No Heat, No Electricity -- Desperate New Yorkers Beg for Help Post Sandy


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As President Obama made his tour around storm-soaked and wind-battered areas of New York, consoling a bereaved mom and surveying the damage, local frustration continued to mount.

Celebrity relief efforts and local organizing are great, activists on the ground say, but they need government action and they need it now.

Suffering continues

As I write this roundup, a group of medical professionals and activists are gathering at City Hall to beg Mayor Bloomberg to invite FEMA to help counter the huge loss medical providers have taken from the storm. With hospital closings downtown and in badly-affected areas, and with medical professionals stretched thin, the situation is growing dire, they say.

Thousands of New Yorkers – in Staten Island, the Rockaways, Coney Island, and beyond – are still stuck in their homes with no heat, no electricity, and urgent (and unattended) medical needs. Many of these people will get worse the longer they go unattended. Children and seniors are especially in need. Access to medication and medical devices is severely limited.

We are asking the Mayor to work with us to get medical care and medications out to the most devastated neighborhoods in the Rockaways, Coney Island and Staten Island, and to re-open services at Bellevue and Coney Island Hospitals on a clear and realistic timeline.

NYSNA is helping to coordinate this action with other frontline relief workers, including Physicians for a National Health Program, Occupy Sandy, the People’s Medical Relief, and many independent relief volunteers.

This group met with representatives from FEMA on Wednesday night. FEMA told us they would like to help get more resources into the field – but they can’t do it without a formal request from the Mayor’s office.

The reports from the outer boroughs remain very bleak. A long, must-read piece at the Brooklyn Bureau describes dire conditions out on Coney Island and other places where local relief efforts have been outperforming government ones. 

One week after the storm, he says, he was dispatched by Occupy Sandy's base of operations at the Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Clinton Hill to the Coney Island Houses, which were then still without power, and where elderly residents were still trapped inside, unable to navigate the stairs. "They have no heat, no water, they're defecating in buckets, which they have to bring down themselves," he says. "People are lighting their stoves to keep warm, which is very dangerous, because it's carbon monoxide poisoning, and there's no detectors. This is basic humanitarian issues here."

The situation in Coney Island (where I've been volunteering the past few weekends) has improved somewhat, but serious long-term relief is elusive. Meanwhile some residents can't get help at all: at Truthout Anna Lekas Miller describes the "invisible" suffering of the elderly and disabled--those who can't reach the distribution centers being set up out in the Rockaways:

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.

Bloomberg's Image Problem

These are ugly scenes, and because of them Mayor Bloomberg could be facing an image problem, as the New York Times's Mike Grynbaum and David Chen noted this morning. This is due to his brusque mannerisms and prioritizing a focus on "technocratic" problem-solving over the emotional gauntlet of actual encounters with power-starved, or just plain starving, residents. 

So the question remains, is Mayor 1%'s "problem-solving" approach actually solving people's problems, particularly those outside of Manhattan? Some residents say no:

...Tahirah Ingram obtained rumpled jackets for her three children after a 90-minute wait in the rain; their powerless apartment has been increasingly cold at night.“I would have expected him to come out,” she said of Mr. Bloomberg. “Out here, we were forgotten. We’re not part of New York City, too?”

Celebs Step Up

Celebrities, like volunteers, are doing their best to step up to fill the void, with some like Madonna and Justin Timberlake even quietly serving residents in the Rockaways.

Madonna also traded on her, umm,  assets for donations:

On Monday night at her MDNA concert in New York City, the Material Girl announced that she is "showing [my] naked ass for Hurricane Sandy victims," encouraging her audience to throw money at the stage as part of her fundraising efforts.

"If you are going to look at the crack of my ass, you better raise some cash," she told her adoring crowd. 

Meanwhile, megastars including Kanye West, Bruce Springsteen and Paul McCartney are planning a huge benefit at Madison Square Garden.

But the overarching question raised by all this week's news--out of touch politicians, massive volunteer efforts, and celebrity fundraisers--is why should we be forced to mobilize for our neighbors the same ways we mobilize for a crisis in a far-off country? Shouldn't we have a strong government infrastructure that can effectively minister to its citizens' most basic needs? Isn't that the essence of the  safety net for which we progressives fight? As a volunteer named Eric Moed told reporter Neil deMause, " "We would love if [government agencies] could take over for us, because I need to get on with my life, and that's their job," says Moed. "The Staten Island borough president said something after the storm that has resonated with me greatly, which is that government is here to do for people what they can't do for themselves. But it hasn't been here."

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