Gov’t response to hurricane
shows true face of capitalism
‘Nothing was done to prepare us for this’
Matthew Czirr clears debris from his grandmother’s home in New Dorp section of Staten Island, N.Y., Nov. 7. Snow falls as another storm brews with evacuation urged in some areas.
BY EMMA JOHNSON
NEW YORK—As the worst storm in decades hit the East Coast, working people were largely left on their own to deal with its devastating effects.
The government did very little to prepare people despite the fact that it took seven days for Hurricane Sandy to reach the East Coast. At 8 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 29 the storm’s center came ashore near Atlantic City, N.J. The storm surge was a record 14 feet when it reached New York Harbor.
Throughout the night the winds, rains and flooding pounded New Jersey and New York. As of Nov. 3 the reported death toll in the U.S. was 109. Of the 40 reported deaths in New York, half are on Staten Island.
In the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens 111 houses burnt to the ground and 20 were damaged early Tuesday morning in the Breezy Point area. The fire and storm surge there left no building unscathed.
The impact on millions has been sharply class-differentiated.
Wage earners lost from two days’ to a week’s pay. For those in salaried professions it was a day off. Workers with children who had to work also had to deal on their own with the one week or longer closure of schools.
Workers in hard-hit areas relied on families, friends and scattered volunteer efforts for housing, hygiene, food, water and clothing. Meanwhile, shopkeepers often jacked up prices of basic necessities.
Like with Hurricane Irene last year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered a mandatory evacuation of 375,000 residents of low-lying “Zone A” areas in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island. Working people had to figure out where to go and how to get there. They weighed the challenges and risks of their options and many stayed home. Bloomberg called them “selfish.” New Jersey Gov. Christopher Christie added “stupid.”
Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered the shutdown of public transportation 24 hours before the storm hit. Limited subway service started up four days later. More than a week after the storm, parts of the system remain inoperable with no schedule for restoration.
More than 8.1 million houses and businesses in seven states lost power. In New Jersey it affected 2.5 million, with 62 percent of the state pushed into darkness. In New York 2 million people were cut off. Knocked-out areas included most of Lower Manhattan.
Wall Street was among the first places where electricity was restored and Bloomberg personally rang the New York Stock Exchange’s opening bell Oct. 31.
“Even though much of New York City was still suffering the effects of power outages, flooding and wind damage, trade was smooth on the New York Stock Exchange,” wrote the London Telegraph Oct. 31.
The New York Post and other papers scandalized Bloomberg for plans to use three big power generators hidden in Central Park to service the financial sponsors’ tent at the Nov. 4 city marathon, an event that generated $23.3 million in revenue last year. The mayor finally canceled the event Nov. 2 as the plan became a symbol of the city government’s priorities, including among many runners, some of whom traveled a great distance to participate.
President Barack Obama flew over ravaged parts of New Jersey in a helicopter with Governor Christie. Bloomberg was nowhere to be seen in the devastated working-class neighborhoods of New York. On Nov. 3 he attempted to make an appearance and have some pictures taken in Far Rockaway, a working-class, predominantly Black neighborhood in Queens. It is among the worst hit areas of the city and still lacked water. Bloomberg wasn’t well-received and the excursion was very short. He endured a minute of angry comments and questions. “When are we going to get some f------ help over here, seriously?” one woman shouted. “Everyone here and not even a bottle of water!” a man commented. Flanked with security, the mayor retreated into his SUV.
Volunteer efforts to help were often impeded by cops.
The Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, a community group based in Chinatown, organized a major volunteer effort to reach residents in Lower Manhattan and affected areas in Brooklyn. They reported on their website Nov. 4 that cops tried to shut them down and “today was another day where there was no information given out and City officials were nowhere to be seen.”
Mark Torres, a CAAAV volunteer, joined a group biking down with supplies to the Red Hook area of Brooklyn Nov. 4. “Pitch black, no power, no elevator … no heat, no water. We carried stuff up to the 14th floor for two elderly women,” he wrote on the group’s website.
He said FEMA, Bloomberg, the Red Cross weren’t doing anything there. “In fact, the National Guard asks people to fill out a form in order to receive aid. The form asks for your legal status; no papers = no aid.”
Torres said there was no lack of volunteers: “A bunch of them were just hanging around waiting to be assigned a task.”
Staten Island severely hit
Part of the New Dorp neighborhood of Staten Island is on high ground. Large houses dot the rolling hills where work crews are busy clearing away fallen trees. The picture is different off New Dorp Lane, the low-lying area that runs up to the beach where many working people live.
Waterlogged basement contents, carted out by residents and volunteers, are awaiting pickup by sanitation crews. Seven days after Hurricane Sandy hit, this neighborhood is still without power. The streets are littered with debris piled six to eight feet high.
“And we are not in the worst shape,” said Carmine Anastasio, a teacher from Poughkeepsie, standing outside his parent’s house. “The closer you get to the water, where the old beach bungalows are that have no basements and only a little insulation packed in, those are the places rented to poorer people and they have really been devastated.” Entire homes were washed away.
Tony Ciaramella, a retired postal worker, described an almost total lack of government response to the destruction working people face. “Nothing that was said or done before prepared us for this.”
Floods in south Manhattan
About 400,000 people in the city live in public housing, tall brick buildings often close to waterfronts. The hardest hit area of Manhattan, the Lower East Side, has many such projects. Parts were badly flooded. The entire area was without electricity and some parts lost water.
“You have to have some place to go and some way to get there,” said Natalie Rizzo, a worker in a nonprofit health clinic, who lives in the area. “If you don’t have a family, where do you go?”
Hotels in the area jacked prices sky high.
Residents in the Jacob Riis Houses are trying to get back to normal. Some residents told the Militant they didn’t leave their apartment for almost a week.
Marie Latoni, a city worker, went to live with relatives. When she came back, everything in her eighth floor apartment was soaked.
“The windows weren’t secured. The top had fallen down and the wind had driven in water,” she said. “I had to throw mattresses away. I’ve been out for a week. I haven’t gotten paid and don’t expect to get paid. A neighbor told me it might be possible to get food stamps, so I’ll try that.”
Residents said they’ve had to stand in line and then pay up to $5.50 for a four pack of thin candles and $3.50 for a small bottle of water that normally costs $1.
Power was restored to the building Nov. 3, but the boiler in the basement was still out, leaving residents with no heat or hot water.
Inez Irazarry and her family had initially decided to stay at their apartment. “But when we learnt that power would be gone for a week, we couldn’t stay with the children,” she said. “We went to a relative in the Bronx. When we got back on Saturday, it was freezing cold. We had to throw all the food away and hardly have any money.”
On Nov. 5 temperatures dropped to the mid-30s at night, with 140,000 houses and apartments still lacking electricity.
“You can die from being cold,” Bloomberg warned, according to the Daily News Nov 4. And he offered some advice, “If you see someone shivering uncontrollably or incoherent, get them a blanket or hot-water bottle.”
The News also said that “Bloomberg admitted there is no comprehensive plan for sheltering the hardest-hit victims.” City Hall estimates up to 40,000 people need to be relocated, half live in public housing.
Paul Mailhot contributed to this article.
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