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Sandy’s Shame

Cover Story Jan

by J.R. Salzman

Leslie Mahoney is visibly shaken and justifiably angry. We are standing in the hallway of her beachfront home in Belle Harbor, N.Y. After nearly two weeks without heat and electricity, her home is cold and dark. There is sand all over the floor, inadvertently tracked in from the storm surge that left multiple feet of sand in yards, streets and people’s homes.

“I’ve never collected an unemployment check,” she said. “I’ve never collected a welfare check. I’ve never collected anything but what I worked for. And he’s not interested in me. If I were really, really poor, maybe. But that’s only because he could write it off.”

Mahoney had just finished telling me her family’s story of survival in the face of Hurricane Sandy. How the waves suddenly began breaking against the second-story windows, as if her home had suddenly been placed out in the ocean. How the doors and windows on her basement were blown in before the ocean eventually filled it with six feet of sand as she and her family fled to the third floor of their home, praying in the damp darkness.

“We watched the wind pick up our cars and topple them in the driveway,” she said. “We watched the winds topple the house across the street. We watched the fires burn the houses down the street. It was a very, very scary time.”

Despite weathering many hurricanes and storms, Mahoney said Sandy was, by far, the worst she had ever experienced.

As we stepped outside, I was introduced to Mahoney’s daughter Christine. She was a bit more candid about the situation.

“FEMA now stands for F#@* Every Middle-class American,” she said angrily.

As they further explained the situation, it would seem that their angst was justified. Word of mouth spread throughout the hardest-hit areas of New York like Rockaway and Staten Island that those in need could sign up for FEMA assistance online. Without power and with homes flooded, of course, residents had no computer or Internet access.

Along with the loss of power, cell phone service to the area had been knocked out. So even if residents had found a way to charge their cell phones, it would have done them little good. Some residents had generators, but with the gas stations flooded and everyone’s cars swept away or destroyed by the storm surge, there was no way to get more gasoline for them. And even if residents did manage to find a way to travel to the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn or Queens to get gas, there would be a minimum six-hour wait in line as supplies dwindled and stations ran dry.

A Staten Island resident had told me earlier in the week that when he showed up at a nearby FEMA station for assistance, they said his name was not in the system despite his registering online three days prior. After going back to his flooded home and retrieving his registration information, he was again left helpless after FEMA’s computer system crashed and was down for hours.

With each individual I spoke with, it was clear that those they entrusted with their safety and wellbeing had utterly failed them. Many were prepared to spend a few days without power, heat, food or water. But as days turned into weeks, communities were left in dire straits as temperatures dipped below freezing, and city, state and federal relief efforts were completely lacking.

After spending a week in the hardest-hit areas of New York City, it was abundantly clear that the situation on the ground was far worse than the “mainstream” media were reporting. Considering their complicity in the whole ordeal, their lack of due diligence in covering the news on the ground is without surprise.

Nearly every person I spoke with cited the media hysteria over Hurricane Irene, the “storm of the century” that wasn’t, as one of the reasons they decided to weather the storm. The media’s endless hyperventilating made everyone feel that Sandy would not be that bad—that it was simply the media overreacting again to boost their ratings. And besides, city officials had said the storm wasn’t going to be that bad.

“Although we’re expecting a large surge of water, it is not expected to be a tropical storm or hurricane-type surge,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg had said in an Oct. 28 address. “With this storm, we’ll likely see a slow pileup of water rather than a sudden surge, which is what you would expect with a hurricane, and which we saw with Irene 14 months ago.”

Bloomberg was completely wrong, and when evacuation orders did finally come down, it was too late for many residents.

The storm surge would not be gradual, nor would it be light. As a union plumber living in Belle Harbor recounted to me, “We’ve been through so many storms here and so many hurricanes here, it was always the same thing. You stock up the night before, get gas and plenty of food and stuff in the house, and you prepare for maybe a power outage.”

That all changed when the road in front of his home turned into a raging river, rising to within an inch of coming in his front door, and completely filling his basement to the ceiling. In the aftermath, FEMA told him he needed to replace all of the electrical wiring in his basement before his power can be turned back on.

“They said I need a licensed electrician,” he said. “Are they supplying them, or do I need to find one? I mean, there are like 3,000 homes down here.”

Despite the destruction left by Hurricane Sandy, Bloomberg, in an effort to downplay the severity of the aftermath, did not even initially deem it necessary to cancel the New York City Marathon. The path of the marathon would have actually taken runners through areas that had flooded, where residents still sat without heat or electricity. Important resources like generators, tents, food and water that could have been used to help those in need were left sitting on trucks or locked away instead of being directed to those affected by the hurricane. Displaced residents taking up shelter in hotels were left to wonder if they would be kicked out on the street to make room for marathon runners who booked their rooms months in advance.

“I actually had to figure out how we were going to get to work (on Rockaway) because the marathon route went right through our base,” a National Guard soldier told me.

I encountered soldiers patrolling the beach areas carrying three empty magazines, but no firearms. They were told that Mayor Bloomberg did not want the area to look like “a police state.”

Meanwhile, in the absence of the NYPD and National Guard, and with neighborhoods left completely dark without electricity or protection, residents in some areas took matters into their own hands, warning looters with signs stating, “You loot, we shoot,” and, “Looters will be shot.”

One Belle Harbor resident with a sign in his front yard made sure to tell me, “And I mean it.” He was referring to a shotgun he kept at the ready inside his home.

In truth, Bloomberg’s priorities have been more directed at regulating residents’ salt and sugar intake and legal ownership of firearms than providing assistance after this natural disaster. But Bloomberg’s failure of leadership was not the only one I encountered during my journey through New York City.

As I observed some National Guard soldiers in their daily operations in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, they received an urgent radio transmission that they needed to immediately travel from Rockaway Beach to Long Beach for a public relations stunt with Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Their orders were to abandon their food and water distribution mission in Rockaway Beach, gather some boxes of mres into a couple of Humvees, travel out to where the governor was, and stage a photo-op of him handing out food to local residents.

It was abundantly clear that their mission at Rockaway Beach, a poor working-class neighborhood devastated by Hurricane Sandy, was far more important than any PR stunt could ever be. After a brief wait, word came down that the mission would be scrapped—not because it would waste valuable assets, but because the Humvees and military personnel were too far away and could not get there quickly enough to meet the governor and the media.

Despite all the hardship, pain, incompetence and disorganization that residents were suffering after Hurricane Sandy, I saw little media there on Election Day. Aside from two Reuters videographers casually milling about, munching on granola bars, I saw no other reporters.

The only TV crew I encountered was a local Fox affiliate setting up to do a corner shot in front of the St. Frances De Sales Parish, where much of the Belle Harbor community’s relief efforts were centralized. I asked their technicians where all the other media were. They said that everyone was too tired from the election to cover the hurricane. When I tried to press the issue further, I was shooed away by an on-air personality hiding behind the cracked window of a warm, idling SUV.

In Rockaway Beach I saw no FEMA, Salvation Army or Red Cross effort. There was no Dunkin’ Donuts truck giving away free coffee, no Allstate tent where local residents could file insurance claims. All of those resources were farther west in the nicer neighborhoods. The poor, working-class neighborhood of Rockaway Beach was left out of that effort.

A soldier with the National Guard informed me that the people in those more upscale neighborhoods are scared of Rockaway Beach residents. It is a working-class neighborhood dotted by high-rise public housing buildings—the type of place where NYPD is met with an eye of suspicion instead of trust and safety. It is a neighborhood where residents are not used to others helping them with anything.

In the absence of FEMA, the Red Cross and the National Guard, communities like Rockaway Beach and Belle Harbor pooled together what few resources they had to take care of their own. Residents from unaffected areas of NYC drove in with food and clothing to donate. Construction contractors in the neighborhood rushed in heavy equipment to help move debris. Restaurants with food trucks set up shop and gave away hot meals. Churches turned their grounds into rallying points for hot meals and donations. Even members of the Occupy movement, better known for their record of moral depravity in Zuccotti Park than for their charity, set up a small Occupy Sandy movement to distribute goods and help nearby residents.

The New York Times and other media outlets, quick to protect their preferred candidates from public scrutiny and blame, lauded the Occupy Sandy efforts while ignoring much larger faith-based efforts around the community. Rather than chastising FEMA, Mayor Bloomberg, President Obama and New York City officials for their abject failures in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the media generated stories of blame for utility companies that failed to fix, in one week, a power infrastructure that took years to emplace. Gas stations were accused of price gouging for daring to raise the price a few cents on a product they were not certain they could replenish.

If you’ll recall, following Hurricane Katrina, the national media sought out every story of discontent possible—true or not—in order to somehow blame President George W. Bush. Stories of dead bodies floating in streets, looting of businesses, chaos and anarchy, even unfounded claims of cannibalism, were all attributed to him as evidence of his supposed abject failure of leadership. The media took it upon themselves to write the narrative and point their fingers directly at President Bush for the entire world to see.

This is the Katrina moment for Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama. The story of disaster, leadership failure and government incompetence, while intentionally ignored by the national media, has already been written by those suffering through the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

It’s time for the world to know.