As Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Far Rockaway) introduced the guests of a town hall meeting he co-hosted with state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) at PS 146 on Nov. 20, one city agency was not represented — the Department of Sanitation.
The residents who gathered in the auditorium didn’t seem to mind. As soon as Goldfeder mentioned the department, the room erupted in the sort of thunderous applause usually reserved for an Academy Award winner inside Hollywood’s Dolby Theater.
“We all know they’re out there working hard,” Goldfeder said to more applause.
It was the second time in as many days the department was lauded for its response in a public setting.
A day earlier, Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty practically had a red carpet rolled out for him at a Queens Borough Board meeting in Borough Hall.
When introduced by Borough President Helen Marshall, the room exploded into applause, noticeably loud coming from Rockaway’s Community Board 14 chairwoman Dolores Orr.
“You guys have been real heroes,” Marshall told Doherty.
For the people of Howard Beach — frustrated and overwhelmed by the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy — there is not much to be pleased about. For many, the response from the Sanitation Dept. is a bright spot.
“Before anyone else came, those guys were here,” said Debbie, a Howard Beach resident.
“They have been our FEMA, our Red Cross, our saviors,” said Sara Barbera, who lives on 160th Avenue. “They have been there for us and have not once complained.”
The department weathered a rough patch less than two years ago when city streets remained unplowed for days after a December 2010 blizzard led to allegations of a deliberate slowdown spearheaded by Sanitation supervisors angry over labor negotiations.
Though the allegations went unfounded, the department garnered a negative reputation for its slow response to the blizzard, which workers blamed on unusually high snowfall rates.
But the response to Hurricane Sandy has been noticeably different and the reaction among the public shows it.
The weekend after the hurricane, as residents tossed their drenched furniture, carpets and memories onto the curb in front of their homes, Sanitation trucks criss-crossed the neighborhoods of Howard Beach, Broad Channel and the Rockaways, tossing the debris into their trucks, sometimes spending as long as two hours on one block loading their signature white compacting vehicles with debris. In the streets, workers were met by residents who, despite having no heat or electricity, offered them snacks or a bottle of water.
One man in Howard Beach offered a beer to workers who cleaned up a six-foot pile of mangled wood and soaked carpet in front of his house. The on-duty workers politely declined.
After collecting the sodden pieces of people’s lives from the curb — more than 265,000 tons of hurricane-related debris alone, according to Doherty — Sanitation crews are taking the trash to designated areas, such as Riis Park, where it will then be sent to landfills in Upstate New York or Pennsylvania.
Doherty said his department has been working long days to clean up the streets in hard-hit areas, with some Sanitation employees working two to three weeks without a day off.
He said the department has been out 24 hours a day working in 12 hour shifts, trying to keep up with the demand. In some cases, Sanitation crews would return to a specific block four or five times since the storm to do another round of cleanup because residents would continue to pile water-soaked furniture and other items on the curb as they would clean out their flooded homes.
Crews had to pull back on trash pickup citywide in the first week to assist cleanup efforts, but the commissioner said even with that pullback, crews were able to clean elsewhere in the city.
He added the department would take Thanksgiving off, the first day off for many employees since the storm on Oct. 29.
A number of employees were on the job cleaning streets in the hardest hit areas, as well as taking care of their normal routes, for 24 straight days.
The department has also received praise from local officials who represent hard-hit communities and have been critical of other agencies and groups.
“Sanitation has been working around the clock to clean debris and garbage from the streets and it shows,” said Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), “If anyone deserves a medal, it’s them.”