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New York Post-Sandy Is a Lesson in How Social Injustice Will Amplify the Ravages of Global Warming

There's a reason some of New York's public housing communities were forced to wait so long for basic services to be restored after the storm.
 
 
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This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.

Sixteen and a half days after Hurricane Sandy sent an 11-foot wave surging over the boardwalk, Coney Island is slowly resurrecting itself. Workers carry sheetrock into gutted bodegas on Surf Avenue, the street closest to the ocean. A block inland, a hammer resounds inside the United Community Baptist Church on Mermaid Avenue, rebuilding the wrecked pulpit. The church took on five feet of water, and “nothing in here was salvageable,” says Pastor Connis Mobley, but he hopes to have power and water restored by the spring.

The Surf Neighborhood Gourmet Food bodega is restocking, the sandy sidewalk out front piled with plastic-wrapped pallets of paper plates, cups, Clorox Wipes, and beer. It’s the first grocery in the neighborhood to reopen, says manager George Fox, and everything has to be replaced. “What was good we donated to the community. We threw out everything else.”

The neighborhood’s supermarkets are still closed. The nearest open one is on the Brooklyn mainland, more than a mile away, says Tiesha, a 42-year-old mother who just picked up donated food in the parking lot next to the minor-league Brooklyn Cyclones’ ballpark. About 50 people are lined up there. Women pushing strollers with toddlers in pink parkas fill shopping carts with cases of bottled water and tiny school-lunch cartons of milk and orange juice, boxes of crackers and pasta, cans of beef stew and jars of spaghetti sauce. An orange-vested volunteer calls out “Next!” and “Keep it moving.”

On a chilly Thursday afternoon more than two weeks after the storm, almost 6,000 Coney Island residents still don’t have heat and hot water. They were among more than 14,000 of the city’s public-housing tenants who didn’t, including about 1,800 in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn and 2,200 on the Rockaway peninsula in Queens. Lower Manhattan, also badly flooded, got its electricity turned back on in four days, but in the projects of Coney Island, Red Hook and Rockaway, more than 4,000 people had to wait two weeks to get their power back.

“We just started getting hot water yesterday, heat today,” says Shirley Aikens, 59, who’s lived in the Carey Gardens project since the 1970s. Carey Gardens is the easternmost of the nine public-housing developments clustered 10 to 20 blocks from Coney Island’s iconic trinity of the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel and Nathan’s. These developments are home to more than 9,000 people.

The storm surge flooded the boiler room and damaged a lot of wires, Aikens says, and it looked like a dam bursting. “It was coming in so fast people couldn’t move their cars. The transformers were blowing up like firecrackers.” But she stayed home and stuck it out. “I’m old-school,” she says. “I was born in the ‘50s. I know how to survive in the dark. I had enough blankets to stay warm and enough candles for light.”

“This is probably the worst thing I’ve ever had to deal with. You see it in other countries,” says Edward, a burly 45-year-old from the Red Hook Houses, Brooklyn’s largest project, on the Wednesday two weeks after the storm. He fell down a flight of stairs while visiting his godmother in her sixth-floor apartment. “It was pitch-black in there,” he recalls. “I thought I broke my leg.”

Residents boiled water to wash up and wrapped themselves in blankets to keep warm. “When the kids go to bed, we have to put on jackets, at least two or three sweaters,” says Kayan Robinson, 32, of Red Hook, returning from a shopping trip with her family. The Fine Fare supermarket was still closed, and they couldn’t use their food stamps because all the machines that take EBT cards, electronic-benefits transfer cards, were down.

The long delay hit residents no matter how much they prepared. Hector Evans, 62, of Carey Gardens, bought enough food for a week, but had to depend on donations the second week. The same thing happened to Didier Jean-Louis, 29, the father of a 2-year-old son. His building, a privately owned complex on Surf Avenue for people who make less than $40,000 a year, didn’t get electricity back for a week, and the heat and hot water took a week and a half. “We had food and everything, then we had what people gave us,” he says. “Somehow we survived.”

John, a 59-year-old father of three who’s lived in the Coney Island Houses since he was a child, evacuated his family for a week, but then came back because “my children had to go to school.”

“It’s horrible,” he says. “A lot of cold, and the cold water’s intermittent.”

Johann, 35, a mother of four from Red Hook, says she didn’t evacuate because there was “nowhere to go.” She didn’t want to stay in a city shelter because she didn’t think it would be safe for her kids, especially her two teenage daughters. “It was hard,” she says. “We just waited, hoped for the best, and slept with coats and a lot of blankets.”

The New York City Housing Authority lists four reasons why it took so long to get the electricity, heat and hot water back on. The flooding caused “extensive and corrosive damage to boilers.” Most of the electronic equipment that operated the boilers and electrical systems were “corroded and required either replacement or rebuilding.” The water table in Coney Island, Red Hook and Rockaway was so high they had to repeatedly “re-pump out water from our basement boiler and meter rooms.” They also had to find 25 temporary boilers and approximately 90 generators and transport them to the places where they were needed, a NYCHA spokesperson explained in an e-mail.

Most of the problems involved cables damaged by the floods, says Frances Medina, a staffer at the Red Hook Initiative, a local nonprofit group. Community residents mobilized, she says, serving more than 1,000 hot meals a day. Now the issue is “what are we going to do when the lights come back on.” The group’s focus will turn to helping neighborhood businesses recover.

On a Wednesday two weeks after the storm, the temporary boilers and generators line the walkways of the Red Hook Houses. The two projects are the largest in Brooklyn, with more than 6,000 people living in more than 2,800 apartments in 30 buildings, and they finally got their electricity back the night before. Semitrucks housing the boilers sit outside the buildings, and workers are hooking them up. They connect the boiler to the building’s oil tank and then use braided steel hoses to pump steam into the heating system. They get electrical power from a generator.

The electricity is intermittent, though, and not enough to power the elevators in the taller buildings. “Every day, it’s click on, click off,” says Kayan Robinson. “We’re still scared to put food in the refrigerator.” Despite the long trek to a store, her family bought only enough milk for two days.

Changing Neighborhoods

The five neighborhoods hit hardest by the hurricane span the city’s class spectrum. Lower Manhattan encompasses both the luxury lairs of the Wall Street 1 percent and the giant Lower East Side projects that line the East River for a mile. Southern Staten Island is middle-class homeowner territory, and Rockaway includes both public housing and single-family homes. Both those neighborhoods are on the city’s furthest fringes, well over an hour from Manhattan.

The public-housing areas in Coney Island and Red Hook are closer in, but still isolated. The Coney Island projects start 10 blocks west of where the subways end. Red Hook is Brooklyn’s old port district, a decent bicycle ride from downtown, but it doesn’t have a subway, and the station where the bus lines connect has been closed for renovations for more than a year. A highway built in the late 1950s divided the area from its since-gentrified brownstone half, and as the docks declined, so did the neighborhood. By the 1980s, much of it was abandoned, and in 1992, an elementary-school principal was killed in a shootout between two drug-dealing crews.

The last decade has seen revitalization, a combination of artists moving in and new Ikea and Fairway big-box stores for furniture and food. But “revitalization” is almost inevitably code for "gentrification.” A furniture maker who works out of a former warehouse on the waterfront says one customer told him, “In 10 years, this will all be condos.”

The neighborhood a few blocks east has seen massive redevelopment. In Coney Island, Mayor Michael Bloomberg orchestrated a deal where a hedge fund took over the main amusement park, and it plans to upscale the area. That has caused “a lot of speculation about why things happened so slowly,” says John, the Coney Island Houses resident. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say ‘there’s a big storm coming, get the boilers and generators in place,’” he continues. “A lot of people say they’re going to move. That’s what they want.”

A neighbor, a fat, goateed man with a preteen son, stops by to say hello, and jokes that “my rent slip was in the mailbox the day after the storm” -- well before the electricity or heat came back on. NYCHA chair John Rhea announced that tenants would get a rent rebate in January, which he called a “nice Christmas present.” That did not endear him to tenants. Some in Red Hook are urging a rent strike.

Others don’t blame NYCHA. “Some people say the city’s at fault, but I don’t think so,” says Hector Evans. “You can only do so much. You can’t turn the power on until it’s safe.”

“I think everyone was taken by surprise,” responds Vic Bach, senior housing policy analyst at the Community Service Society and coordinator of the NYC Alliance to Preserve Public Housing. The storm was an “unprecedented catastrophe” that caught the entire city and state government unprepared, he says.

On the other hand, he adds, public-housing residents’ “paranoia about evacuation is not so unrealistic, given what happened in New Orleans.” The city of New Orleans used Hurricane Katrina as an excuse to demolish much of its remaining public housing, even when it was not seriously damaged, and refused to let residents return. Some public officials explicitly stated that the storm gave them a chance to make New Orleans smaller, richer and whiter.

Bach doesn’t think that’s going to happen in New York, where half a million people live in public housing. Real-estate developers might be leering at the projects on the East Village waterfront, in the art-gallery district in Chelsea, or in the gentrifying neighborhoods surrounding downtown Brooklyn, but while NYCHA is increasingly selling or leasing “underused” property to private developers, it’s not doing full privatization.

Class Divide

If NYCHA didn’t have the resources to prepare for or deal with the hurricane, that’s understandable on one level: Public housing has suffered dramatic funding cuts over the last generation. In that time, poor and working-class New Yorkers have been whipsawed by the disappearance of affordable private housing and political hostility to public housing.

In the New York City of 30 years ago, when the minimum wage was $3.35 an hour, it was relatively easy to find an apartment for less than $300 a month. Today, when the minimum wage is $7.25 and the median household income of New York renters about $750 a week, less than a quarter of the city’s rental apartments go for less than $800 a month, according to a 2011 federal survey—and most of those are in public or other subsidized housing.

The city’s projects have a waiting list of around 10 years. There’s been frequent debates about whether priority should be given to homeless people, who have the most urgent need, or to working people, who provide more stability and can pay a bit more, but these are arguments about how to divide a shrinking pizza.

Construction of new public housing stopped during the Reagan administration, Vic Bach notes -- when the nation’s cities were still reeling from the massive abandonment of the ‘70s, and homelessness was emerging as a problem. A 1998 federal law bans local governments from building any more public housing than they already have. Government policy now favors public-private partnerships for housing, which usually take the form of developers getting tax and zoning breaks for building luxury housing with 20 percent of the units set aside for low-income people, or for developments where “affordable middle-income” apartments rent for $2,500 a month or more.

In New York, the city and state governments both stopped providing operating funds to NYCHA in the late ’90s and early ’00s, so its only sources of revenue for maintenance and heat are rents and a diminishing amount of federal funds. Unlike New Orleans, projects haven’t been privatized yet, but the cash-strapped authority, battered by several scandals, has begun selling parcels of land to private developers.

Mayor Bloomberg has asked landlords to let people displaced by the storm stay in vacant apartments temporarily, but there aren’t many of those. The city’s vacancy rate for rental apartments is barely above 3 percent, and it hasn’t reached 5 percent since World War II. (This chronic housing shortage is the legal justification for the city’s rent-control laws.) And fueled by a combination of skyrocketing rents and stagnant wages, high unemployment and cuts to housing-aid programs, the city’s homeless population hit a record high in October. More than 46,000 people were staying in city shelters before Hurricane Sandy.

New York City’s poor and working-class people are resilient. “I’m a survivor,” says Shirley Aikens, who was deeply moved by people who came from as far away as Detroit and Seattle to give out food and shovel sand off Surf Avenue. “I just took care of my family,” says Mark, a scraggly-bearded 34-year-old wrapped in a hoodie outside the Red Hook East buildings. “When you panic, things go wrong.”

But how much more can they take? And, while Sandy didn’t devastate New York as much as Katrina devastated New Orleans (eight months after the storm, the Lower Ninth Ward was still a virtually uninhabited jumble of splintered houses), one wonders how much more social injustice will amplify the ravages of global warming.

Steven Wishnia is a New York-based journalist and musician. He is the author of the novel "When the Drumming Stops" (Manic D Press), "Exit 25 Utopia," and "The Cannabis Companion."

 
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