“Next time something like this happens, the people in power should make sure there’s an equal distribution of resources throughout the city, not just affluent parts like Staten Island and Breezy Point.” So says post-storm-work-weary Milan Rasheed Taylor, the 23-year-old founder of the Rockaway Youth Task Force, An 18-month-old organization focused on encouraging youth involvement in community and political issues. Taylor has been working with a small band of folk since Hurricane Sandy battered the New York tristate area and the Rockaways got the official evacuation order.
Said Taylor, “Initially we were overlooked and it took a really long time for the Red Cross and FEMA to come to the Rockaway community. They came about five or six days after the storm, but it took a lot of publicity and media attention.”
With boxes of canned food, cases of bottled water, bags full of clothes and blankets and personal testimonies ringing in their ears, everyday New Yorkers and their tristate neighbors have been organizing in their living rooms. A volunteer army has been travelling by gas-limited cars, public train or bus to the so-called “forgotten” neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens such as Coney Island, Red Hook and Far Rockaway.
As criticism grew and Long Islanders filed a lawsuit against LIPA this Monday as they–like thousands of New York City residents–spent two weeks post-storm without power, local government officials finally kicked emergency initiatives into gear to bring assistance to neglected areas. Perhaps shown up by the motley crew of dedicated everyday New Yorkers who went into their own pantries and wardrobes and took their own cash to the store to pick up supplies, the city’s response eventually reached areas other than the highly publicized Staten Island south shore, the Jersey Shore, Breezy Point and Sea Gate.
While as of press time power and public transport had been restored to most parts of the Rockaways, concerned mom Dina Skinner told the Amsterdam News over the weekend, “As you know, few places were as hard hit as the Rockaways in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Certain parts of the peninsula literally were like a war zone. Some homes still don’t have the basic necessities like power and running water.”
The Red Cross and FEMA have received praise in some quarters but criticism in others for a slow response to neighborhoods like the majority Black- and Brown-affected areas in Brooklyn and Queens.
On Tuesday Nov. 13, Sheila Stainback, communications officer of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), announced, “More than 98 percent of our residents have had power restored. We are on the scene today at the Red Hook Houses with more than three busloads of NYCHA staff, who will knock on the doors of the more than 6,000 residents there to assess their needs.”
Said Skinner, “[There is] a grassroots youth group, the Rockaway Youth Task Force, that, since the storm, has single-handedly organized one of the largest donation drop-offs in the Rockaways and coordinated large teams of young people within and outside the community to bring desperately needed items to the elderly, disabled and others to their doorsteps.
“They did this by going door to door within the projects, up and down the stairs, back and forth, for days. As you can imagine, this was no small feat. They brought in the assistance of Occupy Wall Street, Doctors Without Borders and a host of others to ensure the well being, health and safety of the residents of Rockaway.”
Full disclosure, Skinner is Taylor’s “proud mother.”
Taylor told the paper that since Hurricane Sandy, his youth group has “been going door to door to see if seniors and the disabled in high rise developments are OK and delivering water, toiletries and everyday essentials. We have been to over 250 residents in over 30 buildings, walking to the top floor–some went as high 19 stories.”
His organization, with young people from 16 to 29 years old, has about 45 members, but only eight stayed because the Rockaway peninsula was told to evacuate.
“But we made up the numbers because of volunteers,” said Taylor. “We put out a request and a lot of volunteers came from all over the city to donate their time and supplies. One woman said if it wasn’t for us, she didn’t know how she would get food. The elevator was not working, and her phone was not working.”
Taylor said that most of the households finally have electricity. “But some of our members still have no electricity, so they are still in shelters.”
There is nary a New Yorker who has not been affected by Hurricane Sandy, be it the loss of heat, power or water; the scarcity of gas, limiting travel; the one-week closure of all schools when the hurricane touched down; or the stopping of the subway and over-ground trains along with the HOV and bridge and tunnel closures. The impact was universal.
Some suffered much more than others. Homes were swept away or collapsed. Some of the missing are still unaccounted for, leading to the prediction that the tristate body count of 43 will increase as the days and weeks go by.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued threats about reviewing the Con Ed state contract, as for days leading into weeks, those without lights kept asking when power would return. References to “Katrina,” “the Ninth Ward ” and “Third World” punctuated many interviews.
Hospitals were evacuated, schools taken over as shelters, and hospitals and churches were pressed into service as volunteer headquarters.
As part of their progress report released on Tuesday, Nov. 13, NYCHA told the AmNews that power has been restored to around 99 percent of all buildings affected by Sandy. “Yesterday, electricity, heat and hot water returned to 16 buildings housing approximately 3,513 residents in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan developments, including Red Hook East, Red Hook West, O’Dwyer Gardens, Lower East Side Rehab, and Surfside Gardens and Redfern developments, where all buildings now have power
“The New York City Housing Authority continues to restore power, heat and hot water to developments currently without service due to the storm. During the past week, NYCHA has returned heat and hot water to many buildings across the city and is working with the utility companies and other government agencies to restore these essential services to every NYCHA resident as quickly as possible.”
In a statement, NYCHA continued, “On Monday, November 12, because of actions we took, the lights came back on for approximately 3,390 residents of 16 buildings in five NYCHA developments. That means that today, power has been restored to around 99 percent of all buildings where it went out after Sandy. Services have been restored to 75.6 percent of all buildings that lost heat and hot water during the hurricane.”
NYCHA stated that after Sandy hit, there were 402 buildings without electricity housing approximately 79,000 residents; 396 buildings housing 78,338 residents have had their electricity restored. Currently there are six buildings within three developments in Brooklyn–Coney Island and Red Hook–housing approximately 990 residents where electricity is still out; Brooklyn’s O’Dwyer Gardens. NYCHA was hoping to restore full power by Wednesday, Nov. 14.
The city also stands by its food and water distribution operation at NYCHA Developments, which began on Thursday, Nov. 1. NYCHA added that their staff and volunteers knocked on the doors of the more than 6,000 residents in Red Hook to assess their needs.
“We provided access to volunteer medical staff and brought provisions such as water, food and other supplies to those in need. We had FEMA staff present to enroll impacted residents into the disaster relief program. Door-to-door operations servicing NYCHA’s homebound population has been ongoing. The NYPD has provided security, and volunteers have increased the capacity to see more residents each day. Each canvasser is equipped with a resident questionnaire to ensure the most important information is gathered and services are made available to them. All residents with pressing medical needs are addressed by NYCHA staff.
Sen. Charles Schumer declared, “I personally toured Red Hook Houses and much of Coney Island in the days after the storm and saw first-hand the enormous challenges facing fellow New Yorkers in NYCHA buildings. I have also been in regular contact with FEMA to get them to bring mobile disaster assistance centers to the communities, and with HUD Secretary Donovan to make sure federal resources are focused on helping tenants.
“NYCHA’s feet must be kept to the fire–no question that more needs to be done, and fast, to get generators and boilers up and-running in every building so that residents can have electricity, heat and hot water. People are suffering, and it’s just not good enough to try. I met a woman in the Red Hook Houses who is homebound on the 16th floor because the elevators and power are still out. We must get these buildings back in working order ASAP.”
Meanwhile, as Cuomo called on the federal government to help rebuild New York City, he announced that the Department of Financial Services disaster hotline (800-339-1759) would be open 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help New Yorkers recovering from Sandy.