Hurricane Sandy Is New York's Katrina

Floods, fear, and FEMA failures

When I ask the director of a nonprofit with close ties to Far Rockaway whether she thinks the aid isn't making it to the poor minority population on the periphery because of institutional racism or just disorganization and the challenges of infrastructure and geography, she snorts: "Both. It's the same thing."

By the second weekend after the storm, the picture in the Rockaways is beginning to change. The institutional responders are finally beginning to show up in numbers, even if they still have to ask the volunteer groups who preceded them what's going on and how they can help. Medical teams from Floyd Bennett Field have crossed the bridge and are out in the neighborhoods.

Volunteers and donated supplies are flooding into the Rockaways. Religious groups, for-profit recovery companies, Williamsburg kids in skinny jeans and inappropriate shoes, thousands of vehicles and people are pouring onto the peninsula in numbers that choke the Cross Bay Boulevard and Marine Parkway bridges, backing up traffic for hours.

For more than a week, the relief station run by Hallowed Sons members like Bobby Hansen and Donna Graziano was the only one in New Dorp Beach. Slideshow: After Sandy, the On-Going Recovery
Mark Hewko
For more than a week, the relief station run by Hallowed Sons members like Bobby Hansen and Donna Graziano was the only one in New Dorp Beach. Slideshow: After Sandy, the On-Going Recovery

But still, the huge discrepancies in distribution of all these resources persist. The overwhelming bulk of this flood of well-meaning people doesn't make it deep into the Rockaways at all. The plaza at the foot of the Cross Bay Bridge is transformed into a sort of relief carnival. Loud music blasts from big sound systems run off almost equally noisy generators. Verizon and T-Mobile have dispatched heavily branded trailers where people can charge their phones. Food trucks hawk their wares. Volunteers out for the weekend talk and mingle, bouncing their heads to the music.

At the northern end of the plaza, a big group from the Iglesia ni Cristo, a Philippines-based church, has its own sound system running. Church members in matching T-shirts are clambering in the trees to hang multiple banners bearing the church's insignia.

Moses Kadusale, the senior church member on-site, tells me the group is giving away food and blankets today as part of a regional recovery tour, running similar events in parts of New Jersey and Staten Island before culminating 10 days later in Times Square.

"We're going to have even more people than this for the one in Times Square!" Kadusale says, beaming, as he gestures at the scores of church members who have descended on the plaza.

Huh. Times Square?

"There will be a lot of people in need in Times Square, I'm certain of it," Kadusale assures me. "Everywhere we go, we're inviting them."

Across the street, a small group of Sikhs standing over trays of hot Punjabi food stare in polite bafflement at the Iglesia ni Cristo banners. The church arrived first today, taking over the spot where members of New York's Sikh community have headquartered their Rockaways recovery operation for weeks.

In the first days after Sandy hit, one of the most visible—indeed, one of the only—outside presences in the Rockaways came from volunteers from gurudwaras in Queens operating under the umbrella of United Sikhs. Ranjit Singh, who runs an air-conditioning business in Long Island City, estimates his group has served about 15,000 hot vegetarian meals in the Rockaways since the hurricane.

Serving food to strangers has been central to Sikh identity all the way back to the 15th century, when Guru Nanak challenged caste conventions by asking aspiring followers from all backgrounds to eat together before he would agree to teach them. Today, two gurudwaras in Richmond Hill serve about 5,000 meals every week.

Of course, there's another aspect to the Sikhs' recovery effort here. It's not lost on Singh that the sight of bearded, turbaned men being among the first and most consistent people to help a battered community has special significance in New York City.

"Things have been difficult since September 11," Singh says. "Every time something happens, we get scared. After the massacre in Wisconsin, I was thinking about my route home. But that's starting to change. Maybe people see this and will talk to each other: 'Oh, the Sikhs came first.'"

Still, the Sikh approach in the Rockaways has been low-key in contrast to the circus unfolding across the street.

"It's a different approach," Singh says, staring. "We come, we serve, we go."

Two miles east, the swarms of volunteers thin to nearly nothing. Outside the bleak concrete towers of Ocean Village, Tina Winston, a five-year resident of the housing complex, says conditions are still close to unlivable.

"One tower has water today," she says. "One tower has no water. Nobody has hot water. Nobody has electric."

The complex is privately owned, but most of the residents use HUD benefits to make rent. It was sold in November, and Winston says many of the units are empty as the new owners evict residents. Still, she says, about 300 people remain.

The bodega in the complex's ground floor has been broken into, "but that was just people surviving," Winston says. Worse is the violence that has escalated in the darkness left by the storm.

"Gunplay," she says, launching into a taxonomy of recent shoot-outs. "Between the two towers." She gestures across the street: "Hood to hood." She gestures down the block: "Hood to hood to hood."

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