Queens Leaders Want More Attention Paid To Hurricane Sandy's Hardest-Hit Victims

on November 05 2012 3:17 PM
  • Post-Sandy Flushing, Queens
    Even six days after Hurricane Sandy hit the New York region, major damage was still on full display in areas like the Queensboro Hill neighborhood of Flushing, Queens, seen here on Sunday. Adam Lombardi
  • Hurricane Sandy Damage
    Even six days after Hurricane Sandy hit the New York region, major damage was still on full display in areas like Whitestone, Queens, seen here on Sunday. Devon O'Connor
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As the recovery from Hurricane Sandy slowly makes its way across the New York/New Jersey area, a new divide has emerged -- not surprisingly, between the haves and have-nots.

For the thousands who live in lower Manhattan, the storm was an annoyance to be sure, but after getting their power back Friday night, most people in these neighborhoods can go back to their regular routines with little changed.

As Steve Kozloski, a nurse who lives in Manhattan's East Village, put it Sunday morning: “The lights are on; everyone's getting back to work tomorrow.  I'm glad it's finally all over.”

The problem is that for many in the region --- the have-nots, as it were -- it’s not over. Places like Midland Beach and Tottenville, Staten Island, which have all but disappeared -- swallowed by the hurricane’s surging waters -- and look “like a war zone,” as one Staten Island man said.

Or Coney Island, Brooklyn, where thousands of impoverished housing project dwellers are still without power and are using ovens and fires to keep warm as they wait for help that doesn't appear to be coming quickly enough.

Or Breezy Point, Queens, where dozens of homes burned down on the night of the storm and hundreds more were swept out to sea. Pieces of these houses are still coming in with the tide on the barrier shore that the neighborhood's residents called home.

City Councilman Dan Halloran, a Republican councilman representing Northeast Queens and a candidate for New York's Ninth Congressional District in Tuesday's election, visited Breezy Point -- aka Breezy -- last week and saw the destruction there firsthand.

“If you go to Breezy or Howard Beach, it’s devastation everywhere,” he said. “Fire damage, wind damage, water damage. You've got boats washed up on the streets, houses, roofs and stuff literally washed up alongside the beachfront areas. There were homes completely underwater. It's going to take years to get Breezy back together. It’s going take months to get the rest of the city's coastal areas back together. It’s not pretty.”

Even in areas like Bayside, Flushing and Fresh Meadows, Queens, where the damage was not as severe as the coastal neighborhoods in that borough like the Rockaways and Howard Beach, the scene is still difficult to swallow, said Adam Lombardi, an Auburndale-based community advocate.

“Some places are far more of a crisis than others, but in all reality the trees have wreaked havoc on many residential blocks,” Lombardi noted. “We're not just talking about a car being crushed; we're talking about 100-year-old trees taking out a lot of the infrastructure, and it's not an overnight fix. I'm not an engineer, but when giant sections of blocks are still cordoned off and people can't even get onto their blocks, it’s really frightening. It's devastation really.”

Elected officials and community advocates in these areas are speaking out through whatever microphones they have -- Facebook, Twitter, national news broadcasts, press releases -- to try to goad the city, federal emergency authorities, Con Ed, nonprofits, churches and whoever else to help them rebuild.

But the response to these calls has been decidedly slow, according to many of these officials. Halloran has been particularly vocal about the tribulations he has witnessed in the wake of Sandy. As of Sunday evening, his Council District, which includes Whitestone, Bayside and other waterside communities, still had 10,000 homes without power and Queens as a whole still had 90,000 homes in the dark, he said, citing figures from Con Edison.

“As far as I can tell, 75 percent of the city of New York has had power restored, except for the borough of Queens, where 75 percent has not been restored,” Halloran said, adding that Staten Island and Brooklyn were also hit hard by the storm.

Lombardi seconded Halloran’s inference that Manhattan was moved to the head of the list in the Sandy rescue effort.

“The city's resources are obviously stretched pretty thin right now, but it seems that Manhattan gets the bulk of the help,” he said.

Halloran says he believes that there are a number of additional reasons besides Manhattan favoritism behind the lack of attention given to the outer boroughs. For one, the plan to hold the New York Marathon, which was finally canceled under intense pressure from residents of the boroughs still facing the worst from Sandy, compelled authorities to get most of Manhattan cleaned up and ready to deal with the onslaught of runners and their families who would be descending on the city.

But beyond that, Halloran thinks that the city was simply not prepared for the storm. Gas stations should have generators, and the city should keep an inventory of their fuel supplies to lessen the shortages and hoarding that followed in Sandy’s wake, he said. Moreover, Con Ed must bury power lines across New York, he maintains, in order to ensure outages never again leave such a wide swatch of the population without electricity, heat and hot water. (Most of the above ground lines are in the outer boroughs of the city.)

And the city needs to implement a tidal and coastal plan in order to prevent storm surges from decimating entire neighborhoods, Halloran noted.

But if the emergency authorities are slow in helping the outer boroughs, local efforts are going to have to pick up the slack for the time being. For example, Devon O'Connor, the founder and president of Welcome to Whitestone, a Northeast Queens community group, has put together a team to aid in the clean up through a variety of avenues, including a highly successful donation drive that he says brought in about 600 bags of clothes, diapers, toiletries and other supplies over the weekend, which he plans to deliver to decimated Queens and Long Island neighborhoods this week.

“The community is really coming together and helping any way they can,” he said. “As corny as it sounds, it was heartwarming picking up these donations from people. It definitely shows that when everyone comes together, we can really get something done.”

Beyond his boots-on-the-ground approach to the recovery effort, O'Connor has a rosier view of the post-Sandy response than many do.

“I understand -- I don't think everyone understands it -- that it's something that's going to take time. It's not something that's going to be fixed over the weekend,” he explained. “A lot of people thought, 'OK, it's Sunday, I need to go back to work tomorrow. Why isn't everything cleaned up?' It's just not something that's going to be done that quickly.”

 

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