"FEMA has completed a review of your request for assistance with other expenses. At this time, we are unable to assist you because your losses are less than the allowable minimum grant amount."
An enraged Rockaway resident received this note with a $3,700 check for rental assistance, rejected because she didn't ask for enough! This would be laughable as a scene in Brazil if it weren't so tragic. If the mold and cold don't kill these people, the bureaucracy will.
"Are you effing kidding me... I lost darn near everything I own and that is less than the allowable minimum? I haven't been this cockblocked since high school! And don't get me started spewing my hate on the Red Cross. I'd need a year long karma wash to even out the hate I have for them."
It's the third day temperatures have plummeted into the single digits. At the 11th hour, the Sword of Damocles of the incomprehensibly cruel FEMA hotel evictions have been extended for the fourth time in as many weeks, postponing throwing thousands out into the arctic streets for another... two whole weeks! And when the time finally comes, they will be given a one day notice, by robocall! One friend who lost everything said the worst part of it is the "bureaucratic indifference."
I've been evicted. Not knowing when the Marshall is going to bang on your door, calling everyday to see if it's on the docket, crying all the time, living in that uncertainty takes a terrible psychological toll. You are riddled with shame and humiliation, it diminishes and dehumanizes you. Friends in the FEMA hotels say the displaced are joyless, just going through the motions, flatlined. Haven't these people suffered enough?
It's like being nibbled to death by ducks.
The comparisons to Katrina are inevitable -- with one big difference. It wasn't five degrees in New Orleans. "If you can't be a good example, you'll have to be a terrible warning" writes one New Orleans resident in this cautionary tale. "Unsolicited Advice To Northeast In The Aftermath"
These tenuous tenants will most probably be part of the biggest diaspora since Katrina "My life is destroyed since the storm." Incredibly, 8,400 homes are still without power -- three months later and when the FEMA hotel money runs out next week I don't know what's going to happen to these families. Tonight hundreds of people were evicted because of a SNAFU, the vouchers ran out and FEMA didn't bother to tell the hotel about the last minute two week extension.
Their lives, suddenly interrupted, the reason they are in hotels is they have no place else to go! They are the new immigrants. They are the wealthy, who have lost beach front homes worth millions, they are the poor and undocumented, the elderly and sick, newborn babies, disabled, they are you and they are me, folks whose homes are condemned, or simply gone, or the purgatory of being rendered uninhabitable, by mold.
In the photos, the black mold silently oozes... imperceptibly insinuating its way over the porous surface of Shaquana Wright's apartment walls. Creeping along her bedroom ceiling, splattering toxic spores on her good coat and daughters' purple party dress.
When I saw the pictures, I was repulsed, "It looks like a horror movie... like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
"I know, it does, doesn't it? It's black mold, that's the worst kind there is, they tell me. The landlord is just going to paint it over, but it's traveling through the house, my son has asthma and can't go back and now my daughter is sick and it's super hard for me to breathe. I went to Breezy Point and saw the burned homes and cried to see people a lot worse off than me."
I heard the term "mold remediation" for the first time about a month ago when I attended a "Resiliency" summit at NYU. In attendance, experts from all the agencies, volunteer groups from around the world, veterans of the Indonesian and Japanese tsunamis and Haitian earthquake... and all my Facebook friends, the social media underground railroad of information from all the groups with the name Rockaway in them, and in many cases, folks only communication and help line to the truth. The lines are blurring between the victims and volunteers, they are all such fine people.
I learned more than I ever cared to know about mold, that in the beginning people were told to use bleach but that only kills the top layer of the mold and it will grow back, like The Blob. I learned how dangerous it was for the first responders who tore out people's basement walls and debris and I learned that's called "mucking out." I met a guy who paid $17,000 CASH to a mold remediation company and when the mold grew back, they were nowhere to be found. I learned about white Tyvek suits that look like wardrobe for Contagion and pink respirators and how they need whatever that chemical is that you use with wire brushes to make sure it doesn't come back. I learned if you had 10 feet of water in your basement, you have to remediate two feet above the waterline. I learned if you breathe the mold, you can get really, really sick especially if you are a child or elderly or have a compromised immune system. And since, on some statistical charts, I am elderly, I developed Walking Pneumonia, which kept relapsing every trip out there and the worst persistent, deep chest cough, for two months! Everybody has it, the "Sandy Cough."
So the one two punch after residents homes were decimated, everywhere the flood water stood, and in some cases, just came in the broken windows... mold began to develop in a matter of days after the storm. They were using bleach, then when the oxymoronically named Rapid Repair came to install heat and electricity, they had no provisions in the program for mold remediation. "Not my job man." And when the heat was turned on, it became a mold factory, in one case, a faulty thermostat was installed and instead of 60 degrees it was set at 90 and the walls were bleeding with moisture... mold heaven! And now, three months later after 10,000 homes have been attended to by Rapid Repair, there are complaints of shoddy repairs.
The Catch 22 is there is so little information about the dangers of mold and its professional remediation because there is no "mold tsar" -- people are so happy when they finally get a response from Rapid Repair to turn their electricity and heat on, they begin rebuilding OVER the mold in many cases without proper inspection and tests with moisture detecters. So they are effectively sealing in the creeping menace.
I'd like to give a shout out to some selfless volunteers doing this noble work, the ubiquitous and perennial Occupy Sandy, YANA (You Are Not Alone), Terri Bennett and her crew of the all volunteer and FREE, Respond and Rebuild, the gold standard of mold remediation in the Rockaways. Once again, the volunteers were the real unsung heroes of this disaster, they were the first responders, and they stayed, "Don't give to the Red Cross, give to Respond and Rebuild because they have been incredible," One victim's tearful gratitude, a retired NYPD cop. And the beautiful young kids from NY Cares and Americorps, whom I met on the beach during a break of mucking out the home with the picture of Babe Ruth tacked to it I filmed the first week, have been in the mold remediation army from the very first, reminiscent of the Peace Corps volunteers when I was a girl.
There is NOBODY in charge! None of the agencies appear to be talking to each other, there is disinformation at best as far as the victims are concerned. FEMA and the Red Cross are the invisible girlfriends of this mess... everybody is confused, scared and mad! " I just want to know if it's safe to live here, to bring my five-year-old back and live here!"
The aftermath is a disaster in the making, possibly worse than the 12 hours Hurricane Sandy pounded 550 miles of coastline.
It's like these folks are getting screwed twice... three times if you count the portion of the $60 billion Sandy Relief Bill they WON'T be getting. As if it's not bad enough 181 of the heartless Republican majority in our broken Congress voted against the bill and the Senate just approved it three months later... not to worry, the lobbyists and well intentioned carpet baggers will get their share to dole out. The governors and mayors will have their contracts with their crony construction companies to rebuild and repair, and that's a good thing, but there appears to be nobody, other than Facebook groups I follow, helping the individual victims, countless people who have put their lives on hold, victims themselves, helping others and unless you are a 5013c it appears there is no help other than the government, not even with legal assistance to navigate them through the labyrinth of FEMA and insurance company paperwork, effectively turning them into grant writers.
During the Hurricane Sandy response hearings last week, one councilman in Coney Island said,"The communications were so bad, unless you were ON the street with the food, you didn't know there was any food, and by the time you found out... it was gone."
There were just too many "coincidences" at the end of the year, one might even conjecture at the end of the fiscal year... leaving a cynic crying foul.
Shortly after the Christmas tree lighting the warming tents were abruptly shut down on 94th Street and The Ritz of warming tents on 129th Street, leaving no place for community, no place to get a cup of joe and a hug, no drop off place for donations, they shut down Mama Rose with her infectious laugh and hot meals at St. Carmillus, which she now delivers from the tailgate of her van. The mystery surrounding the management of the tents, the circumstance and the timing of their abrupt demise, give one pause... the weather was indeed severe and the tents were dangerous but the fact that there was no brick and mortar replacement, that all other supply lines were cut off, the volunteers were turned away about the same time... I'm just saying.
I think it's beginning to sink in, "The cavalry is not coming" they say. Any help these folks receive is going to be from their neighbors, their churches and synagogues and community and the saintly volunteers... I pray I'm wrong, and all the money from those rock concerts and anything with a .org on the end of it, and that $60 billion will disappear faster than the Red Cross frozen hot dogs.
Follow the money my friends.
The Red Cross raised over $200 million in donations for Sandy Relief. Wouldn't it be awesome if they arrived in Rockaway, Staten Island and the Jersey Shore with trucks full of heaters and generators instead of broken hamburgers? Oh, my bad... you can't deliver heaters because they can't live in their homes because they're overridden by creeping MOLD! One victim just received this call...
"Hello, this is the Red Cross, we're calling people we know to see how you're doing and if you need anything."
"Well, as a matter of fact yes ...we need food!"
"Oh, you need food?(silence and then CLICK) she hung up!
President Obama needs to make good on his promise in Staten Island when he visited the first week. Words to the effect, anyone should call him directly if they had a problem. He needs to know how the insurance companies are screwing people six ways to Sunday. He needs to know how FEMA is torturing folks with these evictions and two week extensions and heartless robocalls. They are are post traumatic stressed, and don't get me started on the mental health toll in all of this. When children start dying from mold exacerbated respiratory disease, when seniors and people living in tent cities start dying from exposure, perhaps that will get their attention. There is only one hospital on the entire peninsula and that is in Far Rockaway, so the emergency rooms can't be monitored, because there are no emergency rooms.
Today I got a call, 'People need food, Sandi!' There is one market, Stop and Shop on 70th street. Since "they" shut off the supply lines for food and donations, people are relying on the church pantries and they are now depleted. People need food and water! A month ago, volunteers were perched in parking lots and on street corners with steaming serving tins of hot food, but today it is ZERO degrees and the streets, and stomachs, are empty.
And then there are those not fortunate enough to qualify to be evicted from a FEMA hotel, they live tent cities in New Dorp and other places. If it weren't for Facebook I wouldn't know about any of this, with pieces on the local news getting scarcer than hens teeth. But they will be forgotten again as the temperatures rise. The physical and mental cruelty these people are enduring is beyond any comprehension.
I asked Shaquana, of the creeping black mold, if there was anything she wanted to tell people, and I know she speaks for every single victim of this tragedy:
"We're just regular people we're in need of assistance, we're decent people who need a place to be comfortable and move forward with our lives."
This is our Gulag Mr. President... or anyone who is listening.
Sandi on HuffPost Live regarding filming in The Rockaways