Hurricane Sandy Is New York's Katrina

Floods, fear, and FEMA failures

"We're doing the government's job right now, surveying people's needs," Mohit says. "For the most part, we're seeing a lot of chronic medical conditions: asthma. Diabetes. High blood pressure. In some neighborhoods, we have a lot of HIV/AIDS patients and a lot of methadone users. We need HIV meds. We definitely need a lot of psych meds. That's a big one."

Mohit doesn't really want to be on the road in the storm, but she promised a homebound resident an albuterol delivery before the day is out, so she's still going. She makes the drop-off on a dark stretch of Beach 117th Street, then swings around for a last pass at the only open pharmacy. Unfortunately, the pharmacist tells Mohit, her paperwork doesn't contain some information needed to fill the script. Mohit nods, exhausted. She'll deal with it tomorrow. She heads back to her improvised headquarters, a high-ceilinged storefront that was, until the storm, a fur shop. During the day, volunteer doctors and nurses see patients in a curtained-off corner, and an army of untrained census takers comes and goes, adding to the ever-growing list of isolated people in need of drugs and medical care. At this hour, with the snow falling and the nor'easter's tide about to crest, the makeshift clinic is empty, and Mohit is alone in the space, standing under the collection of coats and stoles that still hangs from the pressed-tin ceiling.

"It's a lot," she says, sighing. "Because it's not just the storm. Long before Sandy, Far Rockaway was devastated by a different kind of hurricane, called poverty. But it's really frustrating. We need doctors and nurses and social workers and psychologists and EMTs. We're doing our best to fill the gap, but we need a lot of help."

Serving thousands of hot meals in the first weeks, Sikh volunteers 
were among the first to respond to the disaster in the Rockaways. Slideshow: After Sandy, the On-Going Recovery
Jenna Pope/batmanwi.com
Serving thousands of hot meals in the first weeks, Sikh volunteers were among the first to respond to the disaster in the Rockaways. Slideshow: After Sandy, the On-Going Recovery
After Sandy’s storm surge, Colleen Dalton sprays to prevent mold in her house on 112th Street, which has been in her family for more than 60 years. Slideshow: After Sandy, the On-Going Recovery
C.S. Muncy
After Sandy’s storm surge, Colleen Dalton sprays to prevent mold in her house on 112th Street, which has been in her family for more than 60 years. Slideshow: After Sandy, the On-Going Recovery

Less than a mile away from the Rockaways as the crow flies, just across the Marine Parkway Bridge, the institutional disaster responders are massing at Floyd Bennett Field. FEMA and the National Guard have set up a headquarters at the former airfield, and upwards of 150 ambulances and EMT crews are gathered from across the country.

In the first rush after the storm, these emergency medical responders were frantically busy with the evacuation of NYU Langone and Bellevue, transporting patients out of the damaged hospitals to safer facilities.

But after that burst of activity, the orders suddenly stopped coming. EMT crews idled for days on end, waiting for direction, growing increasingly exasperated as the hours and days ticked by.

A private recovery worker providing transport and logistical support to the first responders told the Voice about receiving a request for blankets and sleeping bags needed at Floyd Bennett Field. He was confused—wasn't that the FEMA headquarters? Shouldn't goods like that be going out to the city?

"I called my contact back for clarification," the logistics worker tells the Voice. "He says to me: 'We're firefighters and EMTs and nurses. We've been here for days, and they haven't let us off the compound, they haven't given us marching orders, they haven't even given us our equipment. We've been sleeping on plastic chairs since we got here.'"

Through his work with other relief operations, the logistics worker knew there was acute need just down the road for medical checks, prescriptions, and other work for which the medical workers would be perfectly suited.

"I asked, 'Why haven't you been sent out?'" he says. "Then he just lays the story on me, tells me about all the personnel they have out there, more than 100 ambulances, two paramedics per ambulance, everybody waiting for marching orders."

Horrified, the logistical worker offered to help transport them to a place where they could be useful.

"He said they couldn't do it because FEMA had them all under contract, and they couldn't go out without FEMA's say-so. They were so frustrated. They came all this way, and now they're not going anywhere, and there's something in their contract telling them they can't even throw up their arms and say 'Fuck it' and go into the city and do good."

Trying to get an official explanation for the idle EMTs only reveals further interagency confusion. A FEMA spokesperson told the Voice the federal agency was only at Floyd Bennett Field in a support capacity, and EMTs were under the direction of the state and city offices of emergency management. The city OEM didn't return requests for comment. A spokesperson for the state OEM said the EMTs had federal contracts and directed inquiries back to FEMA.

Geographically speaking, Cross Bay Boulevard roughly bisects the Rockaway Peninsula. But the socioeconomic terrain of the Rockaways makes geography almost irrelevant. West of the midpoint, in the higher-numbered streets, homes are bigger and residents more affluent. Public-housing projects and single-room-occupancy apartment buildings in the lower-numbered blocks weight the population heavily to the east. Three-quarters of the population of the Rockaways lives east of Cross Bay Boulevard, including 80 percent of the children and two-thirds of the senior citizens living alone.

A week after the storm, the city had deployed three "warming buses" to the peninsula and one emergency-distribution service center, and designated two sites where emergency buses would pick up residents and take them to a shelter. None of this infrastructure was located on the eastern half of the peninsula, where the overwhelming majority of the need was.

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