Hurricane Sandy: two weeks on, Coney Island recovery far from complete

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Beverly Stricklin stood with hundreds of others in a line outside a Coney Island church on Saturday night.

After 11 days without heat or power, the 48 year-old single mother hoped to find socks and a blanket.

A public housing resident, Stricklin suffers from a debilitating disease that requires bi-weekly medical appointments. She intends to see a doctor this week but is unsure where to go. Three blocks down the street, the neighborhood's only hospital remained closed. The Brooklyn facility was forced to evacuate its patients and lock its doors in the wake of superstorm Sandy nearly two weeks ago.

Like many others in her neighborhood, Stricklin stayed in her home as Sandy battered the east coast, despite a mandatory evacuation order. As water filled the first floor of her building, she huddled with her 18-year-old daughter on a bed they pulled into the kitchen.

"We didn't have anywhere to go," Stricklin said.

A single flood lamp provided light inside Coney Island Gospel Assembly, where Stricklin sought help. Scores of volunteers – some wearing headlamps – handed out non-perishable food, baby supplies and clothing to a steady stream of residents. Due to the outpouring of volunteer support, Stricklin was able to acquire the supplies she needed, and then some.

Sandy was over in a matter of hours, but for Stricklin and thousands of others the recovery process is far from through. While progress has been made, volunteers and residents say serious problems are mounting.

The historic storm killed over 120 people in 10 US states – along with nearly 70 in the Caribbean – and knocked out power for 8.5 million. Roughly 120,000 New York and New Jersey customers remained without power through the weekend. In New York City, half of those entering their second week without heat, hot water or electricity – about 35,000 people – live in public housing. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has said Sandy may have left as many as 40,000 people homeless. The Long Island Power Authority has faced harsh criticism for its response to the storm. As of Sunday evening, nearly 50,000 of the homes and businesses that rely on the company remained without power. An additional 55,000 were unable to connect to local grids due to flooded wiring and equipment.

Sandy's New York death toll rose to 43 over the weekend. The NYPD revealed that on October 31, Queens resident Albert McSwain, 77, died after slipping in a wet, unlit stairwell. On Friday, police discovered the body of 64-year-old marine veteran David Maxwell, amid upturned furniture in his Staten Island residence.

Volunteers in both Coney Island and Far Rockaway – a neighborhood on New York City's Rockaway Peninsula – described similar sets of challenges, among them elderly and mentally ill people trapped in their homes, without heat, power and access to medicine. Volunteers in both areas claimed to have encountered residents using stoves to heat their homes, inviting the risk of potential carbon monoxide poisoning.

"The complications are building up by the minute," said Rockaway resident Brett Scudder, 38. "I know personally of a lot of people who are using their stoves to keep them warm."

Since the storm hit, Scudder has been going door to door in his neighborhood checking on residents and organizing volunteers to do the same.

"People are tired. They're frustrated. They want their lives to go back to the way they used to be," he said. Scudder says he has found residents moving back into homes with walls covered in mould and worries that respiratory illnesses could result. He believes that there are likely more dead bodies in homes that have not been searched. "I think we have some fatalities here that we're not seeing. I really do."

With an estimated $50bn in damages, Sandy is the second most expensive disaster in US history, surpassed only by hurricane Katrina. President Barack Obama is scheduled to visit New York City's hardest-hit areas on Thursday.

On Sunday, the US secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, made her second visit to the Staten Island since the storm struck. The island has suffered the highest concentration of Sandy-related deaths in the country. Many residents feel their borough was forgotten in the days immediately following the storm. Napolitano vowed to provide ongoing support for the island's recovering communities.

"This is going to be here for the long term," she said. "And we are here for the long term as well."

On the streets of Far Rockaway there were small signs of hope Sunday. Naomi Bachrach, 50, shouted for joy outside her two-story home. When asked why she was celebrating, Bachrach pointed to her garage. "Lights," she said. "You see that? Lights." For the first time since the storm struck, her family had power again.

Members of the national guard were seen driving through Far Rockaway in camouflaged Humvees on Sunday. The previous day, the mayor's office – along with the national guard, the Red Cross, Fema and local organizations – established a hot food and clothing distribution center in the neighborhood. Hundreds of families tolerated long lines in a desolate supermarket parking lot to collect pre-packaged meals, cartons of water and donated clothing.

Outside the Coney Island church on Saturday night, thousands of people were served hot meals provided by any unlikely collaboration of construction companies, pizzerias, plumbers, fashion designers and private citizens. Dino Redzic, co-owner of Uncle Paul's Pizza, a Manhattan restaurant, stayed up all night Friday preparing enough paninis to feed 6,000 people. By the time he finished volunteering Saturday night, the food was gone.

"These people deserve a hot meal," Redzic said. Volunteer Cleo Wade agreed. A stylist for the upscale Manhattan clothing line, Alice and Olivia, Wade's company was among the first to respond in Coney Island by coordinating prominent New York restaurants to provide meals for residents. As a survivor of hurricane Katrina, Wade felt it was crucial to offer Sandy's victims meals they would enjoy.

"We want to feed people what we eat. A lot of people are like 'just give them a quick meal or a ready meal or whatever,' but it's like, 'but you wouldn't eat that if somebody handed it to you,'" she said. Wade believes the people of Coney Island would do the same if Manhattan was in need. "The people of Coney Island are so amazing I bet you they would be the first ones helping us."

For Coney Island resident, Yamilet Ramirez, 30, a mother of two young children, the volunteers were a godsend. "It's a blessing," she said. "Ain't no Thanksgiving out here. We're very happy they did this for us. It's really bad right now."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Ryan Devereaux, for guardian.co.uk on Monday 12th November 2012 17.00 Europe/London

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