The scenes on the television as Sandy hurled its full destructive force against New York showed spectacular devastation: an enormous crane broken and dangling crazily hundreds of feet above 57th Street, necessitating the emergency evacuation of surrounding buildings; the smoking ruins of Breezy Point, where a massive fire torched at least 80 houses.
But while many New Yorkers experienced the storm as an entertaining novelty or a passing inconvenience, what is generally true of natural disasters appears likely to be true again in New York: The greatest impact of the storm will be felt most painfully by New Yorkers already living in vulnerable and precarious circumstances.
The shutdown of the subway system and other parts of public transit was still without any projected end point when this paper went to press. But while 60 percent of New Yorkers rely on public transit, that doesn’t mean that its catastrophic failure affects everyone equally. Although many white-collar workers spent the immediate aftermath of Sandy working from home or driving their cars or taking taxis to work, that flexibility isn’t available to everyone.
“I don’t want to be insensitive to what’s happening in other communities,” says Elizabeth Yeampierre, the director of Uprose, a Brooklyn organization that advocates for environmental justice and transportation development. “But the public-transportation shutdown is going to disproportionately affect people who don’t have a car and can’t afford cab fare. The impact is going to be really harsh. People aren’t going to be able to get where they need to go—elders and kids getting their services, people trying to get to work.”
For residents of the Red Hook Houses, Brooklyn’s largest public-housing complex, the storm itself was only the beginning. Despite Mayor Bloomberg’s ordered evacuation of the houses, most residents opted to take their chances at home.
Now, the complex is living through a post-storm nightmare. The New York City Housing Authority shut down elevators in the complex before the storm, leaving residents as high as the 14th floor stranded. Then the storm knocked out electricity to much of Red Hook, and it has yet to be restored.
“We’re living without lights, without water, without elevators,” says Toni Khadijah James, a 21-year veteran of the Red Hook Houses. “It’s almost impossible to get out. People are using their cell phones to light the stairways.”
Residents are being told it could take three to five days to restore power to the houses, leaving residents to face more nights of inky darkness.
“This is a situation where if anyone wanted to hurt or kill you, they could do it,” James says. “I’ve seen men break down because they feel like they can’t keep their children safe.”
Meanwhile, the only visible light in the neighborhood Tuesday night came from across the street from the Red Hook Houses, where a generator kept the lights in a Sovereign Bank branch on to discourage looting.
“People down here are really upset,” James says. “Bloomberg abandoned us here. This is our Katrina.”