Kayla Noell was having a tough time even before the hurricane. The 21-year-old single mom uses the $526 in food stamps she receives each month to feed herself, her son, and up to eight family members in the Marlboro public housing development where she lives in Gravesend, Brooklyn, just north of Coney Island.
When Hurricane Sandy hit, it flooded the first floor of Noell's building, cutting power and trapping her inside. After the water receded, all the food Noell had purchased with her Electronic Benefits Transfer card would soon spoil. "We need to get it replaced or we'll be hungry," she said.
In the best of times, the government offices that dispense assistance to poor people are full of confusion, bureaucracy and failed aspirations. On Monday, the first normal business day since Hurricane Sandy upended much of life in the nation's most populous metropolitan area, the scene at those social service offices that were open was particularly chaotic, with unusually large crowds massing in pursuit of help. Many, like Noell, had come to look into another infusion of food stamps to replace groceries that spoiled after the storm.
On Saturday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered $65 million in new food stamp money to be automatically placed onto the cards of families who live in storm ravaged areas. As of Monday, most had yet to receive the replacement benefits.
"I came earlier this week for emergency food stamps but they said it would take some time to process my application," said Maria Santana, of Staten Island, while sitting in the waiting room of the food stamp center in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Santana has been receiving food stamps for five months. Like Noell, she saw all her food spoil when the hurricane wiped out power to her house on Faber Street in Staten Island.
"An emergency is an emergency," she said. "I don't understand why it takes so long."
Benefits for those whose food spoiled after the storm will be issued sometime Tuesday and Wednesday night, according to Connie Ress, a spokeswoman for the New York City's Human Resources Administration, which runs the centers. In the meantime, people like Noell are depending on food pantries, soup kitchens and emergency hotlines for meals. Six temporary Human Resources Administration offices in hard-hit locations across the city are also offering limited disaster relief services.
In addition to having half of their benefits replaced automatically, food stamp recipients in storm damaged areas will be able to apply for the other half, Cuomo said in a press release. Those outside the designated storm damaged zip codes can also apply for replacement benefits to be credited to their accounts. As of Nov. 1, New York food stamp recipients can also purchase hot and prepared food with their benefits, something which is usually prohibited.
Ress' team managed to get a key food stamp center in the Rockaways open Monday, a huge step for the devastated area. By by Wednesday, all 16 centers will be open.
But on Coney Island and in lower Manhattan, three centers remained closed Monday. On Coney Island, the center directly across from the famous beach still bore a brown smudge from the nine feet of seawater that had filled it during the storm. Around noon, as a cleaning crew bustled in and out of the building, a row of security guards stood outside, turning away Noell and dozens of others who showed up seeking assistance.
"We've had two to five-hundred people show up here today," said Alexanderia, a security guard who declined to give her last name. "It's the same conversation over and over. I don't know how you can expect the office to be open. We're as close to the water as you can be."
Alexanderia sent many of those people to the Human Resources Agency's temporary office in a nearby lot, where FEMA, the Red Cross, and other charities were handing out meals and registering people for programs.
Christine Garner, who lives on the still-powerless fourteenth floor of one of the public housing complexes on Coney Island, showed up at the office on Monday for an appointment to get assistance paying her rent, which was due on Nov. 1. Seeing it closed, she wasn't how she would come up with the money. "We have to keep a roof over our heads, storm or not," she said.