As America goes to the polls, across New York the impact of Hurricane Sandy is still very deeply felt

Our writer on the East Coast speaks to locals angry at the lack of help they have received, stoic as they rebuild their lives - and braced for more hurricanes soon

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New York

 

Donna ‘Squeeze’ Leonard, a woman in her 50s, surveyed the ruins of a life on Thursday night. A broken television, children’s toys, a sofa ripped in two — all stacked in front of her Alphabet City home. “All my furniture is gone,” she said. “All my kids’ baby pictures, all their memorabilia from when they were born ‘til now.” When Hurricane Sandy hit New York and buffeted the city with a 14ft storm surge on Monday evening, four feet of water gushed into her bottom floor apartment.

Even worse, explained Leonard, as we walked around her emptied apartment guided only by a flashlight and a few candles, the neighbourhood has become more and more dangerous since the hurricane. “Bullets were flying last night,” she said, as she described shooting, looting and the attempted robbery of the apartment next to hers, pointing to the security grille that had seemingly been bent out of shape. “There’s been robberies already — they looted the computer place up the block.” Three other residents of the area confirmed that they had heard gunshots.

Detective Ort of the New York City Police Department’s DCPI information unit said there had been no calls to the police and no reports of shootings in the vicinity of Avenue C and 11th Street where Leonard lives. A soldier of the National Guard in the area who declined to give his name or rank because of Army policy also said he was not aware of any violence.

Asked who she blamed for the gunshots and robberies she has heard about, Leonard replied, “local yokels”. But she also said she was unsatisfied by the help city authorities have given her. There is currently a gas shortage in New York and emergency forces are stretched. “The city has done absolutely nothing,” she said, adding that the only relief she has been offered was a cup of water at a water distribution point. “It’s a poor area — it’s the least of their concerns. They don’t care, this area doesn’t get the money because they don’t care.”

Pink flares

As you went downtown during the days after the storm, the pools of light from the streetlamps at 34th Street faded into the pink of police flares by the side of the road. Then even this stopped; the only things that light dark canyons formed by blacked-out buildings were police and ambulance lights, the occasional lights from a generator and the headlamps of taxis. Abstract shapes — mounds of uncollected rubbish — would occasionally rise from the murk on street corners, filling the still night air with their pungent odour.

This was a situation described by one of my friends as “the Middle Ages” — though some neighbourhoods have power and expect it back over the weekend, at one point 795,000 people in New York City and Westchester County were without power.

As downtowner Ilon Perline, 25, put it between bites of a Maryland crab sandwich: “New York is dressing up as New Orleans for Halloween.”

Shower of flames

Many people are working around the clock to get New York back up and running. Military vehicles have been deployed around the streets, and the national guardsman told me “everything is in place” for a swift recovery. The New York marathon was cancelled so relief efforts could be better focused, and police are still thick downtown.

Near Leonard’s house, at the 13th Street ConEdison plant that exploded in a shower of yellow and blue flames and left much of lower Manhattan without power on Monday night, workers were toiling around the clock to remedy the situation on Thursday. “A lot of people here are extending themselves,” said a ConEdison supervisor who declined to give his name because of company policy. “Don’t forget that a lot of these guys don’t have lights neither.”

Saviours

Toad Hall, a bar in SoHo on Grand Street between Wooster Street and West Broadway, opened on Wednesday night by candlelight. It was around midnight, and three people were sat inside as Gale LaRocca, 57, pulled pints and philosophised about the storm. Local Max Lagrind was at the bar drinking from a bottle of Späten beer and chatting with his friend John Criscitello. Both wore wide-brimmed trilby hats and looked at their drinks in the glare of a headlamp. Together, they compared the blackout with those of ’03 (“one big block party”) and ’77 (“windows broken all over the place, looting”). This one was quieter than both, Lagrind said, because people “didn’t have smart ’phones in those days” and weren’t so worried about charging them.

“It’s really absurd how we are so dependent on these things,” Lagrind added, and Criscitello agreed, remembering how he walked into a small Greenwich Village café in ’77 and heard a singer screaming “Disco, Disco Sucks!” He mused: “I wonder what we’ll be doing in the next blackout?”

At the other end of the bar sat Chris Pappas, an employee of the bar and former underwater welder. Pappas, 39, had helped out all day and was remembering Hurricane Katrina over a late drink (“I work here and I drink here”). He remembered travelling through Venice, Louisiana, where he saw the carcass of a horse hanging from a tree. Six months later, he explained, it was still there. “This is not as bad as Katrina,” he said, although he admitted there was something strange about New York in blackout. He said the fire alarm at the James Hotel had been ringing constantly. “One of the weirdest sounds you’ve ever heard,” he explained. “Like the ping from a submarine.”

In the current hurricane, Pappas said, a few “saviours of the neighbourhood” — businesses such as Toad Hall and the Thompson Deli ’round the corner — had kept the area afloat. La Rocca said she had kept the bar open “because people live in the area, and they need a place to go.” She said Pappas is “a rare kind: he owns a complete dry suit” and that he had helped dredge out the basement. Staring over his whisky and into the darkness, Pappas prophesied: “Last year Halloween got destroyed by a snowstorm, this year Halloween got destroyed by a hurricane — next year I guess it’ll get destroyed by an Earthquake.”

Division

New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced on Friday that the New York Marathon was going to be cancelled. A statement on the New York Road Runner’s club website read: “while holding the race would not require diverting resources from the recovery effort, it is clear that it has become the source of controversy and division.”

And nowhere was that controversy and division more evident than in the New York tabloids: The Daily News (the print edition, for a few days in a pixellated format because their office and printer had lost power) wrote that Staten Island Councilman James S. Oddo, who represents one of the worst hit areas in the city, wrote on his Facebook page that holding the race would be “idiotic”.

It was perhaps ironic, then, that runners had taken the risk of being hit by falling trees and debris as they trained even during the storm. All over the Upper East Side on Monday and Tuesday, people were jogging along the avenues and next to the closed parks. Jen McCombs, 29, who planned to run the marathon and works at a running shop on the Upper East Side explained to me on Tuesday that they were trying to run 20 miles to train. “I got my 20 miles in last Monday,” she said. “They want to get their runs in — they don’t want to be cooped up in the house.”

Stink

The mainly residential area of Roosevelt Island lies just over the East River from the Upper East Side. It is a surreal landscape of high-rise apartments and grass lawns that slope down to the river, and on its southern tip, there is a newly opened Louis Kahn-designed concrete park commemorating Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech. The island is connected to the rest of the city by the subway, aerial tramway and the Roosevelt Island Bridge. Only the latter was kept open during the heavy weather. The Roosevelt Island Tramway was shut for the storm on Sunday, but reopened on Tuesday at 4pm. Though mechanic Marius Iordanescu, 57, who also operates the tramway for a two-hour shift in the evenings said “we don’t have any problem for high wind” — the tram can run in wind speeds of over 25 mph — the hurricane’s winds were up to 90 miles an hour, and it had to be shut for safety’s sake.

David Deyer, a cabin attendant on the tramway, said the operating staff had successfully “battened down the hatches” and that there was no flooding at the tramway station. Said Deyer: “A lot of people don’t know we’re open.”

Though only one of the trams was running, some islanders like Alex Fitzmyer, 27, and his wife, Urszula Nowak, 31, took the opportunity when the tramway opened to cross the river and stock up on supplies because they had not been well prepared when the storm first hit. “We have a lot of pasta and pasta sauce,” she said, gesturing at her bags. Scientist Laibaik Park, 49, said he felt trapped on the island on Monday night. “It was very scary because last night the wind was really strong,” he said, describing it as “a whistling sound you can hear between the windows.” Rose Brannon, 32, and her wife Jennifer Polley, 35

Libyan diplomat Mabruka Dervi, 53, said she saw some flooding on the island, and that some buildings had lost power during the night. “The water came close to my window,” she said. “But it wasn’t that bad.” For others, though, it was. Steve O’Day, 23, was charging his electronic items in the Riverwalk Bar and Grill, a restaurant crowded with refugees from the northern side of the island where buildings were hit the worst. “We lost power last night, we’re just sheltering here,” O’Day, who works in advertising, said. “It’s pretty crazy, there’s a lot of wind — it really stinks.” British Council worker Marie Oracca, 32, whose building at 536 Main Street lost power, said that the storm had turned from exciting to scary very quickly. “We consider ourselves lucky,” she said.

Normality - or not

As things go back to normal, with the power turned back on this week-end in Manhattan, many parts of the city are still without power and in need of serious attention. The Far Rockaways, Staten Island, Queens and the Jersey Shore are still in dire need of help. Any taxi driver will tell you how hard it is to get fuel and how there have been shootings at the pumps. Even driving through part of New Jersey on Sunday night, I saw long lines for petrol, petrol stations that remained closed, and blocks with no power.

With the damage from this hurricane set to rise above the $20bn mark, some FEMA relief fund officials estimate that the damage from Sandy, when they’ve managed to assess it in about two weeks’ time, may be worse than that of Hurricane Katrina. And with a heavy nor’easter — maybe a snowstorm — set to hit on Wednesday, the words of Squeeze Leonard, the woman flooded from her home by last Monday’s storm, vibrate at the particular frequency between truth and prescience that the words of the stricken often achieve: “It’s probably gonna get worse before it gets better.”

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