Sandy: Hard-hit Staten Island tries to recover
By Adrián Bono, Special Correspondent in New York
Staten Island is the New York borough that was most afflicted by Hurricane Sandy one week ago, and the scene there is surreal. Entire homes swept away by the gigantic waves, many dead and many more displaced as ambulances drive around with their sirens on and military helicopters fly around the area for reconnaissance. The devastation in the area resembles that of a war zone.
Residents, however, have come to rely more on the generosity of others than on what many say has been a “slow and inadequate” response by the US government.
Ironically, the people from Staten Island have traditionally referred to it as “the forgotten borough.” In the aftermath of the devastating super storm that left it in shambles, they may have very well proven their point.
Since last Monday, the local and international media largely focused on the contrast between the two Manhattans – the north side with electrical power, the south side without it – the billions of dollars in damages and the kind of repercussions the storm would bring to the political arena a few days before a presidential election.
While the situation in Manhattan was nothing short of a humanitarian crisis, the ravaged area is only now beginning to receive some heavy coverage from the media.
Located some eight kilometers to the south of Manhattan, Staten Island is where the storm hit the hardest and where half of the reported deaths took place, including the tragic story of Glenda Moore, a mother who was surprised by the storm while she was trying to escape with her two and four-year-old children. The big waves hit them so hard that she lost her grip on them and were immediately swept away. The two boys were found dead three days later a few feet from each other.
According to the residents, the government’s response to the disaster has also been slow and inadequate. So as many helpless families cried for help from the other side of the river, approximately one thousand runners who were supposed to take part in the popular New York marathon (cancelled after it became a controversial issue last week), and many other thousands of New Yorkers head over to the Staten Island ferry and the Verrazano-Narrows bridge on Sunday morning to take part in a different kind of event: volunteering to help the tens of thousands of people who have been left homeless after the sea water ravaged through the low-lying neighborhoods of the Midland Beach area.
Upon their arrival, they run into what some described as a war zone. Helicopters whirring in the sky and ambulances, patrol cars and FEMA trucks trying to maintain a feeble sense of civilization in an area where social structure has been momentarily swept away.
Most homes are still being inspected by government officials who check for structural damage and evaluate whether a house is inhabitable or in any danger of collapse. A big red sign on doors and windows reading “unsafe” is bad news for the owners. At the front of other damaged houses, some have left messages of condolences for the owners who were killed in the storm.
A few kilometers away, the National Guard inspects the John B. Caddell ship, a tanker that was run aground over a street near the water, while passers-by examine in disbelief the improbable sight of a Jacuzzi sitting on top of a fallen tree.
The situation outside the few open gas stations in the area however, has most people on edge as a line of cars that is at least eight blocks long may be indication of at least a four-hour wait to reach the pump. Cars on one side and people standing impatiently on the other, knowing that they run that the station runs the risk of running out of gas before it’s their turn. But it’s a risk they are willing to take, considering that it’s either that or spending another night in the dark.
The Midland Beach Relief Center is working at full capacity and it is swarming with volunteers sorting out donated clothes and food. Others form a human chain and unload thousands of bottles of mineral water from a military truck to load them up again in a school bus. Affected families carefully browse through the thousands of donated items, from canned beans to mouthwash, from blankets to cat food. And despite the urgency of their precarious situation, everyone remains calm and only takes what they need for the day.
To the side, big brands also have a corporate presence: Verizon and Time Warner have set up charging stations for people needing to charge their cell phones and other mobile devices. Reception, however, is still sketchy. In one corner, volunteers and locals are offered a free hot meal so they can take a break from their work and recover their energies. They remove their facemasks and surgical gloves and express their appreciation for each over a plate of pasta.
The extent of the damage is still being evaluated but some believe it will take years for the families to recover what they lost. An estimated 30,000 to 40,000 thousand people in New York will need housing, Mayor Mike Bloomberg said.
As a man grabs some canned soup and puts them in a backpack, one of the volunteers approaches him with sympathy. “Are you doing OK?” she asks. “I lost everything and my children are hungry, but I will not complain,” he replies.
“Think of the other tragedies taking place around the world. My worst day this week would still be a pretty good day for someone living in Haiti,” he says with a sad look as he heads back to his refugee to feed his children.