Avgi Tzenis, 76, is standing in the hall of her small brick row house on Bragg Street in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. She is dressed in a bathrobe and open-toed sandals. The hall is dark and cold. It has been dark and cold since Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast a month ago. Three feet of water and raw sewage flooded and wrecked her home.
“We never had this problem before,” she says. “We never had water from the sea come down like this.”
Hurricane Sandy, if you are poor, is the Katrina of the North. It has exposed the nation’s fragile, dilapidated and shoddy infrastructure, one that crumbles under minimal stress. It has highlighted the inability of utility companies, as well as state and federal agencies, to cope with the looming environmental disasters that because of the climate crisis will soon come in wave after wave. But, most important, it illustrates the depraved mentality of an oligarchic and corporate elite that, as conditions worsen, retreats into self-contained gated communities, guts basic services and abandons the wider population.
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Sheepshead Bay, along with Coney Island, the Rockaways, parts of Staten Island and long stretches of the New Jersey coast, is obliterated. Stores, their merchandise destroyed by the water, are boarded up and closed. Rows of derelict cars, with the tires and license plates removed and the windows smashed, line the streets. Food distribution centers, most of them set up by volunteers from Occupy Sandy Recovery, hastily close before dark every day because of the danger of looting and robbery. And storm victims who remain in their damaged homes, often without heat, electricity or running water, clutch knives against the threat of gangs that prowl at night through the wreckage.
This storm—amid freakish weather patterns such storms will become routine—resulted in at least $71.3 billion in property damage in New York and New Jersey. Many of the 305,000 houses in New York destroyed by Sandy will never be rebuilt. New York City says it will have to spend $800 million just to repair its roads. And that is only the start. The next hurricane season will most likely descend on the Eastern Seaboard with even greater destructive fury. A couple of more hurricanes like this one and whole sections of the coast will become uninhabitable.
This is the new America. It is an America where economic and environmental catastrophes converge to trigger systems breakdown and collapse. It is an America divided between corporate predators and their prey. It is an America that, as things unravel, increasingly sacrifices its own.
Rene Merida, 27, is standing on a street corner. His house, on Emmons Avenue, does not have electricity, running water or heat. He and his pregnant wife and two children, ages 7 and 4, huddle in the darkness inside the ruined home or at times flee to live for a few days with relatives. Merida, who recently lost his job as an ironworker, managed to reach his landlord once on the phone. That was three weeks ago. It was the only time the landlord, despite Merida’s persistent calls, answered.
“He told me it [the repair] will get done when it gets done,” he says. “The temperature inside my house is 15 degrees. I got a thermometer to check.”
Lauren Ferebee, originally from Dallas and now living in Greenpoint in Brooklyn, sits behind a table in the chilly basement of the 123-year-old St. Jacobi Evangelical Lutheran Church, founded by German immigrants. On large pieces of cardboard hanging from the ceiling are the words “Occupy Sandy Relief.” The basement is filled with donated supplies including pet food, diapers, infant formula, canned goods, cereal and pasta. The church was converted two days after the storm into a food bank and distribution center for the victims of the hurricane. Hundreds of people converge daily on the church to work. Volunteers with cars or vans deliver supplies to distribution points in other parts of New York and in New Jersey.
Ferebee, a playwright, and hundreds of other volunteers instantly resurrected the Occupy movement when the tragedy hit. They built structures of support and community to endure not only the effects of the storm but prepare for the breakdown that appears to lie ahead. As we descend into a world where we can depend less and less on those who hold power, movements like this one will become vital. These movements might not be called Occupy. They might not look like Occupy. But whatever the names and forms of the self-help we create, we will have to find ways to fend for ourselves.
“We have a kitchen about 50 blocks from here where we cook and deliver hot food,” Ferebee says. “We take food along with supplies out to distribution hubs. There is a distribution hub about every 30 or 40 blocks. When I first went out I was giving water to people who had not had water for six days.”
She sits in front of a pile of paper sheets headed “Occupy Sandy Dispatch.” Various sites are listed on the sheets, including Canarsie, Coney Island, Red Hook, the Rockaways, Sheepshead Bay, Staten Island and New Jersey. She is interrupted by Roman Torres, 45, who sings on weekends in a band that plays Mexican folk music. He has pulled his van up in front of the church. He comes two days a week to transport supplies.
“Can you go anywhere?” she asks Torres.
“Yes,” he answers.
“Can you do a couple of drop-offs at the Rockaways?” she asks.
“Yes,” he says. “If someone comes with me.”
As he fixes himself a cup of coffee in the church kitchen, volunteers carry boxes from the basement to his van parked in the rain outside.
“We can’t ever get enough electric heaters, cleaning supplies, tools and baby supplies,” Ferebee says.
In a small apartment above the church Juan Carlos Ruiz, a former Roman Catholic priest who was born in Mexico, sits at a small wooden table. He is the church’s community organizer. It was his decision once the storm hit to open the doors of the church as a relief center. He did not know what to expect.
“It was Tuesday night,” he says. “We got three bags of groceries and two jars of water. It was the next morning that volunteers began to appear. By the first weekend we had over 1,300. It was organized chaos. There was all this creative energy and youth. There was an instant infrastructure and solidarity. It is mutual aid that is the most important response to the disasters we are living through. This is how we will retain our humanity. Some members of the church asked me why these [volunteers] did not come to the church service. I told them the work they were doing was church. The commitment I saw was like a conversion experience. It was transformative. It restores your faith in humanity.”
The emotional cost of the storm is often as devastating as the physical cost.
Tzenis, who was born in Cyprus and immigrated to the United States with her husband in 1956, lists the mounting bills at her Sheepshead Bay home. Since the storm the septuagenarian has paid a plumber $2,000, and that does not cover all the plumbing work that must be done. A contractor gave her an estimate of $40,000 to $50,000 for repairs, which include ripping out the walls and floors. Tzenis has received a $5,000 check from an insurance company, Allstate, and a $1,000 check from FEMA. But $6,000 won’t begin to cover the cost.
“The insurance company told me I didn’t have the water insurance,” she says. “The contractor said he has to break all the walls and floors to get the mold out. I don’t know how I am going to pay for this.”
As she speaks, Josh Ehrenberg, 21, an aspiring filmmaker, and Dave Woolner, 31, an electrician with Local 52, both volunteers with Occupy Sandy, haul ruined items out of her garage and put them in green plastic garbage bags.
“My husband had dementia,” she says. “I took care of him for six years with these two hands. For a few months the insurance gave me help. Certain medications they pay after six years. They told me once he couldn’t swallow no more there was nothing we could do. … He died at home last year.”
She begins to sob softly.
She mutters, “Oye, oye, oye.”
“I was going to hang myself in the closet,” she says, gesturing to the hall closet behind me. “I can’t take life anymore. My husband. Now this. I don’t sleep good. I jump up every hour watching the clock. I’ve been through a lot in my life. Every little thing scares me. I’m on different pills. I’ve come to the age where I ask why doesn’t God take me. I pray a lot. I don’t want to give my soul to the devil because they would not put me in a church to bury me. But you get to an age where you are only able to take so much.”
She falls silent. She begins to reminisce about the bombing of Cyprus during World War II. She says that as a girl she watched a British military airport go up in flames after it was hit by German and Italian bombs. She talks about the 1950s struggle for Cypriot independence that took place between the British and the underground National Organization of Cypriot Fighters, Ethniki Organosis Kyprion Agoniston, known as EOKA. She says she misses strong populist leaders such as the Cypriot Archbishop Makarios III, who openly defied British authorities in the campaign for independence.
“People were hung by the British soldiers,” she says. “Women were raped. People had their fingernails pulled out. They were tortured and beaten. My cousin was beaten so badly in jail he was bleeding from his bottom.”
The horrors of the past merge with the horrors of the present.
“They say [hurricanes like] this will happen again because the snow is melting off all the mountains,” she says. “It never flooded here before. No matter how hard it rained not a drop came through the door. But now it has changed. If it happens again I don’t want to be around.”