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Who Speaks for New York -- a Hurricane Sandy Discussion

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With the event of Hurricane Sandy, many of us have been living in pre-modern conditions for days. My brother and I bought and axe and began cutting and splitting the logs from fallen trees in our neighborhood just to keep warm. Thankfully we have a gas-fired water heater, but most in our town have no hot water or electricity. It's going on six days now that utilities have been unavailable, and while it was quaint for a day or two, we are now getting in to dangerous territory.

Those of you who are unaffected by this tragedy may see pictures on the news, but a few short clips don't do justice to the situation that is unfolding before us here in New York. It has both broken my heart and filled me with pride at the same time.

During any natural disaster or catastrophic event, you get to see both the best and worst of people without looking very far. The folks in Breezy Point and Long Beach, both part of the same barrier island chain, have lost absolutely everything. Breezy Point was not only flooded, but had to suffer the ironic indignity of watching a fire burn over 100 homes to the ground while surrounded by rising waters. It's hard to even comprehend the devastation without experiencing it yourself folks, let me tell you. To give you a better idea of just how bad things are in those areas, think about this: Most people in Long Beach not only lost their homes but their cars have been washed away or buried completely. Many residents have had to search for hours with very little chance of finding their vehicle. In Breezy Point even the houses that were spared destruction from the flood have had their possessions destroyed and contaminated by raw sewage due to the cesspool use there. If you haven't seen images of Breezy, I urge you to take a look. The first thought that came to my mine was the images of Berlin from WWII.

It's hard not to weep for those families. So, despite not having any electricity or heat ourselves, we gathered and donated of 20 bags of goods to the relief effort. We later found out that so many donations have been coming in that some of the drop-off locations have stopped accepting clothing (but they still need more). It warms the heart to see that level of help coming from people who are still reading by candlelight every night. It just goes to show that the good in people shines through, even in the worst of times.

Unfortunately, the other side of the coin is that during a natural disaster the worst in people can also easily be found. Here on Long Island, while electricity and hot water are important, the biggest issue we have here in the area is the shortage of fuel, mainly gasoline. Those of you who waited on the long gas lines in the 1970s can sympathize with what we are going through, but having only read about the Carter-era shortage, the events I witness on a daily basis at and around gas stations horrifies me.

First, let me assure you, finding a line of 250 or more cars waiting for gas at a station is no exaggeration. In fact, most of the cars begin lining up at 3 or 4 a.m. with just a promise of a tanker truck later that day. By the time 3 p.m. rolls around and the tanker truck finally arrives, there is at least a four hour wait to get to the pump, and some of those people wont' make it before the fuel runs out.

As you can imagine, this type of situation is a veritable powder keg for fights, riots, thefts, and other senseless acts that all require just a simple errant word or gesture to spark a full-fledged brawl. I have personally witness at least three altercations myself over gas. The first was when a 40-year-old man cold-cocked an elderly man who mistakenly cut the gas line. No words were spoken; the aggressor simply approached the elderly man and clocked him. This was in the early days of the shortage, so the police had not begun monitoring the gas lines yet. I didn't stick around to see the aftermath. The second time I was privy to one of these incidents was when I witnessed a woman with a handicapped placard simply drive up into the gas station, ahead of 200 or more cars, telling everyone "I'm handicapped I ain't waitin' on no line." Well, as you can imagine, disabled or not, the bevy of customers who had waited the entire day for fuel were not going to put up with that type of behavior. Fortunately, before anyone got physical, the owner came out and banned the woman from the station. Of course, everyone in earshot broke into applause. Lastly, just today when on my daily supply hunt (batteries, firestarter logs, ice -- whatever there is left), I watched as two officers subdued and cuffed a man who had apparently pulled a gun to secure a place at the front of the gas line. A gun! Imagine that. Over gasoline that should have been flowing fine.

As you can see, the events I witnessed represent the worst in humanity. I surmise that these types of scenes are playing out all over southern New York. It's a shame, truly, but people are panicked. This is for one reason and one alone -- the startling lack of information that New Yorkers are being provided. The government and utilities of New York State are disseminating almost no information to those of us who are in need of it most. I'm not sure if Governor Cuomo knows how infuriating it is to hear New Jersey governor Chris Christie on the radio for an hour or more every day, telling N.J. residents exactly what is going on and exactly what they need to do to receive help if they need it. All I've heard of Cuomo is two or three short statements, which vaguely insinuate that power companies will lose their license to operate if they don't perform adequately. Most of the information any of us here get is strictly by word of mouth and the Internet only (when there is cell phone power to be had). If it wasn't for Facebook, it would be hard to communicate at all with the displaced residents of Breezy Point and Long Beach.

In addition, In order to help deal with the gas shortage in New Jersey, governor Christie has instituted the even-odd gas fill up policy. In addition, he has invited companies like Wal-Mart to come and help as much as they can. Our Governor Cuomo tried to institute a free gas giveaway, but unsurprisingly it turned into a fiasco. Within mere hours, the officials were back on the radio begging people to stop coming to the distribution centers to get the free gas because of supply issues. Not to mention the near-riotous crowds. Somehow Albany severely underestimated the demand for fuel, and in addition, since most of the distribution centers were dreadfully understaffed, people were being assaulted and robbed, as I heard from friends and relatives who were there. In addition, the emergency vehicles that needed gas could not obtain it, despite the fact that no mention of the fact that the fuel was mainly for emergency vehicles was ever made in the first place. A truly epic fail, to use the modern vernacular.

Also, in New Jersey, governor Christie has put up a website where N.J. residents can see where the power companies are working, what they are doing, when the power is expected back, and where they plan to go next. The Long Island Power Authority website simply shows a map where outages have occurred, with a few sporadic crews working in non descript areas. The status on all of these outages is "assessing condition," and has been so since the power stopped flowing. It seems that once the electricity stopped, so did the information. What makes it even more disgraceful is that LIPA charges the fifth-highest rates for power in the entire country. The fifth-highest rates and it seems like none of it is going back into the system. In my town, no one has seen hide or hair of LIPA since the day of the hurricane, and no one can get a straight answer.

Governor Christie in New Jersey has already pledged to rebuild the Jersey Seaside, and has begun preliminary plans to do so. The folks here in Breezy Point and Long Beach who have lost their homes have been given a vague pledge by Governor Cuomo that 100 million dollars will be available for the rebuilding effort. That's it. FEMA has done more for these people than anyone else at this point.

I think the biggest issue is that while Michael Bloomberg does speak for the five boroughs, there is no one at all to speak for Long Island, Westchester, and the other non-city areas. We have no central point to get information in this most trying of times, and we all feel as if our local and state governments are letting us down. LIPA is apparently doing nothing at all to help keep their customers informed, but you can bet you get a phone call the day after you miss the deadline on your bill. This has to change before the next disaster hits or else we will be living this nightmare again and again. Albany, take a cue from New Jersey and start behaving like the people who need you most right now actually matter.