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