Economic divide revealed by Superstorm Sandy still runs deep

The storm knew no income or class when it hit, but a year later, those most vulnerable have yet to patch up their lives

Olivia DeCellio in her Highlands, N.J. home, October 14, 2013.
Andrew Lichtenstein for Al Jazeera America

HIGHLANDS, N.J. — Not much has changed on Gravelly Point Road in nearly a year.

The stone gate with a sign reading “Private property — 5 mph” is intact. The beach, which looks out onto Sandy Hook Bay, is tranquil. The SeaStreak ferry still departs for Manhattan’s Wall Street daily. And Olivia DeCellio’s one-story home, painted cream on the outside, is still gutted on the inside.

At the home where she had planned to retire this year, her floors are still stripped, her walls are still devoid of any paint or personal touches, and her door is still hanging on by a hinge. A few pieces of new drywall lean against bare wood beams where the living room used to be.

And not much has changed for DeCellio, either. She still spends hours on the phone each afternoon with insurance companies and representatives from the state of New Jersey, trying to convince them she needs more money to rebuild.

DeCellio isn’t alone in her stasis. She and thousands of others across the Northeast spend their days much the same way they did right after Superstorm Sandy ravaged communities one year ago — in disarray and desperation, trying to regain a sense of normality. 

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.

Pain still present

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.”

Cycle of frustration

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.

In her free time, Wilson takes care of other families’ kids and argues with hotel management about her living conditions.

Residents and their lawyers say the management of the Kings Hotel has been actively hostile toward the Sandy victims. Residents have called the police multiple times, claiming the manager shuts off hallway lights and the elevator to save money.

Hotel owner William Boateng said the residents’ complaints are unfounded. He said the elevator and lights were shut off only once in mid-October in order to repair a generator. Several residents and a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society who has represented them said that’s not true.

Boateng says because the city stopped providing services and money for the people at the Kings Hotel, he’ll have to take them to court in order to get them to leave.

He says he understands the residents’ tough situation, but he can’t keep the residents there without being paid.

The residents don’t like being there either. But now that the city has stopped funding the hotel program, they don’t have anywhere else to go.

They’re stuck in housing that no one will pay for, in legal limbo and without city services to provide them with necessities like food and security.

Residents used to get from the city cold meals of rice and chicken, which they could take turns heating in the hotel’s lone microwave.

Now they get nothing. Those who receive food stamps buy food. Those who don’t, buy little.

“We tried to share (our food), but it went quick,” Wilson said.  “I have two kids, so I can only do so much.”

Looking forward

Nicole Adejumo in her room at the Kings Hotel.
Katie Orlinsky for Al Jazeera America

Beyond the tangible limitations of life at the Kings Hotel, what many residents find hardest to do is stay positive.

Nicole Adejumo, 29, spends every day in her room, which is just slightly bigger than her bed, thinking about her old life. She used to run a hair salon in Canarsie, but Sandy destroyed it along with her apartment.

“I'm just so frustrated and tired,” she said. “I'm still trying to get assistance from FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and start back my business. Everyone says, ‘We'll call you back, we'll call you back.’”

The Kings Hotel doesn’t allow visitors, so Adejumo can’t see clients there. She has become depressed and anxious and has racked up credit card debt while waiting for assistance, making it impossible to get a loan to start another salon.

“I cry every day — there’s no doubt about it,” she said. “When are people going to stand up and say enough is enough? It’s like no one is human anymore.”

The situation that Adejumo and the other residents at the Kings Hotel face may be unique, but the circumstances that brought them there aren’t.

For Griffo, the owner of Griff’s Place, the struggle is evident every time he checks his bank statement.

Some 1,200 businesses on Staten Island were affected by Sandy, and some never reopened. Griffo received only $8,000 from his insurance plan and $1,500 from FEMA to replace roughly $100,000 in damaged floors, air-conditioning equipment and furniture. 

He’s now tens of thousands of dollars in debt but thankful he’s alive.

Dominick Griffo behind the bar at Griffo's place.
Andrew Lichtenstein for Al Jazeera America

“I’m still paying myself back for everything,” he said. “That’ll take years … But I’m very fortunate. Believe me, I’m not crying.”

For Olivia DeCellio, the pain of Sandy is evident every time she thinks about retirement. She’s 67 and had planned to call it quits this year. Now she has to rebuild her home in order to pay back her mortgage.

New York and New Jersey received the vast majority of the $60 billion in federal aid allocated after Sandy, but homeowners like DeCellio are still fighting the state for a few thousand more dollars to rebuild.

Whenever she gets the money, she plans to rebuild her house, raised 10 feet above the ground in the same location. She’s building on Gravelly Point Road because the law requires her to. But she says even if it didn’t, she would.

“I've owned the house for 20 years. My roots are here now,” she said. “You’ve got to give this house another chance … I’ve got to try one more time.”

For Wanda Wilson, the pain brought on by Sandy is still evident every time she takes her daughter to school and returns to find the Kings Hotel’s doors locked without a security guard to let her in. It’s there when she hangs up the phone with her city-appointed case manager to find out she’ll have to wait just a few days more before the inspection on her new apartment is completed.

“We never lived like this,” Wilson said. “(My daughter) says, ‘Mommy, Mommy, I don’t like it. I don’t want to be here anymore.’ My son, he sleeps. That’s the best thing he can do. Maybe he'll wake up and things will be different.”

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