Cars pulled up at Staten Island’s Tottenville High School yesterday to deliver food, clothes and blankets to survivors of the floods, blackouts and destruction wreaked by Sandy’s hurricane-force winds Oct. 29.
“People are giving us everything,” said Cliff Bloom, an assistant principal. “Then they ask, ‘What else do you need?’ and in an hour, they’re back with it. It’s been fantastic.”
The school in the southern part of the New York borough was turned into a shelter the night before Sandy hit. It houses 152 evacuees from flooded areas, and quickly became a collection and distribution point for donated items, Bloom said. “We’ve been here since Sunday non-stop.”
Islanders occupy one of the hardest-hit areas, suffering about half the city’s 41 storm-related deaths. In Sandy’s wake, the Staten Island survivors are banding together to cope with the privations left by the largest Atlantic tropical system ever measured. The rest of New York, a city of 8 million, struggled with routine functions such as getting to work as cleanup crews pumped out inundated utility and transportation tunnels.
Sandy killed at least 105 people in the U.S. and cut power to as many as 8.5 million along the East Coast, including much of lower Manhattan. Waves and floodwaters from the storm left entire seaside communities in New Jersey in ruins, while winds fanned the flames of a firestorm that destroyed more than 100 homes in the Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens.
On Staten Island, some people said they wondered why they wasn’t more help from rescue workers and cleanup crews before yesterday. While Red Cross workers and military personnel provided aid yesterday, residents such as Donel Franco, a 31-year-old mother of two, said they hadn’t seen them earlier in the week.
“Nobody’s been here,” Franco said. “We need somewhere to go until we can go back home, if we can ever. All of our stuff is covered in mud. I feel so helpless.”
Franco and others said they have relied on friends and neighbors for donations of clothes, food and blankets. Staten Island’s restaurants also have been generous, Bloom said at the high school. The shelter has received as many as 40 donated pizzas a day, along with fruit baskets, salads, and pallets of bottled water.
Bloom and others began setting up the shelter Oct. 27 amid warnings of Sandy’s approach. Some evacuees started arriving the next night, before the storm arrived Oct. 29.
Other flood-zone residents didn’t evacuate ahead of time.
Franco said she had just finished cooking dinner the night of the storm when her basement-level Mayberry Promenade apartment, in a waterfront area on the island’s eastern edge, started flooding.
“Water just started pouring in the windows,” Franco said. Outside, she said, “the water was five feet high.”
Like many New Yorkers who weathered Hurricane Irene last year unscathed, Franco said she hadn’t felt she needed to evacuate, even though her apartment was in a flood zone. She and her two children, George Jr., 18 months, and Maximus, seven weeks, were rescued by firefighters. They got to a fence in back of the apartment, and the Franco family had to wait until a surge of water began receding before they could escape.
“We ran through two feet of water in the backyard and the firemen pulled us over the fence,” Franco said. Her husband, a carpenter, turned back to make sure the door was locked and got left behind, she said. He waited out the storm at the apartment.
“I was worried my husband was washed away,” she said.
The rescue workers took Franco and the boys to Tottenville High, where they were joined by her husband.
The shelter has provided some solace, although Franco said it has been stressful to sleep on cots with two babies.
“Since I’ve been here, I’ve gotten so much -- diapers and wipes, new clothes,” she said. “There’s a surprising amount of people wanting to help out.”
Franco said the most frustrating thing is not knowing what will happen to her family. Schools are set to reopen Nov. 5, so the people in the shelter must leave by tomorrow, Franco said. Yet her apartment is unlivable.
She’s also still bothered by the fear she felt as water poured through her windows.
In the school, “I almost had a panic attack in the shower, as the water rose above my ankles,” Franco said. The trauma and the condition of her apartment has left her torn about returning, even if they could.
“I almost just want to walk away,” she said.
Volunteers at the shelter did their best to make evacuees comfortable, Bloom said. On Halloween, children staying in the school dressed up and went trick-or-treating inside, as dozens of people came to help out, he said.
“The show of support from the Staten Island community -- I can’t put it into words,” Bloom said.
Stacey Reiner, a volunteer from Manhattan’s Upper East Side, came to pitch in after seeing the devastation in television news reports. A New Yorker for 21 years, she managed to get an express bus down the East Side to one of the first ferries over.
“This is like the forgotten island,” said Reiner, who works for a children’s show production company. “They have no heat, no electricity, kids are sleeping in cars.”
“I wanted to see what anybody needs,” Reiner said as she rode a bus past island gas stations anchoring lines of cars down city blocks and streets with boats from a nearby yacht club piled on top of one another. “You would hope that someone would do it for you.”
On the S78 bus, Debra Greene, a 22-year island resident, said her power had been out since the storm hit. An elderly neighbor in her South Beach high-rise building had been trapped in an elevator for two days, she said.
“They say all women carry gum in their purse,” Greene said. “She had no food, no candy, nothing.”
U.S. Marines came to Greene’s building, where the blackout stranded other residents on higher floors, she said. Greene’s husband uses a wheelchair and couldn’t get to the street. She said she was frustrated by the duration of the outage.
Close to her stop, Greene got a call on her mobile telephone. “The power’s back on!” she said.
Still, she said she didn’t trust the elevators, and would walk up six floors to reach her apartment. The one thing she did plan to use: her freezer, for some Ben & Jerry’s brand banana ice cream with bits of fudge and walnuts.
“When I get off here I’m going to get me some Chunky Monkey!” she said.