Disaster-struck residents of Queens struggled to bring their life back on track amid a heartfelt but chaotic relief response a week after Hurricane Sandy flooded their neighborhoods. Throughout the battered borough streets, distressed families spent much of the week cleaning up their homes and walking miles in search of food and comfort.
In the Rockaways, Howard Beach and Broad Channel — the hardest hit neighborhoods in Queens — stunned residents could often be heard describing what they saw as a “war zone” or a scene from the “developing world.”
Exactly one week after the storm, the National Guard worked side by side with a Urban Search and Rescue Task Force at a wide-scale emergency aid distribution center set in a shopping center parking lot on the corner of Beach Channel Drive and 115th Street.
Steps away, families wandered around piles of donated clothes and shoes in the cold air, in search of warm clothes.
“Blankets, food, water,” read a makeshift sign on the boulevard as guardsmen in camouflage attires signaled for cars to roll toward the site.
About 40,800 residents of Queens still lacked power Monday, according to figures by Con Edison, with prospects of a full restoration of electricity still up in the air. More than 19,000 were out of power in the Rockaways, which is served by the Long Island Power Authority.
A long-time Rockaway resident, 51-year-old Veronica Motta, pushed a trolley packed with water bottles and children’s winter jackets.
“I’ve been taking water and supplies back and forth to my area,” she said.
But like many storm victims, Motta said that she wandered for a long time before discovering the site.
“Someone on 80th Street told me about it; we would have never known otherwise,” said Motta.
Across all three neighborhoods, disaster victims said that, cut off from phone lines and without access to the Internet, they had come to rely on word of mouth to obtain relief information.
“When we leave from here, we speak to those who are coming our way and we tell them where to go,” said Augustin Urbina, 55, as he rummaged through donated clothes. Urbina said he walked for an hour to reach this site –— the closest one to his damaged home on Beach 67th Street.
On the ground, relief distribution personnel worked around the clock on Monday to hand out supplies such as water bottles, blankets, ready-to-eat meals and orange ponchos originally intended for the New York City marathon.
Echoing the comments of victims, relief workers on site also said that they did not know whether the local population had been informed of their presence.
“I’m not really sure how they found out [about the relief effort],” said First Sgt. Robert Davis, deployed in the peninsula since Wednesday. “I understand the city sent something out electronically, but not sure how that would help.”
Carter Greenhoward, 41, a salesman living in Arverne, expressed frustration at the feeling that residents of his neighborhood — known as the “60s” — were not provided critical information to access relief efforts.
“They say information is power, but it’s during these times that you realize it’s true,” he said.
Greenhoward and his wife Yadira, who have no heat or power, said they only found out about the relief center Sunday, five days after the storm hit.
“If I had had a little bit of information throughout this week, it would have made my life a lot better,” Greenhoward said.
The couple saw in the lack of guidance given to their predominantly African-American neighborhood a repeat of the discrimination reported after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005.
“We were Zone A for the storm, the storm came and destroyed everything, now we’re Z for the help.”
“I never thought I could feel these feelings; all the racial things I heard about Katrina, it’s true,” said Greenhoward.
In a half dozen interviews, residents repeated similar accusations of racial profiling.
Hernesto Brown is a 42-year-old waiter sharing a home on Beach 67th Street with his mom and sister.
The two-floor brick bungalow was flooded with 12 feet of water when the ocean and the bay merged at the peak of the storm last week, engulfing the first floor of his house. But relief only reached Brown and his family Sunday, he said.
“We were on the backburner,” he said. “I didn’t want to say that. Everybody says it’s because it’s a black neighborhood.”
Across the bay, in Howard Beach, though instances of flooding weren’t as widespread, throngs of families continued to deal with the aftermath of the storm. Over the weekend, lines up to 50-cars long formed as locals waited to fill up their tanks. Gas shortages, caused by delivery interruptions during and after the hurricane, complicated their return to a daily routine.
Noel Madina, 36, was first in line Saturday at a Hess gas station between Cross Bay and Linden boulevards. Standing outside in the cold with a fuel tank in his hand, the electrical worker said that he had been waiting twelve hours for gas.
“I’m in line for my children’s mother’s car, otherwise she can’t get to work,” he said. “So Mister Daddy had to wait in line all night.”
Across Queens, meeting immediate needs took priority. Yet, communities throughout the afflicted areas spoke of the same long-term goal: reconstruction.
In Broad Channel, brothers Mason and Frank Porretto, who co-own a construction business, were fielding dozens of phone calls from neighbors eager to begin the rebuilding process. But each time, the brothers bore bad news.
“You can have it done in a couple of weeks,” said 34-year-old Mason Porretto. “But we have no power, and we can’t really start construction until we have gas stabilization.”
Back in Howard Beach, police officer Edwin Perez, 33, gazed at the ashes of what used to be his neighbor’s house, devoured by flames caused by an electrical fire the night of the storm.
His own house was flooded.
Yet, Perez considered himself a lucky man. The house he bought as a newlywed is insured and a representative from FEMA, the government’s agency that provides financial assistance in cases of natural disaster, has already stopped by his home to assess damages.
“I want to rebuild here. This is our first home; I’ll rebuild it from the ground up,” he said.