The worst part about a storm like this is the chaos it creates regarding the chain of communication. Nearly two weeks after the ocean breached the shores of Far Rockaway Beach, and wreaked havoc throughout the entire New York area, hundreds upon hundreds of the sick and elderly still have no idea when their heat will return. And, everyone's blaming everyone else. Meanwhile, the seniors continue to freeze.
Being part of a crew documenting the aftermath of Sandy, we were asked to visit the JASA (Jewish Assoc. Serving the Aged) Senior housing projects along the beach in Far Rockaway today. The reason they asked us is because practically every other media outlet has ignored their pleas for help.
Below are some excerpts from the numerous emails I received which prompted us to drop everything and head out there:
"The situation in Far Rockaway is dire and out of control. A body bag was pulled out of one the buildings yesterday. There is no National Guard, Red Cross or any other disaster relief agency on site.
Individual volunteers and other small volunteer groups are the only ones on site.
Most of the recovery efforts in the Rockaways are focused on the Western part of the peninsula where fires erupted such as Rockaway Park and Breezy Point.
The buildings have approximately 2,000 units housing senior citizens, most of whom are of Russian descent. Each building is over 20 stories high housing approx 16 units on each floor. It is unclear how many did not tenants evacuated, however, it is known that only 25 percent of the Rockaway Peninsula evacuated."
"Homebound seniors can't leave their homes, most can't walk up and down the stairs. They need medicine and medical care, in addition to food and water.
The owners of the buildings have no real plan for recovery and if they do, haven't announced one. Building management had no idea that LIPA (Long Island Power Authority) services the Rockaway Peninsula, and not Con Ed.
Apparently all of the systems to the building have been compromised.
They told me Doctors without Borders are there, but we know for a fact they aren't. On Sunday, Doctors without Borders were on Beach 38 and yesterday, one of the volunteers informed us that Doctors without Borders have not been there."
"I was personally in Far Rockaway today with four other girls. We were at Beach 19th street in buildings 125, 135 and 155 handing out supplies and food. What's happening there is an utter disgrace, management has no clue who is in the buildings, what they need or what the reality of the situation is. Someone posted that a body was discovered and carried out today. That's absolutely true, saw it with my own eyes."
"Hallways are becoming peoples restrooms, all the tenants are running their stoves to stay warm -- the smell of gas is unbearable and most of the people are in the 80-plus group so I wouldnt be surprised if one accidently sets the whole building on fire or kills themselves b/c they didnt turn the gas off (many organization groups in an effort to help were distributing candles and matches). Many of the tenants were telling me they have sons, daughters etc. but they cant come get them b/c they work or have no gas."
Upon arriving, we met Yana Feldman, an estate planning attorney who had been there since the beginning and was leading a group of volunteers. She confirmed what the above emails stated. "The problem is, some can't leave and some refuse to," she says. Apparently, many of the 80-plus-year-olds have the attitude, 'I survived two wars. I can survive this.'" Which doesn't make their job any easier. Volunteers were carrying the elderly out down 19 flights of stairs to shelters.
Our crew was told to stop filming almost as soon as we started by one of the complex managers. She then gave me a number to call and I was told I'd have to wait an hour, as, Terry Marks, the director, was on with the Times. When I finally got through, Ms. Marks went on a manic-but-well-informed rant about how many things they were doing and, if we really wanted to help, we should just leave and, "Let them do their job."
The entire time the director was rattling off each thing that was supposedly being done, e.g. generators, Doctors Without Borders, etc., poor Yana was standing there shaking her head in disagreement. It was quite bizarre being in the middle of a conversation like that, but, who would you believe? A director who's calling from an office miles away, or a volunteer on the ground who's been there for days on end?
Ultimately, Ms. Marks did come off as empathetic to the situation and was most likely just under a lot of understandable stress, as she was no doubt being pulled in several directions at once. There's no denying she cares about the seniors, it just may be a case of receiving some incorrect information. Which brings me to my original statement:
Ultimately, the directors and volunteers are on the same side. But, so many people are telling so many tales as to who's to blame, or who's saying what, you can't help but feel caught in the web of complete chaos that damage to such a widespread area such as this creates.
For instance, I was told by Ms. Marks that LIPA is saying it's "Not their problem." Apparently, their systems are fine and it's the buildings electrical systems that are damaged, and that's not their problem. Meanwhile, the building's management says that's hogwash, and it is, indeed, LIPA's problem.
Jeff Altman, of Owl Creek Asset Mgmt., who, along w/ COO Dan Sapadin, brought a team of volunteers to the projects, thinks LIPA is "full of it."
"My mother lives three miles from here and she doesn't have power, either. So, trying to tell us everything's dandy out here is simply not true."
Trying to get to the heart of the matter, I called six different numbers for LIPA -- everything from customer service, to emergency explosions, to the medical equipment catastrophe line -- and all were busy. I sent an email to Bruce Germano, LIPA's V.P. of customer service, but received no reply.
Today was the first day they saw a Red Cross truck. It just happened to arrive as we were leaving. The truck announced they had blankets and meals. Within seconds, the blankets were gone. The guy driving the truck said he was told by dispatch they "didn't need him there," but he came, anyway. Another miscommunication.
The bottom line is, when workers from a hedge fund and some volunteers from the Israeli Army, outnumber FEMA, the Red Cross and the National Guard, two weeks after an epic storm, you know something's rotten in Denmark.
Even city councilman James Sanders thinks the entire situation stinks.
I'm sure the mayor cares about these people, and, he can't be in all places at once. However, I would say, if it were me, and there was a massive power outage, one which affected thousands of the city's sick and elderly, and left them freezing and imprisoned in their dark towers for weeks, I'd make sure they were the ones who got priority, rather than the rich, white folk a stone's throw away, in Breezy Point.
The New York Times is supposedly running a story on the situation on Friday. All I can advise is, having been there first hand, unless the power is fully restored sometime this afternoon, take everything you read with a grain of salt. Nothing is as it appears to be, and those poor folks need help.
If anyone wishes to help, you can join the Facebook group set up by the volunteers.
Follow David Fagin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nikchapman