The storm is still taking a toll

November 14, 2012

Some of the city's most vulnerable residents have been abandoned as they struggle to deal with the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, reports Gary Lapon.

TENS OF thousands of people in New York and New Jersey remain displaced or stuck in their homes without power, heat or water fully two weeks after Hurricane Sandy ripped through the Eastern Seaboard.

Even as Manhattan gears up for the holiday tourism rush that begins in the coming weeks, the government relief effort continues to fall woefully short of what's needed in some of the city's poorest, hardest-hit areas.

Two weeks later, and still without power

Thousands of residents of New York City public housing are still without power, heat or hot water. Public-housing inhabitants make up half of those in New York City without these basic services, according to the New York Daily News. Residents have been catching colds and falling ill due to the lack of heat, and anger is mounting at the lack of response from the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA).

Much of the city's public housing consists of high rises, and some exceed 20 stories. This has left residents on upper floors, including the elderly and/or disabled, stuck without any assistance or even information from city, state or federal relief agencies. While Occupy Sandy and other community organizations have worked to fill the gap by bringing food, water, blankets and even medical care to public-housing residents, these efforts have not been enough to meet the overwhelming need.

A homeless man left stranded by Hurricane Sandy
A homeless man left stranded by Hurricane Sandy

After some long overdue media coverage and a petition demanding NYCHA address the power outages, NYCHA announced November 11 that it would provide rent credits to tenants in January 2013, although residents will still be required to pay full rent until then.

Some residents worry that the city will use the storm as a pretext to eliminate public housing, continuing the pattern of gentrification and displacement of the city's poorest residents. In many neighborhoods, public-housing units are islands of low-cost housing surrounded by apartments only the wealthy can afford, and developers would no doubt jump at the chance to replace these projects with luxury complexes.

The city has left water to fester for days in the basements of public housing units, according to the Daily News. "[Red Hook residents] worried that as more days pass, the damage caused by Sandy will become irreparable," reports New York 1. "They're going to knock down those tall projects over there because their foundation is bad," said one area resident.

This fear is well founded. In New Orleans, the Hurricane Katrina disaster was used as an excuse to destroy large amounts of public housing, replacing it with "mixed-income" housing rather than new public units. Years later, many public-housing residents remained displaced.

More than enough vacant housing

In addition to makeshift camps, FEMA has put thousands of people in hotels, and New York City is currently working with real-estate moguls in an attempt to work out a system to temporarily house displaced residents in vacant apartments.

It is still unclear what will be done with the tens of thousands of displaced residents in New York and New Jersey. While the city has made noises about a "shortage" of vacant apartments to house the displaced, the scarcity has nothing to do with a lack of space.

A recent survey by Picture the Homeless found that New York City currently has more than 3,500 vacant buildings, enough to house nearly 72,000 people as well as enough vacant lots that if developed could house another 128,000.

In some cases, apartments are left vacant in wealthy neighborhoods in order to restrict supply and drive up prices in a city where the priciest condos go for almost $100 million.

Cost is another barrier: FEMA's $1,800 per month allotment for housing assistance to the displaced is not nearly enough to cover rent in Manhattan, where the average rent is $3,418 per month.

Atrocious conditions in a FEMA shelter

An investigative report by Bill Bowman and Stephen Edelson for the Asbury Park Press revealed horrific conditions inside a FEMA shelter in Oceanport, N.J. According to reports, evacuees spent the night in sparse tents that did not provide protection from freezing temperatures during the November 7 winter storm that followed in Sandy's footsteps.

"At [Pine Belt], the Red Cross made an announcement that they were sending us to permanent structures up here that had just been redone, that had washing machines and hot showers and steady electric, and they sent us to this tent city," said Brian Sotelo, a resident of the shelter ironically called Camp Freedom. "We got [expletive]."

FEMA has barred the media from the camp, and when evacuees attempted to complain about conditions, wireless Internet access was turned off, and residents were prohibited from charging cell phones. Sotelo continued:

My 6-year-old daughter Angie was a premie and has a problem regulating her body temperature. Until 11 p.m. Wednesday, they had no medical personnel at all here, not even a nurse. After everyone started complaining, and they found out we were contacting the press, they brought people in. Every time we plugged in an iPhone or something, the cops would come and unplug them. Yet when they moved us in, they laid out cable on the table, and the electricians told us they were setting up charging stations. But suddenly there wasn't enough power.

Evacuee Ashley Sabol told Reuters that when she arrived at the FEMA camp last on the night of the winter storm, she was given only one blanket. "There was no heat that night, and as temperatures dropped to freezing, people could start to see their breath," she said. Reuters reported that "the gusts of wind blew snow and slush onto Sabol's face as her cot was near the open tent flaps. She shivered. Her hands turned purple."

Men outnumbered women--and according to Reuters, "the women said it was impossible not to notice the leering of some men."

While Sotelo likened conditions in the shelter to "being [in] prison," New York state is considering housing some of the 40,000 made homeless by Hurricane Sandy in an actual prison--Staten Island's Arthur Kill Correctional Facility, which was recently closed.

"I lost everything, but I still have my pride," said 44-year-old Wally Martinez. "We don't have to stay in a prison. My brother was once in that very prison, and my mother used to visit him regularly. She used to tell me how miserable he looked and how filthy and disgusting that prison was."

The system of mass incarceration is one of the few public institutions to receive funding increases in recent decades while funding for public housing and social services has been cut, so this outrage should come as little surprise.

The loss of community resources

Hurricane Sandy destroyed some of the few resources available for two of New York's most vulnerable and marginalized groups: homeless LGBT youth and immigrant day laborers.

The hurricane destroyed the Ali Forney Center's drop-in center, which provides housing assistance, HIV testing, medical and mental health care and other basic services to homeless LGBT youth. They have moved into a temporary space at the LGBT Center. According to Executive Director Carl Siciliano:

Everything was destroyed and the space is uninhabitable...This is a terrible tragedy for the homeless LGBT youth we serve there. This space was dedicated to our most vulnerable kids, the thousands stranded on the streets without shelter, and was a place where they received food, showers, clothing, medical care, HIV testing and treatment, and mental health and substance abuse services. Basically a lifeline for LGBT kids whose lives are in danger.

The hurricane accomplished some of what Mayor Bloomberg had attempted last spring before being stopped by opposition from activists and the City Council. In his budget proposal last year, Bloomberg proposed $7 million in cuts to funding for homeless LGBT youth, including the elimination of 160 of the 250 beds in youth shelters.

Personally, that cut would've been chump change for the billionaire mayor--less than 0.03 percent of his fortune of $25 billion.

Immigrant day laborers also lost a vital resource to Sandy. The storm uprooted the "Bay Parkway Community Job Center, New York City's only center for day laborers, and moved it a couple hundred feet inland from the Bensonhurst shore, cracking one of its walls in the process," according to In These Times. Police have denied day laborers access to the center.

The center provided job protection for day laborers, such as requiring contractors to guarantee an eight-hour day with lunch and minimum pay of $120. According to In These Times:

Since the NYPD's decision to deny entry to the area, workers have been forced to go back to street corners, where they are sometimes given up to 12 hours of work for as little as $90 and forced to buy their own lunches. Wage theft is also a common practice with the workers when they are not being hired under the stewardship of the center, which additionally provides safety and legal trainings.

Despite this loss, workers from the center have organized to participate in relief efforts, putting their skills to use in assisting those impacted by the hurricane.

Warped priorities revealed

One story from earlier this month highlighted the warped priorities of governments that put profits and the needs of the wealthy before those of the working-class and poor majority. According to Bloomberg Businessweek:

As superstorm Sandy flooded Atlantic City, N.J., one area was shielded from damage by dunes constructed at taxpayer expense: casinos and other beachfront businesses and homes. Nearby, another set of residents didn't get government-paid storm defense. In one of the city's poorest neighborhoods, water from Absecon Inlet filled the streets, knocking down doors, sloshing into bedrooms, destroying furniture and leaving residents wondering if they would drown.

While Atlantic City casinos rake in billions in revenue each year, about one in four city residents live in poverty, two-and-a-half times the statewide rate. City, state and federal spending to build up sand dunes and reconstruct beaches in order to protect the casinos and other "valuable" oceanfront property amounts to some $40 million in recent years.

In 1996, "the [Army Corps of Engineers] called...for building about 1,600 feet of bulkhead in two sections along the inlet," where many of the city's poor, disproportionately Black and Latino residents live. Sixteen years later, the city's poor were left to face Sandy's wrath--unprotected.

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