A week before the six-month anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, I revisited some of the hardest hit areas: the Jersey shore, Staten Island, and Queens. Among the ruins, there are a handful of shiny renovated homes, but over all the recovery process is still in the beginning phase.
People's needs vary by income bracket. Some people wait on food lines to get what they need to survive while others wait for demolition permits to take down homes so they can rebuild.
Others were under-insured and don't have the funds to rebuild at all and are left with nowhere to live.
FEMA just extended payment of hotel rooms another month, at which time hundreds will be left homeless.
New York State recently announced buyouts for some Staten Island residences in the most perilous flood zone, while in Manloking, NJ, homeowners have been forced to let the Army Corps of Engineers take control of their beach front property to create some sort of coastal protection or will have there land confiscated via eminent domain laws.
All the while, volunteers continue feeding people and gutting homes. The number of those in need is still great.
In Staten Island I visited three makeshift community centers set up by residents who had no previous experience with disaster assistance. They each started out helping their neighbors and then became hubs, where volunteers groups from across the country came to offer assistance. Donations of all sorts of material are dropped off, turning the hubs into distribution centers. The hubs provide free food, medical and legal assistance and coordinate volunteer groups with homeowners in need of cleanup and renovation services. They are places that offer hope to those whose great personal and financial losses have caused post-traumatic stress and depression.
In affluent Mantoloking on the Jersey shore, every home was flooded, and 56 were washed off their foundations. According to Office of Emergency Management director Chris Niebling, at least 175 of the remaining 520 homes have to be torn down. The two-mile stretch of beachfront looks like the storm hit yesterday. Only now are permits to remove the debris being issued. Further south in Ocean Beach, some homeowners have returned and some businesses have reopened, but the barrier island is mostly deserted all the way to Seaside Heights, where the roller coaster remains in the Atlantic.
Union Beach, a middle class New Jersey town, is barren in places where the surge hit the hardest. Most of the buildings along the waterfront have been torn down.
Those who plan to rebuild are waiting for new regulations before they move forward for fear they won't be able to obtain flood insurance if they haven't met the new building guidelines, whatever they might be. Many residents lost everything and were not adequately insured.
The Gateway Church of Christ serves as a pop-up community hub, set up by Carl Williamson, an evangelist minister who started helping Sandy Victims the day after the storm hit and never stopped.
Emily Beyer, part of the St. Bernard Project in Louisiana, in Union Beach New Jersey helping victims of Sandy, teaches mold remediation to volunteers with the Gateway Church of Christ group. Photo By Julie Dermansky.
Volunteers from the St. Bernard Project from Louisiana have been helping out for three months, brought to Union Beach by AmeriCorps contracts that were not renewed by FEMA so they are teaching Williamson's team mold remediation to fill the gap of services once they move on in a couple of days. Williamson is seeing the number of people in need growing while the number of volunteers and donations is shrinking.
Breezy Point, Queens, hit by a massive fire as well as flooding, is coming back to life. The area where 120 homes were burnt to the ground was leveled a couple of weeks ago and is eerily quiet. But other services are beginning to return to normal. In neighboring Belle Harbor, the cleanup is also moving along. However, along the beachfront the scars are still raw. Homes have been demolished or boarded up. And some remain torn apart and open to the elements.
The poor and working class residents of the Rockaways, many who were in need of help before the storm, are getting the least aid. The millions of dollars raised by the Robin Hood Foundation's 12-12-12 concert have for the most part not been distributed here.
Aria Doe, who runs The Action Center (serving the community for 12 years) wonders if that's because developers who have been eyeing the beachfront property for years have plans that don't include recovery for the residents. The Action Center became a storm recovery hub and is still functioning as such. Wednesday and Saturdays are food distributions days. The Center gives out hot meals and groceries to sustain up to 1000 people at a time.
The lines for aid are getting longer, not shorter, says Doe, since many who lost their jobs as result of Sandy are getting the last of their unemployment checks. The subways are still not in service, making getting to work difficult to impossible for many since bus service is limited. Buying groceries is a chore as well; the nearest supermarket is three miles away.
Cosmetic work, like the rebuilding boardwalks, is moving ahead, but will such structures be able to sustain the next storm? Sandy's only positive was bringing the topic of climate change into the political dialog. Climate change is no longer considered a theory; it is a scientifically accepted phenomena. Will the rebuilding process reflect the reality of rising tides and stronger storms or will everything rebuilt be in danger the coming hurricane season?
April 23, 2013--Mantoloking, New Jersey remains a disaster zone six months after being devastated by Superstorm Sandy. The process of removing totaled homes started recently and will pick up in early May as more permits for demolition are issued. Photo By Julie Dermansky.
Julie Dermansky is a multimedia reporter and artist based in New Orleans. Visit her website at www.jsdart.com.