Friday, October 25, 2013

Remembering Sandy

To mark the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated our city last autumn, and resulted in the deaths of about one hundred people across the United States, I have compiled here some of my writings and photography from the week that followed Sandy's landfall. During that time, most of the city's poorest areas remained without electricity and heat, while some neighborhoods even lacked running water. One year later, the flooded Financial District has bounced back, as has much of Manhattan, while the city's poorest residents on the peripheries of the city remain without essential services, and hundreds remain homeless.

October 29, 2012, late evening:
Hurricane Sandy makes landfall along the New Jersey coast. We were in San Francisco at the time, and we did not make it home until forty-eight hours later because the airports were flooded.

October 31, 2012, 8:53 PM: 
Heading into the "dark zone." West 25th Street is the dividing line here between power and no power. I took this photo as we headed home, walking eight blocks into this dark abyss as we groped to find our apartment! And of course it was Halloween, so ghouls and goblins threatened us around every dark corner.

October 31, 2012, 8:59 PM:
A full moon rises over our neighborhood in Manhattan. The only light here comes from automobiles and outer space.

November 1, 2012, 12:28 PM:
Dispatch from Sandy's aftermath, Day 4: Just a little update on our return to this great city. We were able to catch one of the earliest flights back into JFK yesterday, arriving at the airport at 4:45pm. The Airtrain is down, but we caught a bus to another terminal at the airport to catch a city bus, the Q10, to Kew Gardens... (By order of the Governor, all buses in NYC are free for the rest of the week.) That took us to Queens Blvd. where we then waited in a crowd of 30 others for the Q60 bus west to Manhattan. After waiting about half an hour, an overcrowded bus finally came and we all surged into the doors fighting for space. My wife and I just squeezed in the front door, having to stand well in front of the white safety line. We stood on that bus from 6pm well past 8pm! Our two hour ordeal took us down Queens Blvd. in slow motion; at every bus stop more people fought to get on while passengers simultaneously fought to get off. At one point my shoelace got caught in the front door of the bus (not a safe situation), but after a few more stops I was able to dislodge my shoe from the door! (That gives you a sense how close we were standing to the door as we barreled down Queens Blvd.) While our bus driver was supposed to take us over the 59th Street bridge, he refused to go that far. So we got out somewhere in Long Island City after 8pm and waited for another bus, a Q32, for Penn Station. That bus finally took us over the bridge, one of the few arteries in and out of Manhattan. We arrived at Penn Station around 9pm, four hours after landing in JFK! From there we walked south beyond W 25th street into the "dark zone." When we got to our apartment building, we found it completely black but for a jack-o-lantern glowing in the lobby. Inside our apartment, we found a pool of water on the floor (from our uncontrollably defrosting fridge). No power, no internet, no hot water, but we do have gas -- and yet our building has no heat. It was in the 40s last night, so we piled on four or five blankets and fell asleep.

Today, in the light of the sun, I can see what Chelsea is like. People without phone service are using payphones on the street. People are waiting for buses. NYPD crossing guards are stationed at every intersection because there are no traffic lights. No ATMs are working, but the ATM lobbies are full of trash and the doors are kept open 24/7, so it seems people are finding warmth and shelter there. All businesses in our neighborhood are closed but for a few bodegas that are dark yet populated by elderly men sitting around in the shadows drinking coffee. I walked up to Penn Station. The NYPD are trying to shut the whole place down, fearful I'm sure of hundreds of people loitering there for warmth and shelter. So I'm now at a Starbuck's on 7th Avenue for internet. People are piled over each other fighting for access to the power strips. Others seem to have been living here since 5am, just looking for warmth because all our homes are so dark and cold.

Yet through it all, a spirit of community and cooperation prevails. I give my great thanks to the FDNY, the NYPD, and the MTA for their tireless work these days. I can't even begin to imagine how much overtime they are putting in.

November 1, 2012, 6:25 PM:
Below 25th Street on 6th Avenue, a beacon of "freedom" rises out of the ashes of a decade-old terror while hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers live without power or heat or hot water for the fourth straight day. I wonder, did the city light this up to inspire us or to mock us??

November 1, 2012, 6:29 PM:
more darkness

November 2, 2012, 8:31 AM:
Union Square becomes a staging ground for electricity companies from all across the East Coast

November 2, 2012, 10:21 AM:
 Hester Street, Chinatown

November 2, 2012, 11:33 AM:
At CAAAV on Hester Street in the Lower East Side/Chinatown, pieces of paper with the addresses of known or suspected elderly residents in need of assistance are taped to the shuttered metal doors of nearby businesses. Volunteers sign-up their names in groups of six or eight to bring food, water, batteries, and information to tenement buildings, public housing, you name it. I went on two errands: up a six-floor tenement and then up a 13-floor public housing unit. Needless to say, there is no elevator service in these buildings and complete darkness in the stairwells.

November 2, 2012, 12:26 PM:
Walking down a hallway in Baruch Houses, a public housing complex in the Lower East Side. Residents have been living in the dark without power or hot water here for five days. Those with mobility issues have been unable to descend the stairs to access emergency food, water, or any reliable information about this crisis. So we went door to door from the first to the thirteenth floors with supplies and information in English, Spanish, and Chinese. Outside, FEMA trucks and their generators are humming, but inside, these residents are figuratively and literally in the dark. Some are afraid. Some are alone. Many rightly feel abandoned.

November 2, 2012, 12:28 PM:
Volunteers from GOLES and CAAAV in the Lower East Side/Chinatown inspect a public housing unit near the East River that has no power, no hot water, and no elevators. Residents are living in complete darkness without access to reliable information; those with mobility issues are unable to even leave their floors. Some residents told us that they are afraid to go into the dark hallways and the dark stairwells, and some are afraid to open their doors to strangers. We were an impromptu team of volunteers, but among us we spoke English, Spanish, and Chinese, so that helped us reach more residents and provide accurate information. These residents have lived in the dark for five days now and not once, they say, have city or FEMA workers checked up on them.

November 2, 2012, 12:54 PM:
Baruch Houses in the Lower East Side, a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) public housing complex. The residents of this thirteen story building have no power, no hot water, and no elevators. Those unable or too afraid to walk down thirteen stories in the pitch black have not left their units since Monday. Our team of volunteers walked up to the top floor and then made our way down floor by floor in the darkness knocking on doors and distributing food, water, batteries, candles, and information to those in need. Residents told us that NO ONE - that's right, no one - from the city or from FEMA has come by to simply do what we were doing: to check on them. Outside we saw people filling up jugs of water from a fire hydrant on the sidewalk. Inside we found an elderly woman with insulin but no ice to cool it. There are little crises here in the LES that threaten to turn into bigger crises if help is not delivered. Behind every door we knocked on but heard no reply might be an elderly or infirm person alone, afraid, and in need.

November 2, 2012, 1:03 PM:
U.S. military presence along Grand Street
 November 2, 2012, 1:14 PM:
Back on Hester Street, Chinatown

November 2, 2012, 7:40 PM:
Dispatch from Sandy's aftermath, Day 5: I took the M14a bus down to the Lower East Side. Besides a few downed trees here and there, things looked normal in the daylight. Then I arrived at CAAAV, an Asian-American community organization on Hester Street. It was fifteen minutes before 10am when they "opened" to help residents affected by Sandy, but already the sidewalk was crammed with over fifty Chinatown residents waiting in line to charge their electronics and receive free food and water. I was put to work making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for about an hour at first. Those sandwiches ended up mostly in care bags prepared for elderly and infirm residents living in the nearby tenement buildings and public housing units. When I announced to a CAAAV organizer that I spoke a bit of Mandarin, I was immediately placed with a team of volunteers doing outreach. We began by visiting a 19th-century six-story tenement building on Chrystie Street. All the residents inside spoke Chinese (maybe they preferred Cantonese, but they at least understood my broken Mandarin well enough). We found some elderly residents who accepted food and water. Some residents needed batteries for their flashlights, so we distributed those. Our next assignment was more challenging: we went to Baruch Houses, a public housing complex near the East River. The building was thirteen stories high, but without power the elevators were not working. So we walked up to the top and then proceeded down floor by floor, door by door, distributing goods and information. We were told by residents that no one from the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) or FEMA had yet visited them, despite the fact that many elderly and infirm residents were unable to descend the stairs and so have been cooped up for five days in the dark now. FEMA has set up food and water distribution points in the neighborhood, but the elderly and handicapped are unable to get downstairs to the street to access those.

The scene near LES's public housing was most distressing. Some residents without running water were filling up jugs of water from a street-side fire hydrant outside, then lugging the water upstairs to their homes. Once in a while we saw U.S. military trucks barrel by, but they never stopped to check in on the public housing residents. Inside the buildings it was dark and cold. Some residents were afraid to go out in the hallways or the stairwell for fear of their safety. We heard some reports of opportunistic crime: of people posing as Con Ed workers and then forcing their way into residents' apartments.

I just read this evening that power has been restored to the Lower East Side/Chinatown. Hopefully that is true. But regardless, I will be heading down to LES again tomorrow morning to see if people still need help. For info on volunteering in the LES, see:

I hope that life returns to normal in LES/Chinatown this weekend. But even so, it will be WEEKS before there is any sense of normalcy (or sense of justice) in the hard-hit and ignored Rockaways, or on Staten Island, which despite being hardest hit by Sandy (and suffering the most deaths) was largely ignored by both the media and the government until recently. To help on Staten Island, see:

Best wishes to everyone.

November 3, 2012, 9:26 AM:
Hester Street, the next morning

November 3, 2012, 10:29 AM:
Helicopters over the harbor. On my way to Staten Island by boat...

November 3, 2012, 11:32 AM:
A gas station full of abandoned cars. New Dorp, Staten Island.

November 3, 2012, 11:38 AM:
Crossroads Church, a storefront church in New Dorp, Staten Island, became an impromptu base camp for donations and volunteers after the storm. It serves the hard-hit shore communities of New Dorp and Midland Beach on Staten Island's eastern shore. When I showed up around noon to help I was told to just head straight down to the shore, grab a shovel or rake, and get working.
They will need hundreds of volunteers everyday for the next few weeks.

November 3, 2012, 11:43 AM:
In a back hallway inside Crossroads Church in New Dorp, Staten Island, volunteers assemble fresh sandwiches and prepare care packages to distribute to residents that have lived without power for five full days. Even worse, some families lost their homes altogether.

November 3, 2012, 11:43 AM:
Inside Crossroads Church in New Dorp, Staten Island, every available space is filled with food donations to be distributed to residents in need. Although it has been five full days since the storm, practically all of New Dorp is still without power, thus many of these families are without heat, hot water, and refrigeration.

November 3, 2012, 11:52 AM:
Waiting for gasoline...

November 3, 2012, 12:00 PM:
A reminder that even those who keep us safe need a helping hand sometimes. An NYPD school safety officer receives a bag of supplies from the donation/distribution center at New Dorp High School on Staten Island. We have to remember that our bus drivers, police officers, and electricians have been working overtime for a week, and they haven't had the luxury to stay home and take care of their own problems such as flooded basements, power outages, or gasoline shortages. They will be the last ones to rebuild after Sandy is long out of the headlines. I have such deep respect for their service.

November 3, 2012, 12:09 PM:
Outside New Dorp High School

November 3, 2012, 12:21 PM:
Debris from a family's overturned life

November 3, 2012, 12:24 PM:
Walking past a house that once was there

November 3, 2012, 12:27 PM:
This family's gate kept out much of the flood debris from Sandy. But it could not keep out the water. Seen along Cedar Grove Avenue in New Dorp, Staten Island.

November 3, 2012, 12:29 PM:
A house ripped completely off of its foundation. A family's personal items scattered across the ground like refuse. What does one do at this point? Think of the family now living in an emergency shelter. How long will it be before they put everything back together again?
Seen in New Dorp Beach, Staten Island.

November 3, 2012, 12:29 PM:
Another house, destroyed

November 3, 2012, 12:30 PM:
The top of a house, now on the ground
 November 3, 2012, 12:32 PM:
The house remains, but the insides were put out in the street

 November 3, 2012, 12:33 PM:
 A muddied Elmo doll is a reminder that children once lived in these now-ruined homes. It is sad, but true, that some children died on Staten Island during the height of Sandy's storm, ripped out of their mother's arms.
A perfectly clean and straight campaign sign (that couldn't possibly have survived Sandy's 100 mph winds and 14 foot storm surge) is a reminder that Election Day is just three days away (and someone was obnoxious enough to put a sign right there in this community at this time). These voters, however, have been disenfranchised. Disenfranchisement-by-hurricane, we might call it. For it is an unreasonable burden to ask someone who has lost their home and all their belongings, who sleeps in an emergency shelter and eats donated food, who is burdened with worries over insurance claims and other legal and medical matters, to go to their polling place on Tuesday and cast their vote. Yet Election Day goes on without them.

November 4, 2012, 11:07 AM:
Dispatch from Sandy's aftermath, Day 7: Just want to say that if you live in NYC and were thinking of helping out our Staten Island neighbors in need, but you're not sure about how to get there or what to do, read on. Today, Sunday, is a great day to head over to SI to help out.

Yesterday I took a bus down from Chelsea through the Lower East Side (which is doing better now that they have power) and down to the Battery. Lower Manhattan below Wall Street is still without power. The streets are lined with trucks with labels like "Disaster Preparedness Inc." Water is pumped out of basements and into the streets and the sewers. There are no traffic lights. But the buses go straight to the ferry terminal. The ferry terminal has lights but all the shops are closed. After the 30-minute ferry ride, we arrived at St. George, Staten Island. They have power. So here I could finally buy a coffee! Then I got on the S74 bus headed from the ferry terminal to New Dorp, Staten Island.

The whole journey from Chelsea to New Dorp (on the eastern shore of SI) took about two hours. But it is worth it. Walking east down New Dorp Lane to the ocean, suddenly there was no power. Streetlights are still out. I passed at least two gas stations that were shuttered; cardboard signs read: "No gas! Sorry!" At Hylan Blvd. there was one gas station open, guarded by NYPD personnel. There was a line of forty pedestrians with bright red jugs waiting for gasoline. There was also a line of cars four blocks long waiting for gasoline. Drivers said the wait was well over an hour.

Crossroads Church on New Dorp Lane was bustling with volunteer activity. Inside were piles and piles of food donations, while young women formed a PB&J assembly line in a back corridor of the church making sandwiches for the needy. About 25,000 Staten Islanders are still without power, which means sleeping in 30-40 degree weather at night if they are not sleeping in an emergency shelter. These people need warm clothing, food, water.

Further down the street, towards the ocean, I reached New Dorp High School. This weekend the school's gymnasium has become a huge donation/distribution center for clothing and household goods. Dozens of volunteers sort out clothing donations. A sign outside reads: "We can no longer accept clothing at this time." They have too much. But outside, in the blistering cold at Miller Field, a public park that was completely flooded by Sandy and still smells of salt and is littered with storm debris, another pile of boxes of clothing and goods has formed. People come with empty shopping carts from their damaged homes or from emergency shelters to find dry clothing they can wear. Because they may have lost everything in the flood.

Further down New Dorp Lane, you start to see the buildings missing roofs, missing windows. Flooded basements, then flooded first floors. Families marching in and out of their homes taking out furniture, books, mementos, everything they own, and dumping it on the side of the street. Everything they own is ruined. On Cedar Grove Avenue, along the ocean, there are homes ripped off their foundations, homes with roofs below the level of the first story, homes that look like 100 mph wind ripped through them and the 14 foot storm surge lifted them up and dropped them back down. The NYC Department of Buildings has walked around and posted green, yellow, and red signs on each property indicating whether they are safe, potentially safe, or not at all safe for habitation. Most houses here, or what are left of the houses, have yellow and red signs.

The people of New Dorp and Midland Beach in Staten Island will be rebuilding their lives for weeks, even months. Yesterday hundreds of volunteers from all walks of life helped make sandwiches, sort donations, rake debris, shovel out muck, and help residents move water-damaged furniture out of their homes. If you own a rake or a shovel, bring it. If you have work gloves and work boots, wear them. If you have a car or a bike, that is helpful, too. But I went down there with nothing but my camera, and that is helpful, as well. It is helpful to tell stories, to let people know what's going on down there. Whatever you do, please consider volunteering to help out your fellow New Yorker.

On Staten Island:

To keep up with volunteer opportunities all across the city, especially in the hard-hit Rockaways that also need our help:

November 4, 2012, 3:31 PM:
As the recovery enters Week 2, one big issue will continue to be housing. The city estimates that 30,000-40,000 residents of public housing have been or need to be evacuated from their buildings and sheltered elsewhere. New York already has over 40,000 long-term homeless, overflowing city shelters and sleeping on the streets. Post-Sandy, NYC has a homeless population of 80,000. We don't even know what the true number is right now...

As of October 2013, hundreds are still left homeless from Sandy, and overall the total homeless population in New York City has surpassed 50,000. The immediate crisis is over, but the long emergency continues.

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