Hurricane Sandy struck parts of New York and New Jersey over a year ago but many residents on the eastern portion of the Rockaways in New York’s borough of Queens are still displaced and struggling to rebuild.
The recovery challenges of the upper-middle-class communities of the western Rockaway peninsula took center stage in the media, but some lower-income communities, the majority of which are African-American and Latino, are still struggling to rebuild with fewer resources.
Growing controversy over allocation of Sandy relief aid in New Jersey has distracted the media’s attention from some of the communities still in need, such as the slow and arduous recovery efforts in Rockaway. Residents are not sitting idly by, as a grassroots youth movement has stepped up to make a difference. Milan Taylor founded the Rockaway Youth Task Force in 2011. His entirely youth-led organization has helped rebuild the Rockaways since Sandy struck in 2012. Milan and his task force members feel alone in this struggle, reflecting a larger community that has felt abandoned by authorities. The youth group has focused on “sweat equity,” physically helping in the recovery as well as taking their message to New York City’s politicians.
Critics say government agencies have failed to support the lower-income communities in the Rockaways with enough support. In an interview with theGrio, New York City Councilman Donovan Richards, who represents parts of the Rockaways, admits the city has not moved as fast in giving aid as it has to wealthier residents. Although Councilman Richards helped pass Sandy Tracker legislation last year, he said federal funds have still been slow to reach his constituents. “This was the Ninth Ward,” Councilman Richards said in reference to the poor, Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, which took years to return to normal.
Cheryl Manuel, an African-American mother of three, lived in shelters after Sandy flooded her Far Rockaway apartment, then moved into hotels. Her Legal Aid caseworker told theGrio that Cheryl did not qualify for FEMA aid, and that the city under the Bloomberg administration threatened to cut off funds for her stay in hotels. Cheryl alleges that her landlord would not properly repair her apartment, and that it was unlivable. The Red Cross, a non-governmental non-profit, assisted in financing Cheryl’s hotels until she was able to move into a new apartment. Manuel said because the city failed to assist her with getting a new home for herself and her children, there was a danger of them having the enter the homeless shelter system.
FEMA referred many residents to state agencies and non-governmental organizations for assistance after Sandy, according to spokesperson Michael Meenan. Meenan says the criteria for receiving FEMA assistance included having home insurance, and other items some say were more applicable to homeowners. Many Rockaway residents are renters and lacked the economic means to meet FEMA’s criteria, according to sources.
In response, Meenan stated to theGrio, “FEMA has assisted tens of thousands of Sandy survivors who are homeowners, renters and neither of the two. The law, not caprice, determines whom is helped.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, which was not in charge during the worst of the disaster, referred theGrio to the work of “Build it Back,” an initiative that offered assistance to displaced residents in New York City. Sources say this effort was slow to implement help under Bloomberg.
“It is worth noting that Build it Back is the last recovery option in a series of City-sponsored initiatives,” a spokesperson from Mayor de Blasio’s office told theGrio. “We helped restore heat, hot water and electricity to more than 12,000 residences within 100 days of the storm – assistance totaling $650 million – at no cost to storm victims. Further, the city created its own hotel program to house displaced storm victims, completely independent of FEMA’s hotel program (which, it is important to note, has its own rules).”
Cheryl Manuel and other residents said they did not receive full information about all the available resources, and often lost track of the multiple agencies involved in rebuilding after Sandy, which spanned the local, state and federal government, as well as nonprofits. The entangled web of relief aid slowed their progress towards recovery.
Meenan did not provide a full list of all the entities involved in providing aid when asked.
As the black and Latino communities of the Rockaways inch toward full recovery, theGrio investigated how some of these residents who were left behind felt about their treatment. Please watch our special video report.
Follow Dominique Mann on Twitter @dominiquejmann