Letter from the United States: Workers, poor suffer most from Sandy

November 8, 2012
Activists from the former Occupy movement have mobilised to help bring food, water and clothing to the most stricken areas.

A Brooklyn teacher on an email list said on November 2: “As I begin writing this, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is speaking in Staten Island. She is rattling off statistics on how much water the federal government is delivering and reminding residents of the island borough of FEMA’s phone number and URL.

“CNN only seemed to discover the massive death toll, flooding, and destruction in Staten Island 3-4 days after Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast.

“Staten Island residents, like many outer borough New Yorkers, are starting to recognize the extent to which we are being ignored despite the daily press conferences and repeated shows of politicians thanking and congratulating each other.”

Staten Island is one of the five boroughs of New York City. This largely working-class borough is situated right in the heart of New York Harbour.

It should have been obvious from the start it would bear the brunt of the storm. Yet federal, state and city governments and the media ignored Staten Island for days.

Simply handing out the phone number of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for residents to call for assistance, while the agency itself was nowhere to be seen, is disgusting.

So is the continuing barrage of TV ads extolling fracking, “clean coal”, and opposing regulation of greenhouse gases — right in the middle of the devastation.

Staten Island remains smashed as I write on November 7. Half of New York City’s death toll of more than 40 occurred there. The death toll for the US was 119 as of November 6.

The story of how two little boys died is indicative. “The police found the little boys’ bodies in the cattails at the end of their dead end street,” The New York Times reported on November 1.

“The police said their mother, Glenda Moore, 39, had packed them into her blue sport utility vehicle and was trying to flee the storm by driving to her sister’s home in Brooklyn.

“The storm thwarted her getaway, first by stalling the engine, the police said.

“Ms. Moore managed to step outside her SUV, taking 2-year-old Brendan in her arms and leading 4-year-old Conner by the hand. But a wave slammed into them, driving her and Brendan into the marsh and breaking her hold on Conner. Another wave carried him away moments later.

“About six miles away, rescuers searching a wooded lot found the bodies of an 89-year-old man and his 66-year-old wife on Thursday [three days after the storm hit]; the couple had lived less than 500 yards away. The police said the lot was still ‘overrun with water’ and that sudden flooding could have kept them from escaping in their car during the storm.”

Another NYT article, five days after the storm hit, first reported on the hardship in a working-class housing project on Coney Island, site of the famous amusement park, also on New York Harbour: “It would be dark soon at the Coney Island Houses, the fourth night without power, elevators and water.

“Another night of trips up and down pitch-black staircases, lighted by shaky flashlights and candles. Another night of retreating from the dark ...

“Victor Alvarez, 60, waited for any word of his wife, who suffers from schizophrenia and had disappeared into the wreckage-strewn neighborhood.

“And Marilyn Smalls, 48, sipped a room-temperature Corona that she had liberated from a gas-station trash bin the day before, along with sodas and bags of beef jerky — which drew neighbors knocking, as word of the haul got out.

“Perhaps more so than in any other place in the city, the loss of power for people living in public housing projects forced a return to a primal existence. Opened fire hydrants became community wells. Sleep-to-wake cycles were timed to sunsets and sunrises.

“People huddled for warmth around lighted gas stoves as if they were roaring fires. Darkness became menacing, a thing to be feared.

“A lack of friends or family with cars or cab fare to get to them, meant there were few ways to escape. Dwindling dollars heightened the pain of throwing out food rotting inside powerless refrigerators, and sharpened the question of where the next meal would come from ...

“Any bathtubs filled with water on Monday are empty. Unflushed toilets stink. Elderly people with creaky joints are marooned on upper floors. Batteries are running out.”

About 400,000 low income New Yorkers live in public housing and many of these buildings hug the waterfront.

Similar tales are being told about housing projects on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn.

Desperate people have raided closed shops for food and water, to the consternation of bourgeois-minded law-and-order types. But there is a dark side, too, as anti-social lumpens attack workers and the poor under cover of darkness.

Even in areas not flooded by the storm’s surge, many children are going back to schools without heat, bundled up in coats, mittens and scarves, often in schools that still need cleaning.

A positive note is how ordinary people are helping each other. Activists from the former Occupy movement have mobilised to help bring food, water and clothing to the most stricken areas, in many cases outdoing “official” help organisations such as the Red Cross.

The New York marathon was cancelled, but many of the runners, who come from all over the world, went to Staten Island where the race was to begin, and pitched in, bringing water and food to those in desperate need. In good shape, they have been able to climb stairs to reach the elderly and sick.

Slowly, the wide area of devastation caused on the northeastern coast and inland from Hurricane Sandy is being cleaned up. Power is slowly being restored. The New York City subways have had partial service restored.

But making things worse has been a cold wave hitting the region. And on November 7, a “regular” winter storm is slamming into New Jersey and New York, with strong winds, rains and snow expected to slow down recovery efforts.

When Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and the Gulf Coast seven years ago, the response by FEMA was horrible. Then-president George Bush had gutted the agency; part of the ruling class drive to cut needed social services. Bush had appointed a fool to head FEMA whose job was to destroy it.

Since Katrina, FEMA has been rebuilt, first under Bush and then Obama — but not adequately. FEMA did much better this time, but is still not up to the task.

Compared with the efforts of Cuba, a much poorer country, to counter the effects of Sandy, FEMA is still feeble.

Rebuilding the wide areas damaged by Sandy will take months if not years. It is estimated that about 40,000 homes were destroyed, for example.

But beyond rebuilding back up to where the area was before Sandy, what will be done about global warming and the more intense storms that will come as a result?

Right now, US capitalism is on a drive to accelerate production of fossil fuels. This certainly doesn’t bode well for curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

In some capitalist circles, there is talk of erecting dikes and so forth, to ameliorate some of the effects of global warming, which is cynically accepted to be the future.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more of Sheppard's articles.]

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