What About NYC That Doesn’t Make it To Postcards?

Anna Lekas-Miller, Guest Blogger

A woman walks up and down the dark hallway, holding a cheap transistor radio up to her ear, pressing it closer as it keeps cutting in and out.

“They’re saying that it could be anywhere between two and seven weeks before we get power,” she says, shaking her head. “So who even knows?”

I’m a volunteer with Occupy Sandy—a community relief effort that used the Occupy Wall Street network to coordinate hurricane relief in New York City’s hardest hit areas. I’mon the fifteenth floor of 711 Seagirt Boulevard, a twenty-five story housing complex in Far Rockaway—a neighborhood on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, New York that was one of the most devastated by Hurricane “Superstorm” Sandy. Though the building itself is secure, and suffered only a few inches of water during the storm itself, it has been without power and running water for almost two weeks. In a twenty-five story housing complex where many of the residents are elderly and disabled and the elevators no longer work, many of the residents have been trapped in their apartments since the storm.

I’m knocking on doors, seeing who needs water, food and batteries—and doing my best to coordinate getting their needs to them as soon as possible. Most of them have yet to see a representative from FEMA or the Red Cross.

Residents of the housing complex, and throughout the Rockaways, have no heat—and temperatures outside are beginning to regularly hit freezing or below. Many are using gas stoves and ovens to heat their apartments, risking carbon monoxide poisoning. Without running water, people without gallons of water on hand can’t flush their toilets or bathe. There is barely any cell phone reception. Anyone in an emergency situation is at the mercy of a bar or two of service in the right place, at the right time.

The only way to communicate or attain information is through battery-operated transistor radios and word-of-mouth. Most of the information about vital essentials—such as power and running water—is vague or only a questionably accurate estimate.

The morning after Hurricane Sandy swept over New York City, swaths of the New York City were flooded in several feet of water and all of Lower Manhattan was without power. Our once iconic skyline was cut in half, as lower Manhattan was plunged into darkness and silence—save for the steady, eerie hum of power generators powering cell phone chargers. There were ad-hoc canned food distribution centers in front of over-priced restaurants that had since been darkened and boarded up. For a moment, lower Manhattan was a very different place.

Gradually, New York City—or perhaps I should say, Lower Manhattan—began to come back. First, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) returned, up and running only two days after the storm despite the rest of lower Manhattan being out of power. Two days after that, power was largely restored to the rest of lower Manhattan, illuminating our skyline to once again resemble the postcards that make people fall in love with New York City from afar.

Soon thereafter, our subway returned. First, the 4 and the 5 trains were restored, so that commuters could reach Wall Street and the Financial District. Next the 2 and the 3 opened, another artery of New York City’s financial center. Those who lived near other trains had the option of shuttle buses and ferries, creating options to return to work and normalcy as quickly as possible.

But the far ends of the subway line—places like the Rockaways—look far different. The A train, which normally connects the Rockaways to the rest of New York City ends at Howard Beach, leaving the Rockaways disconnected and isolated. It will probably be like this for a long time—the bridge that the train crosses into the Rockaways was substantially damaged.

Debris is strewn across the beaches, and in the streets. Boats are marooned in the center of the highway, with no effort in sight to even attempt to remove them. Business have closed their doors closed indefinitely—with no power and little access to new supplies, there is no point in operating. Many have been boarded up and surrounded with caution tape for fear of looting or other crime. Caution tape is everywhere. Sand is everywhere.

Five days after the storm—once the NYSE was trading again and power had been restored in lower Manhattan—Mayor Bloomberg paid an unscheduled visit to the Rockaways. Though his rapid response to the storm in some parts of the city had been lauded, he faced a different crowd of New Yorkers in the Rockaways—many of whom having yet to see so much as a representative from FEMA or the Red Cross, much less knowledge of when they would have power and running water.

“When are we going to get some fucking help?” yelled one woman, heckling him in a crowd of indignant residents of the Rockaways.

There was no answer.

Volunteers are required to leave the Rockaways around 4:30—once the sun begins to set it becomes too dangerous to drive in the dark without stoplights. At one point, you can see Manhattan—glittering at the Rockaways from across Jamaica Bay. You keep driving, your way lit by only tiny flares at the sides of the road.

It becomes clear which of the two cities within one city has the privilege of power—in both its most literal and its metaphorical sense. One city has electricity, running water and functional cell phone service. One city can flush their toilets and charge their cell phones. One city can eat meals that aren’t canned tuna fish and come and go as they please with functional transportation.

As you drive away, the Rockaways shrink further into darkness and invisibility.

Anna Lekas Miller interned at The Nation in Summer 2011. She writes about a variety of issues ranging from Palestine and The Middle East to sex education and reproductive health. You can follow her on Twitter, @agoodcuppa.

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