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Two Weeks After Hurricane Sandy, Many of New York's Aged and Disabled Were Without Assistance

Haphazard and inadequate assistance continues for those who need it most.

Copyright, Reprinted with permission. 

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.

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