Hurricane Sandy Is New York's Katrina

Floods, fear, and FEMA failures

Hurricane Sandy Is New York's Katrina
Photography by Sam Horine
An American flag is placed inside a burned SUV on November 1, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in Belle Harbor section of Queens. Slideshow: After Sandy, the On-Going Recovery

The morning after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, many people woke up to a more or less normal day. People switched on their lights and radios, turned up their heat against the morning chill, took a hot shower, and met up with friends at a diner to share stories about how they spent the night: board games and hot chocolate, NY1 on in the background.

Other parts of the city were hammered. Power was out in huge swaths. Flooded tunnels cut off whole regions from the rest of the city. In Lower Manhattan, Red Hook, Coney Island, the Rockaways, and much of Staten Island, everything from electricity to heat to potable water was in short supply. Hospitals were being evacuated after power failures. Bodies drowned in the storm surge were being recovered. The news media began to show the first images of Breezy Point, burned to the ground, and houses up and down the coast torn apart by wind and water.

In the coming days, as power and subway service were restored to more of the city, it became easy for many New Yorkers to forget about the hurricane entirely. Money was flooding into the Red Cross from across the country. The Federal Emergency Management Agency was on the scene. Everything was going to be all right.

A family searches through the remains of their Breezy Point home, destroyed in a massive fire during Hurricane Sandy. Slideshow: After Sandy, the On-Going Recovery
C.S. Muncy
A family searches through the remains of their Breezy Point home, destroyed in a massive fire during Hurricane Sandy. Slideshow: After Sandy, the On-Going Recovery
Nastaran Mohit, a labor organizer, led one of the early drives to assess the medical needs of stranded residents in the eastern Rockaways. Slideshow: After Sandy, the On-Going Recovery
C.S. Muncy
Nastaran Mohit, a labor organizer, led one of the early drives to assess the medical needs of stranded residents in the eastern Rockaways. Slideshow: After Sandy, the On-Going Recovery

But just a short distance from the areas where normalcy was restored or never left, in the neighborhoods most affected by storm, nothing felt all right.

As temperatures dropped toward freezing two weeks after the storm, residents in public-housing apartments from Red Hook to the Lower East Side to Rockaway were still without power, water, and heat. Displaced homeowners surveyed the wreckage of their lives and wondered how they'd ever build back. And almost everywhere, the vaunted presence of FEMA and the Red Cross was next to invisible. Weeks after the storm, many New Yorkers in storm-damaged neighborhoods had yet to see any sort of institutional relief at all.

As much of the rest of New York returned to business as usual, those in the affected areas began to wonder where the help was. Three days after Sandy, with the basements of the Red Hook Houses still flooded and apartments still without light, heat, or working plumbing, resident Toni Khadijah James summed up the neighborhood's sense of isolation.

"This is our Katrina."

At the time, James's words seemed like an overstatement. Katrina displaced upwards of 1 million people and wreaked an estimated $150 billion in damages. Destructive as it was, Sandy didn't come close to that.

But as the days stretched into weeks and thousands of people continued to live without the basic necessities, as it became clear that the storm had only exacerbated and laid bare the fissures of inequality that already riddled New York, James's analogy began to feel more apt. Just as in New Orleans, in the absence of any timely response from the Red Cross or government agencies, neighbors and grassroots volunteer networks tried to fill the void. New Yorkers did it for themselves as best as they could, checking on the homebound, standing watch, hauling supplies from borough to borough and up pitch-black housing-tower stairwells. It was better than nothing. It was better than the plodding machinery of the disaster-relief industry. It wasn't good enough. Weeks after the storm, there were still New Yorkers living in the cold, in the dark, without food or medicine, who had received no help or human contact at all.

So: This is our Katrina.

Nine days after Sandy, the night the nor'easter hits New York, the Rockaways are quiet. Snow blankets the streets, and visibility is at a minimum.

FEMA has shuttered its emergency-response stations throughout the city and withdrawn its disaster-recovery personnel, citing, to the disbelief of stranded residents, inclement weather.

The mayor has ordered another evacuation, but with no power for radios or television, many people on the peninsula don't know it. Even if they did, it's not clear how they'd leave. Public transit isn't running normally, and those who had functioning cars 10 days ago probably don't now; seawater has totaled them. In the next few days, advertisements for commercial car-junking services will start popping up on telephone poles.

So the streets are empty, but the Rockaways aren't. Behind closed doors, in cold, dark rooms, people are hunkered down. Neighbors are checking on one another, and volunteer groups are beginning to get food, water, and warm clothes to the people who need them. But in the absence of transportation, and with most of the medical clinics and pharmacies on the peninsula closed, a growing number of people are in need of medication.

That's why Nastaran Mohit, a 30-year-old labor organizer, is on the road tonight, piloting her SUV down snowy streets still piled high with wreckage and displaced beach sand, making deliveries of badly needed medicine. Mohit has no medical credentials or experience, but she's running Occupy Sandy's medical team, a group of doctors, nurses, and untrained volunteers trying to bring drugs and treatment to patients abandoned after the hurricane shuttered doctors' offices, clinics, and pharmacies.

As she drives, Mohit riffles through a disorganized binder packed full with wrinkled forms, names, and needs, the results of Occupy Sandy's patchy medical-needs census, begun a week after Sandy hit but still ongoing.

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