After Hurricane Sandy: A Tale of Two Neighborhoods

A sign directs voters during the U.S. presidential election at a displaced polling center in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn, New York, on 6 November 2012. (Photo: Reuters - Brendan McDermid)

Published Saturday, October 6, 2012

When Hurricane Sandy struck, it did not distinguish between rich and poor. As recovery efforts begin, locales like Wall Street have taken precedence over poorer neighborhoods like Far Rockaway, which remain disaster zones a week later.

Tens of kilometers separate downtown Manhattan from the neighborhood of Far Rockaway, located in the southeast borough of Queens. Both were equally subjected to the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. Nature was blind to the vast differences between the two areas, subjecting both to high winds, saltwater, and sand.

Lower Manhattan, where Wall Street and the financial district are located, is full of skyscrapers that were able to withstand the powerful storm, while many of Far Rockaway’s modest residential buildings were overwhelmed by floods. Before Sandy even hit land, the two areas were treated differently for many reasons.

Wall Street remained the focus of so much media attention throughout the storm despite the fact that electricity was down in major parts of the financial district. It was also visited by a bevy of officials, including President Barack Obama.

The police were particularly concerned about the security situation in Lower Manhattan where many banks and financial firms – not to mention the stock exchange – are located.

Officials therefore quickly deployed a large number of police officers to the area, in addition to addressing any gaps in power and phone services. They even managed to drain millions of gallons of seawater from the subway tunnels leading to the financial district shortly after the hurricane passed.

It is true that electricity was not restored fully in parts of Wall Street due to the extent of the damage and the presence of water, but the widespread presence of the police protected the area’s businesses from damage. As for the stock exchange, it reopened two days after the storm, having suffered little damage.

The financial district was supplied with gigantic water pumps, many of which were used for the first time, to remove water from flooded areas. Bulldozers worked quickly to open roads as buses resumed free services transporting the employees, traders, and brokers to work.

Lower Manhattan’s piers were also cleared, allowing the Staten Island ferry service to resume just four days after the storm. Some of the subway lines were up and running in different parts of Manhattan, moving to full service by Saturday.

As for Far Rockaway, which is made up of a strip of beaches along the coastline that lies south of the JFK International Airport in Queens, the situation is quite different. One of the key bridges that lead to the neighborhood was destroyed, while hundreds of homes and shops were drowned in water.

Far Rockaway’s 120,000 African American and Jewish residents are mostly poor and it is well known as one of the most neglected areas of New York City. Crime and poverty rates are the worst, even when compared to other troubled areas in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Harlem.

Many people in Far Rockaway rely on government assistance to make ends meet and therefore were not able to leave their homes during the hurricane due to their limited means. This is despite the fact that this coastal area was expected to be hit hardest by the storm, and in fact it did sustain some of the worst damage – along with the nearby wealthy town of Long Beach.

The hurricane left behind hundreds of burned houses and thousands more completely flooded. But the residents found themselves at the bottom of the recovery effort’s priorities, with the media covering the area’s devastation from helicopters.

To make matters worse, the temperature dropped to near zero after the hurricane, while supplies were delayed due to difficulties reaching the area. The people of Far Rockaway found themselves caught in a vice, with nature unleashing its devastation on one side, and street gangs on the other, who, in the absence of any security, took to terrorizing the locals.

In response, many residents armed themselves with whatever means they could get their hands on – from guns to baseball bats, even cross bows. Many people from the area, in calls to radio and television stations, say they could hear gunshots late into the night.

Some relief has reached the neighborhood in the form of drinking water and food, but it hardly meets the needs of the destroyed community. As for restoring security, it is already too late to save the small shops that dot the streets from being looted and destroyed. Even McDonald’s was not spared.

Unfortunately, no organized groups or parties exist in the area to channel the growing fear and frustration into a coherent set of demands directed at the authorities; the culture of rugged individualism that dominates the US has prompted many to look to individual rather than collective solutions.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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