On Monday, Oct. 29, 2012, Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey and New York, swelling oceans and rivers until water had no choice but to flood land. The water crossed every barrier, and its effects knew no class. Immigrant communities from places such as Brighton Beach and Canarsie in Brooklyn were hit hard, but so were residents in some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the world, like Tribeca and SoHo in Manhattan.
The electrical grid went down in several places, and for a few weeks much of the Northeast was united by darkness.
But unity was not a characteristic of the storm’s aftermath.
For many people who didn’t have tens of thousands of dollars sitting in their bank accounts in case of disaster, the effects of Superstorm Sandy linger. When the water finally receded, it revealed a case study in how close to the edge of destruction many Americans are. For people living paycheck to paycheck, Sandy proved that one flooded apartment or business could lead to months of misery.
From the Jersey Shore to eastern Staten Island to the Rockaways in Queens, people are still struggling to gain back things they never thought they’d have to worry about losing — a daily routine, a livelihood, a home.
On Jan. 29, President Barack Obama signed a bill that gave states affected by Sandy over $50 billion to recover. But it’s unclear where all that money went.
Some say if it had been spent effectively and transparently, people who needed to rely on the government to rebuild their lives would have rebuilt them by now. DeCellio might not be postponing retirement, businesses in Staten Island would be thriving again, and 300 residents of the Rockaways and other coastal areas in Brooklyn would be living in homes, not in hotels as they are now.
Instead, thousands are stuck waiting for slow-moving government agencies and nonprofits to decide their futures.
In places like New Dorp Lane on the eastern shore of Staten Island, there’s not much destruction to be found. Construction crews have cleaned up and left. But beyond the veneer of a return to normality, pain from Sandy still reigns.
It’s present in the bank accounts of people like Dominick Griffo, who owns Griff’s Place, a sports bar on the island. It’s thriving, but Griffo is deep in debt after insurance covered just a fraction of the storm-related repairs the bar needed.
The pain is present inside the walls of housing projects in New Jersey, where residents are suing Gov. Chris Christie’s administration to find out why they were rejected for state funds to rebuild.
And it’s present in places that Sandy barely touched, including the Kings Hotel in a section of Brooklyn that’s about as far from the shore as one can get in New York City.
That’s where a dozen or so families who lost their homes during Sandy are still living, waiting on money to find permanent housing. The families at the Kings Hotel were placed there by the city, along with 300 other families who were placed in hotels across the five boroughs.
In late September, nearly 11 months after Sandy hit, New York City’s Office of Housing Recovery Operations announced it would stop paying for the hotel rooms. The city said that after spending $73 million on the program, funds had run out.
The Red Cross and other charities immediately stepped in with more than $1 million, but they left the residents of the Kings Hotel out of that plan because they said many of the families staying there did not have concrete plans to find permanent housing, according to Peter Gudaitis of New York Disaster Interfaith Services.
Now the residents of the Kings Hotel are effectively squatting, in rooms that have no televisions, couches, refrigerators or stoves.
The Office of Housing Recovery Operations did not return calls but sent an email statement that read, in part, “Interim housing, along with intensive case management services, was provided but was never intended to be a permanent solution.”
Wanda Wilson, who has lived at the Kings Hotel since June, never intended for her current situation to be permanent either.
“I've been fighting ever since I got here to get out,” she said. “I feel like we’re imprisoned.”
Wanda Wilson in her Kings Hotel room. Katie Orlinsky for Al Jazeera America
Wilson, 29, was living in a first-floor apartment near the water in Brooklyn’s Coney Island when Sandy arrived.
When the storm water crept past her windowsill, she and her husband grabbed their two children and ran up to the second-floor hallway. They spent the night watching water overtake the first floor of the apartment building and destroy all their belongings, including the identification and paperwork Wilson would later realize she needed to get assistance from the city.
The storm also destroyed the day-care center where she worked, leaving her jobless.
Since then, she’s been living in different hotels with her 15-month-old son and 5-year-old daughter. In June she was transferred to the Kings Hotel, which is next to an overpass and adjacent to a shelter for mentally ill men who, Wilson said, harass hotel residents daily.
At the Kings Hotel, her family shares a carpeted room on the third floor with enough space for two full-size beds adorned with City of New York blankets and not much else. She spends her days filling out paperwork from nonprofits and city agencies, attempting to get money for an apartment.