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Sandy’s Secret Survivors: Old, Disabled and Invisible in the Rockaways

Stranded in high-rises, running out of heat and food, the most vulnerable survivors of Hurricane Sandy wait for a knock on the door.

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Two weeks after Hurricane Sandy, aid to the shut-in elderly and disabled in New York’s Rockaways remains haphazard and inadequate.

“Anyone home? Do you need food or water?”

I’m a volunteer with Occupy Sandy – a collective of volunteers, activists and citizens using the former networks of Occupy Wall Street to coordinate donations and on-the-ground hurricane relief in New York City’s hardest hit areas. Earlier today, we drove out to the Rockaways and handed out bottled water and canned food in an ad-hoc aid distribution center in the parking lot of a firehouse. Next we went to a church where we sorted clothing donations and served hot food around lunchtime. Now, we’re at 711 Seagirt Boulevard, a 25-story housing complex in Far Rockaway that has been without power or running water for the past two weeks.

Many of the residents are elderly or disabled – without working elevators, it is physically impossible for them to leave their apartments. Several of them haven’t left their apartment since the storm. According to many of them, our crew of five volunteers was the first relief effort they had seen – meaning that until now, they had been subsisting on solely what they had stocked in their apartments before the storm.

An elderly man with a thick Russian accent answers the door and sizes me up. He asks me who I am and tells me that his name is Alexander Datsik. I hand him two bottles of water.

“Do you know when the power will be back?”

“No sir, I’m so sorry – I have no idea.”

“Well if you hear something, can you let me know? It’s really miserable in here.”

The power line outside the building is on the ground. It looks like it might be a while.

Without power, residents can’t turn on the lights or the heat. Inside, residents burn candles and light the dark stairwells with tiny, precious battery-operated flashlights. Going up and down the almost pitch-black stairwell simply to get out of their apartments, many could easily fall and become seriously injured. Outside, it’s starting to regularly hit freezing and below temperatures, compounded by icy sea breezes. Inside, residents either risk carbon monoxide poisoning by heating their homes with gas stoves and ovens, or bundle up with blankets, winter coats and – if they have access – hot water bottles simply to be able to fall asleep.

Without running water, residents can’t flush their toilets or bathe. Many haven’t flushed their toilet in more than a week. Even if one can leave, it is no use because the only operational local convenience store ran out of bottled water days ago. Residents have begun to ration what they have, expecting that it could be days before they can access more water. A few floors down, I meet Elizabeth Gerritsen—she is 94 years old, and though able-bodied, is frail, her bones shrunken with age. Like many of her neighbors, she had stayed at 711 Seagirt Boulevard through the storm, and once it had passed realized that without functional elevators, she was trapped with only the supplies that were left in her apartment.

When I knocked on her door, she was physically exhausted; she had just climbed back up 20 flights of stairs in an unfulfilling search for bottled water. I handed her my last bottle of Poland Springs.

“Oh this is wonderful,” she said, beaming. “Now I can take a shower.”

Occupy Sandy and New York Communities for Change have allied with local organizations to set up ad-hoc aid distribution centers in churches, community centers and school gymnasiums. Many of these centers have been overwhelmed with supplies and donations – volunteers working frantically to organize clothes, canned food, bottled water and cleaning supplies for distribution. There are truckloads of bottled water being unloaded and piled in the empty spare rooms of churches and gymnasiums.

However, supplies go only as far as their distribution: How are elderly or disabled people who cannot even make it to the lobbies of their own buildings supposed to make their way to these distribution centers? How are they supposed to learn about distribution centers in the first place? There is barely any cell phone service and absolutely no Internet throughout the Rockaways. If you are isolated from the community, as many of these residents are, it is nearly impossible to even know that there is aid to be had – much less have the mobility to go out and get it.

“If we hadn’t randomly found this housing complex, and taken the initiative to knock on their doors, we would have never known they were there or how dire their situation is,” Nicole Richards, a fellow volunteer commented about our experience. “To me, that’s really frightening.”

According to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), 1 in every 18 residents in public housing is disabled to a point of being immobile without the aid of a wheelchair or machine; the number of those who are elderly and too frail to walk a long distance is much higher. Though there are no concrete numbers for the number of senior citizens living in the other housing complexes, the vast majority of the residents who opened their doors to me at 711 Seagirt Boulevard were elderly – and most of them appeared to live alone.

The absence of the elderly residents of the Rockaways is most pronounced at distribution centers themselves. Though the Rockaway community is rapidly spreading the word of groups like Occupy Sandy and New York Communities for Change – and in many cases residents are assisting volunteers in assessing community needs and handing out aid to one another – only a certain, narrow demographic takes advantage of the distribution centers. They are relatively young and able-bodied enough to leave their apartments, walk to the distribution enters and carry supplies home. Many of them are parents of young children, and most of them are black. There are very few elderly people – black or white – and almost no disabled people.

It becomes apparent just how easily the needs – and presence – of those constricted by old age and disability can be rendered completely invisible.

FEMA finally arrived in the Rockaways the Thursday after the storm – but agency workers have mostly kept to their own offices and a few distribution centers. Though they are handing out government-supplied food and water to those who come to their Disaster Recovery Centers, FEMA has emphasized that their priority is instructing residents on how to register for FEMA assistance, rather than giving out direct aid.

Last week when a Nor’easter storm hit – threatening the Rockaways with freezing temperatures and another storm surge – the local FEMA offices closed, “due to the weather.” Regardless of the weather, it is almost impossible to contact FEMA with questions regarding their work in the area, as their hotline is reserved for disaster survivors. All other questions regarding FEMA’s role in the recovery process are processed through an automated system – including journalists’ requests for comment. I wrote this automated system requesting comment for this article – so far, it has seemed like a very complicated way for FEMA to decline comment.

Occupy Sandy found 711 Seagirt Boulevard by word of mouth – and though we canvassed, assessed their needs and delivered aid to the best of our collective ability, it was still hardly enough to constitute significant relief. What about the many other towering housing complexes and projects throughout the Rockaways? Have they seen FEMA, the Red Cross or New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) family services yet? Has someone from Occupy Sandy or New York Communities for Change been able to assess their needs and deliver them the resources that they need? Despite the persistent, tireless work of community organizers filling in the blanks left by FEMA, it is hard to believe that every resident in need has seen a volunteer who has been able to bring them what they need to make it through the next few days.

Driving across the Flatbush Avenue Bridge and into the Rockaways, the scope of Sandy-wrought destruction becomes immediately apparent. The boardwalk along Rockaway Beach has been partially washed out to sea; the rest is destroyed almost beyond recognition. Debris of all kinds is strewn across the beach and in the streets, becoming neglected garbage at the sides of the road. Trees and power lines are down everywhere. Capsized boats are marooned in the median of the highway – with no effort in sight to remove them from blocking traffic. Sand is everywhere – even weeks after the storm, it is still visibly caked in the gutters and on front doorsteps.

However, these are only the immediate visual signs of devastation. These are the dramatic images that become compellingly tragic photographs, circulated around newsrooms to demonstrate the devastation and horror of the storm itself. They are what viewers immediately conceptualize as the aftermath of a hurricane. What they don’t show is what it is truly like to live after the storm – to not have heat or hot water during the winter, or know that it might be weeks before power and running water is to be restored. They don’t show what it is like not to be able to flush the toilet or bathe with more than a bottle of water. They don’t show what it is like to be almost completely immobile, and dependent only on those who knock on your door by pure chance.

They don’t show what it is like to be rendered invisible.

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