As Sandy Relief Efforts Fade, Crisis Far From Over

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Jury-rigged wiring snakes through ground-floor windows at NYCHA's Seaside Gardens.

Photo by: Neil deMause

Jury-rigged wiring snakes through ground-floor windows at NYCHA's Seaside Gardens.

On Neptune Avenue in Coney Island, the throngs that surrounded the Coney Island Gospel Assembly’s relief site in November have mostly dissipated. The mobile medical office—a gift from a pastor in Joplin, Missouri—remains in place, and a Red Cross truck dispenses emergency groceries to a daily queue of local residents. But with some semblance of normalcy returning, Pastor Connie Hulla can spend some time focusing on getting electricity restored to the church building itself, currently lit by a rat’s nest of extension cords plugged to a generator.

The new normal, though, is unlike what existed in this low-income neighborhood before Sandy brought an 11-foot wall of water sweeping through on October 29. Hulla recalls that when her father founded the church in the late 1950s, the surrounding area of Coney Island’s West End was all slums of “dilapidated bungalows,” not yet displaced by the city-owned public housing towers that dominate the area today. “After the storm, it seems we have sunk now back to slum living,” she says. “When you drive into Coney Island, everything doesn’t look so bad. But when you get inside of these buildings, it’s a horror.”

It’s a common complaint, not just in Coney Island but other city beachfront communities: While the crisis may have passed for some residents, for others the misery shows little sign of letting up. While power and heat are back to most of the city—the exceptions, like Hulla’s church, being buildings whose electrical systems don’t allow them to connect to the now-working grid—there is widespread talk of mold, of heatless nights and garbage-stuffed hallways at city housing projects, and of a city-run Rapid Repairs service that has belied its name with long delays.

Just how widespread these problems are, and whether they’re likely to abate anytime soon, is tough to determine. While there have been occasional positive reports—Rapid Repairs says it plans on completing all work by the end of February, and the number of displaced residents housed in hotels is now down to around 4,000—the city agencies in charge of relief and recovery effort, many of which had their own lower Manhattan offices lose power or heat for weeks in the wake of the storm, remain fragmented, with no citywide census of the state of recovery efforts.

Michael Taylor, the chairman of the board for the community nonprofit Gerritsen Beach Cares, says that until concerns are addressed about cleanup of remaining property, particularly around mold, the Sandy crisis is still ongoing: “This is not over by any stretch of the imagination.”

A different disaster

Immediately after the storm inundated hundreds of thousands of homes in the city and knocked out power or heat to hundreds of thousands more, there were fears of a New Orleans-style housing disaster—Mayor Bloomberg initially estimated that 40,000 people had been displaced, though his office quickly backed away from that estimate—that could require the deployment of dreaded FEMA trailers to house large numbers of city residents. As it turned out, though, most of those in storm-damaged homes either chose to return to them after the storm, or found other accommodation: A city program to house people in vacant hotel rooms was down to a little over 2,000 placements by early January; a parallel FEMA program showed similar numbers. When trailers did arrive, they ended up being stashed at a holding site in Pennsylvania rather than being deployed in New York.

Just because the housing apocalypse didn’t arrive, though, doesn’t mean that life has returned to anything like normal for many who survived the storm. While electricity and heat are back on throughout the West End, residents say that many buildings are still limping along with partial power and recurrent heat outages. Marcie Jackson, a resident of the sprawling Seaside Gardens complex between Surf Avenue and Mermaid Avenue, says the heat there is shut off at 10 p.m. each night, thanks to temporary boilers patched into place after the storm. “That’s crazy!” she says in amazement. “You got people in the building with little babies, and they cut the heat off!” Hulla says she’s been asked by NYCHA not to provide tenants with electric heaters, for fear of starting fires.

Downstairs in the same building, Jackson’s friend Veronica Vanable is still cleaning up from the storm, went sent two feet of water flooding into her second-floor apartment. NYCHA, she says, sent in a cleaning team right after the storm: “They came in here with a vacuum and vacuumed the water up the best they could.” Even then, though, water backed up again in her sink—she shows off blurry cellphone photos she snapped of this renewed flood pouring out across her floor—and there are pools of standing water in the hallway outside her door. “I’ve been waiting for them to place me somewhere,” she says. After almost 30 years in Coney Island, the storm was the last straw: “I really want to move.”

Across Surf Avenue in the NYCHA-owned Coney Island Houses, tenant association vice-president Steve St. Bernard says that the broken garbage compactors that left residents to pile up garbage in hallways remain broken three months after the storm. “We do have a little stench in the buildings,” he says. “There’s 544 apartments, and all that garbage being put in the hall and staying overnight until the maintenance comes the next day, that is creating a rodent and roach situation.” Meanwhile, residents of Gravesend Houses near Coney Island Creek say they’ve been visited by a plague of mid-winter mosquitoes. “I close my sink up at night so they don’t come through,” says Gravesend resident Dolores Johnson. “In the basement, it smells just like the sewer.”

NYCHA spokesperson Sheila Stainback refuses to comment on the record about current conditions overall at NYCHA housing projects. On the particular complaints levied above, a statement issued by NYCHA last night says that they have all been addressed: “There currently are no sewage issues or mosquito infestations” at Seaview or Gravesend, and as of yesterday, “garbage hoppers have been unsealed and are open for use” by residents of Coney Island Houses. Reached by phone, Johnson contends: “The mosquitoes are still here, and the smell from the sewage is not all gone.”

Unclear if mold is a threat

In Gerritsen Beach, meanwhile, where more than 2,000 homes were inundated, “For some it’s gotten a little bit better, for some it’s still as bad, and for others it’s even worse,” says Taylor from Gerritsen Beach Cares. “The people that didn’t clean out are now living in moldy environments and getting sick.”

Taylor estimates there are “well over 100 homes” in Gerritsen that weren’t properly cleaned after the storm: “either homes that were previously vacant, owners just abandoned, landlords didn’t have the money to clean out.” Kathy Ene, a Gerritsen resident who’s helped spearhead recovery efforts, says that one neighbor has mold and needs asbestos cleanup, and was quotes a figure of $100,000 to restore her house. “So clearly she’s not getting anywhere fast.”

Mold is a big concern in Coney Island as well, says Hulla, who claims mold has taken root in both the low-rise single family homes that dot the neighborhood and in the NYCHA-owned high rises that house most of Coney’s population. There, stairwells still reek of dank, wet sand nearly three months after the storm; Hulla says she’s heard reports of mold starting to creep up inside walls and elevator shafts to the upper floors.

“They’ve had a few mold meetings,” says Hulla. “I don’t think they’re very well attended, to tell you the truth, because it’s so cold in Coney Island. People are not going to come out at night.”

The cold has so far kept mold relatively at bay, but Taylor is concerned that once warmer weather arrives, mold spores will spread too fast to be contained. “I’m worried that more than 25% of our community is going to end up wind up being overrun with mold and condemned,” he says. “To the best of my knowledge, if it was 70 degrees and humid right now, within a month, a month and a half that would be it. Within a month the house will be beyond the point of being able to treat and rebuild it.”

Such worries are widespread in Sandy-affected communities, and it’s hard to evaluate how realistic they are. Though there was much concern about the effects of mold in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina—with widespread reports of a so-called “Katrina cough”—subsequent studies didn’t turn up evidence of increased hospital visits as a result of mold exposure.

And the Department of Buildings has said that it won’t condemn buildings for mold damage, saying that’s the Department of Health’s purview.

Neither agency, meanwhile, has apparently done any surveys of mold damage post-Sandy: A Buildings spokesperson bluntly responded, “We don’t handle mold,” while a Health spokesperson directed anyone concerned to the department’s factsheet on mold cleanup, as well as providing a statement that “We offer guidance but we have not assessed damage and we don’t go into homes as mold is not considered a serious health hazard for most people and can be cleaned up safely. Testing on outdoor air quality after Hurricane Sandy has shown no problems.”

A tale of two cleanups

To some degree, the differing pace of cleanup efforts has exposed class divisions among Sandy victims. “People who have money, they’re back in their houses,” says Ene. “Then there’s other people that they still need to rip the walls down.”

FEMA says that through January 15 it had disbursed $850 million in grants to applicants within the five boroughs, a number that will undoubtedly rise still higher: Some of the 263,000 applications received so far have yet to be processed, and, according to FEMA spokesperson Gay Ruby, “we are still getting several hundred each day in the 13 affected counties.”

Even then, though, FEMA aid isn’t always enough to cover all rebuilding costs. Ene says one of her neighbors lost her entire first floor to flooding, and was offered only $6,000 from FEMA. “It depends on who your adjuster is,” she says. “The numbers are all over the place.”

For those who still haven’t been able to return to their homes, meanwhile, the extended Sandy recovery has become an increasingly anxious waiting game, as the twin hotel relocation programs run by the city and FEMA have continued their piecemeal extensions.

Fred Rodriguez, who fled his Bayview Avenue ground-floor apartment before the storm and was eventually relocated to a hotel in Queens, recalls how a FEMA official called him on a Friday morning to say that the hotel program would be terminated by the next Monday—only to have a motel official inform him later that day that the program had been extended another two weeks. “He was saying if there’s nowhere else for me to go than the Bronx, then I may have to go to the Bronx,” he says. “I’m just hoping and praying that I find something closer.”

For now, Taylor is investigating a purchase of ultraviolet devices that he’s been told will kill mold, while Hulla continues to help locals battle the intertwined bureaucracies—insurance companies, FEMA, and Rapid Repairs—that have come to dominate life in the recovery zones. “I find that the process is so complicated—people are being sent from place to place,” she says, while Rapid Repairs “is just backlogged,” citing an example of one local resident who waited 12 hours for workers to show up, then had to return to his damaged home the next day to wait even longer.

“It’s just difficult,” continues Hulla. “Everybody lost their cars here, if you were lucky enough to have a car. So how much time do you have to spend going from place to place? You’re tired, you’re sick, living in deplorable conditions. It’s a hard thing.”