One victim among many more

December 5, 2012

Danny Katch talked to Rockaways resident Kizzy Parsons about the hardships she and her children have had to endure in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

HURRICANE SANDY left an estimated 40,000 people homeless in New York City. While Mayor Michael Bloomberg holds regular press conferences asserting that officials are doing everything they possibly can, the city has in fact closed down its evacuation centers and is only providing about 1,000 storm refugees with housing--in hotel rooms scattered across this immense city.

The disconnect between the wealthy politicians who congratulate each other on their handling of the storm and the reality faced by its working-class victims goes much deeper than these numbers.

Nationally, the attention of our political and media elites has moved on from Hurricane Sandy to the so-called "fiscal cliff"--a crisis manufactured by the two parties to justify making drastic cuts to social programs. Meanwhile, Sandy remains a very real crisis here in New York, where nobody knows how many are living without heat, facing the icy cliff of winter.

Kizzy Parsons is a former home health aide who lived in a pretty two-bedroom apartment in Rockaway with Kizziah and Destiny, her 10- and 1-year-old daughters. Kizzy's family isn't officially homeless because they never left their home. But her apartment--cold, dark and with mold growing up the walls and on Destiny's stroller--is uninhabitable by any measure.

Rockaway Beach Boulevard after Hurricane Sandy
Rockaway Beach Boulevard after Hurricane Sandy

The bank that foreclosed on her landlord earlier in the year has shown no interest in repairing the building. Twenty-three days after storm, Kizzy got a one-time check from FEMA for $2,900, which you might think was a lot of money until you put yourself in Kizzy's shoes. As Leni, a volunteer relief worker who is trying to help Kizzy, explained:

If you go into a hotel you're living out of one room, and you have no kitchen. You're talking about having to eat out every single meal every single day...a minimum of $60 every single day in feeding three people. Cheapest case scenario--$69 a night for a hotel room in the shittiest neighborhood in New York City, and then eating at fast food joints three meals a day.

We're still talking about $120 minimum a night and you have to launder your clothes, you have to get your kids to school, you have to pay for transportation, you have to live. So do the math. How long is that going to last?

NUMBERS ALONE don't capture Kizzy's story, which she generously shared with me:

[On the night of the storm], I did go get gas for the car, and if it got really serious, we were going to be able to leave. So once we went to go start up the car to leave, she wouldn't start, so we couldn't get out of there. We were stuck.

It was horrifying to see that water rising and rising, and you didn't know if it was going to stop. Once I saw it cover my car, that's when we started to panic. The neighbors from downstairs came up here and we just all stayed together and prayed. We watched it from the window and were like, "Oh my god." We saw boats--it was crazy. I don't ever want to experience that again.

It hurt me that I worked so hard for my car and then I didn't have it anymore. When Sandy hit, I didn't have any insurance. I canceled my insurance two weeks before Sandy because I couldn't afford it. It had lapsed twice already. I was hoping to wait to get a job and save my money to get my insurance back. I can't even do that any more.

Oh man, it was so stressful. After the storm, every time I looked out the window, I saw water. When the night came, I saw red and blue lights--and the cops weren't even passing. When the storm hit, there were flashing lights and water, so that's all I kept seeing every time I looked out the window. It was crazy.

I was crying because I worked hard for the things that I have. It hurts because I come from a family that didn't have anything. I'm the only one who had a car, a nice house, stuff like that. Anyway I've got my life--at least we're still here. That's what matters. I can probably get a job and get another place, but it wasn't easy.

My mom lives in a senior citizen building--she just got her power back about a week ago. My brothers are staying there with her, but it's just one bedroom, so I didn't want to go over there. I didn't want to go to a shelter because when my big girl was 3 years old, we ended up in a shelter, and we didn't get out until she was 4. I said I'll never go back to a shelter again, and I never ever went back. I have friends that were back four or five times.

They had stopped the programs, like Section 8 housing. So then you had to wait for them to put the program back on again in order for you to move. That meant you stayed in the shelter longer. I did get a program called Housing Stability Plus, a five-year program. I came out, I got my first apartment in the Bronx. I was there for five years. I moved from there and ended up moving here and was able to pay my own rent.

I didn't really finish school, and I always wanted to be a nurse. But because I didn't have the education, being a home health aide brought me close to that because I had to take care of people, administer medications and take their sugar. I'm the kind of person who loves to help people, so I loved working in the medical field.

Everything was okay before Sandy, too. I wasn't working, but [the kids] have a father and he gives me a little money. We had a roof over our head, lights, gas and all of that. We had a refrigerator full of food. We were fine. My daughter was going to school every day. She was doing well. She loves school.

I wasn't working. I was in a bad car accident. I was getting compensated for my lost wages. But I didn't end up going back to work. I have a dislocated disk in my back. I've been in so much pain. If I cough, I drop to the ground because that's how bad the pain is in my back.

I've just been trying to be strong with all this. It's not about me. I just want to make sure my kids are okay first and foremost. That's what I've been really trying to focus on. I was just trying to be strong about this whole situation for my girls. I don't want them to see me crying or sad. My baby, every day, she wakes up with a big smile and makes me happy--"Hi, Mommy!" That's been keeping me going.

My [older] daughter was like, "Mom I want to go, I want to go." So that's when I started looking for the hotel. I tried to call a few hotels, but nobody had rooms. Everything was full everywhere. And that's when my spirit went back down.

[My older daughter] really wanted to leave because it was too cold and she missed her TV. Her school [which re-opened three weeks after the storm] wears uniforms and because there's nothing in our area anymore, we can't do laundry--that was the reason why she didn't want to go to school.

I got the FEMA money the day before Thanksgiving, so I took the kids shopping, and we kept asking their father, "Are you going to take us out for Thanksgiving?" and he didn't tell us until that day that he wasn't coming. We was all dressed nicely and he didn't come, so we just stayed here and played games--Uno and stuff--and we just made the best of it.

Everybody was out with their family having Thanksgiving, and my kids were left here in the dark and the cold. The people next door, they got their lights so they could have their Thanksgiving. They were out there laughing--we could hear them. And they didn't knock on the door and say do you want to come over here with the kids and hang out with us? I realized that I don't have nobody but me and my kids, and I got to keep that in my head. So I'm just trying to be strong, as a mother, as a human being.

I just want to start over. Eventually I would have had to leave anyway, but now was the real deal. I cry sometime because this was my home. I have my baby here, my 1-year-old. This is what she knows.

I want to move out of Far Rockaway. That whole situation was terrifying for me. I don't ever want to experience that again. When Katrina happened, it was devastating. I wouldn't have imagined that to happen over here. And when it did, it was unbelievable--I couldn't believe that we were going through this.

I just need shelter for me and my kids--some place they can call home and just get back to their lives. It bothers my big girl. We just want our apartment back, somewhere warm and clean. I just want them to be happy.

KIZZY IS currently staying at Leni's house, and the two of them are trying navigate the complex relief bureaucracy--a process that left Leni disgusted:

If [Kizzy} can't get this done with a volunteer helping her, how are other people doing this? How are other people expected to survive this in any way that maintains their quality of life--or even half the quality of life they once had?

I get the prioritization. On a scale of 1 to 10, [Kizzy is] probably a 5 as far as the health of her, her children and their safety. But that still does not make her situation acceptable. What's terrifying to me is that there are still many people in this situation, and they're even worse off.

Nobody knows how many New Yorkers are shivering in freezing houses, dangerously relying on gas ovens for heat. We don't know how many children are in danger of developing lifelong illnesses--or being abused by a parent unable to hold it together as well as Kizzy has.

Mark Greenfield was one of the relief volunteers who first met Kizzy. He says he's come across "general situation" dozens of times, and two other times he's come across situations of a similar magnitude.

"One was a very similar situation," he says. "A family with a 1-year-old baby, unlit, without electricity, mold everywhere. I walked in and felt nauseous even with my mask. [They were] living in an isolated area with no car, little information about help. Part of that is this disaster. Part of it is poverty and empowerment."

Where does the humanitarian crisis caused by Hurricane Sandy end and where does the already existing crisis of mass poverty and unemployment begin? Back in April, Peninsula Hospital--the nearest facility to Kizzy--closed down, leaving only one hospital to serve over 100,000 people in the Rockaways.

One month before the storm, the number of people living in city shelters had reached 46,000. A few months earlier, Bloomberg, whose net worth is $25 billion, claimed that homelessness had risen because "we have made our shelter system so much better is a much more pleasurable experience than they ever had before."

Men like Michael Bloomberg should not be in charge of deciding the fate of women like Kizzy Parsons.

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