonna get some f--king help?" A news crew from NY1 caught on camera a man shouting, "There's old ladies in my building that don't got nothing."

Irish Central quoted New York Public Advocate Bill de Blasio as saying, "I spoke to many people [in the Rockaways] who were worried, frustrated and cold. There's no power there, and temperatures are dropping. Even those who have generators are having a hard time getting fuel."

As this is being written, New Yorkers are waiting for a Nor'easter to hit. James Alexander from the Rockaways told Huffington Post: "We're petrified. It's like a sequel to a horror movie. Here we are, nine days later--freezing, no electricity, no nothing, waiting for another storm."

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