“Tens of thousands of New Yorkers devastated by Hurricane Sandy are still without heat and living in mold-infested houses, creating a serious health crisis,” reads a petition posted on Facebook by Wendy Tarlow of Sag Harbor. As conditions grow worse by the day in the Rockaways and other less-discussed towns such as Island Park, she said, it is crucial for volunteers to “get in there and give them the attention that the government is not giving them.”
It looks like a set from “The Walking Dead,” said James Katsipis, a photographer from Montauk who went to Rockaway and Breezy Point, “like the world just abandoned Rockaway . . . a total war zone. . . . Blocks and blocks of flipped and crushed cars . . . stripped of tires by nighttime looters.”
Twelve feet of water filled the inland streets, from bay to ocean, he said, and people had to paddle around to save one another.
After more than a month, flooded houses’ wallboard began to show black mold, which Mr. Katsipis saw firsthand. Even wearing a mask, “I refused to go into the houses,” he said, and people are living there. He interviewed families who had received “lots of assessments. . . . ‘You definitely can’t live here,’ ” they were told. Then, they would receive a paper: “You don’t qualify for [Federal Emergency Management Agency] benefits.” The people don’t understand why, he said. “Is black mold not covered?” he said they wondered.
Volunteers such as Brian Lydon of East Hampton are struggling to continue their efforts in the Rockaways. “I am simply exhausted beyond the beyond . . . yet tomorrow there will be many waiting for hope and sustenance,” he wrote on Facebook.
“Huge amounts of help and guidance are needed,” Ms. Tarlow said, and time is running out. Ms. Tarlow is assisting via social media by sharing informative articles with victims of Sandy and providing details to those who wish to help regarding what the needs are and the names of reputable charities.
Many communities are getting almost no outside help, even from relief groups, Ms. Tarlow said. Displaced residents in need of the state government’s help have been failed, she and Mr. Katsipis said, and the poor response will cause more deaths because of the mold and the cold that have already led to worsening health and increased hospital visits.
Not wanting to be displaced, many people await a solution in life-threatening conditions, as Claudia Patino of Sag Harbor witnessed while going door to door assessing the needs in underserved and ignored areas. She found elderly people sleeping on a cement floor with dying cats. They were denied by FEMA. Ms. Patino and Ms. Tarlow got them a bed, a refrigerator, and a microwave.
“Everybody’s first floor is gone,” Jimi Rando, owner and general manager of Sweet Tomato’s restaurant on Shelter Island, said of his hometown of Island Park. After much of his family’s house and body shop business were lost, he spent a great deal of time there helping, and also did demolition for free on 19 houses over eight days. There is still a shortage of boilers and hot water heaters, he said, and an increase in black mold as well as dried sewage. Those who help need to know how to protect themselves, he said.
Ms. Patino agreed and will attend a mold-remediation certification course this weekend. Uncovered daily are “serious levels of mold — Katrina level,” Ms. Tarlow said. “The government should be dealing with this.”
As bad as it is, there are positive signs. With money donated to Mr. Rando’s relief effort, he bought shrimp, and his childhood friends made paella for 200 people. His neighbor on Shelter Island, Marie Eiffel, also got involved, and when word got out to her extensive e-mail list, her whole clothing store on the island was full of donations, as was Mr. Rando’s parents’ living room and dining room. “Shelter Island residents came through,” he said — enough of them to help fill 12 vans.
Among the red tape he had to cut through was that of FEMA representatives in order to get donations into the hands of those who needed them. Brand-new cashmere wraps from Ms. Eiffel that retail for $200 in her store were rejected because they had tags on them, as were scarves, mittens, jackets, blankets, and boots. State troopers were asked to escort Mr. Rando from the scene when he became frustrated, but he found a way to give it all directly to those in need.
In Lindenhurst, it’s the newly established Camp Bulldog that those who have lost it all are turning to. There, volunteers set up daily at a waterfront park with donated hot food, drinks, and supplies. The camp gets help from nonprofits such as the Island Harvest food pantry, representatives of which stop by regularly with pallets full of essentials. They have dropped off cases of heaters and cleaning supplies as well, said Andrea Curran, a retired gym teacher from the Lindenhurst schools who is one of the camp’s organizers. She said the American Red Cross also comes by almost daily with items such as bleach, snacks, water, and diapers.
“Nobody’s helping,” said Donna Stack of North Babylon. “I need muscle.” She called Camp Bulldog and its volunteers “a godsend” for the moral and edible support. Her 83-year-old mother, Gloria Wynne, who is blind, has lived since 1963 in a canal-front house on Strong’s Creek, now unlivable. Her mother desperately wishes to return to the home where she lived alone, able to navigate by memory. Ms. Stack said that FEMA’s Step program had promised them four heaters, a 20-gallon hot water heater, and four electrical outlets, but it is “taking forever.” When representatives came to the house more than two weeks ago, they told her it would be a day or two.
Ms. Tarlow knows all about the red tape, as when aid checks are sent to third-party mortgage holders. “They can’t cash these checks.” Or when people are given $400 for a house declared unlivable with an “X” put on it. People are feeling “swindled by their mortgage company,” she said.
Ms. Stack expressed frustration at all the documentation and pictures required. “She lost everything on the first floor,” she said of her mother — everyone south of Montauk Highway in that area did. After the two had filled out piles of paperwork, a FEMA representative told her not to panic over the receipt of a denial letter, that’s the government’s way of weeding out the requests, the representative explained. Since then the letter has indeed arrived.
Despite more than $200,000 in damage, Ms. Wynne will eventually receive a maximum of $30,000 from FEMA and $30,000 from her insurance at best.
Ms. Stack and many other residents need their wallboard and floors ripped out and simply do not have the money or manpower to get it done.
“Everybody should be doing something,” said Yuri Ando, pastor of the East Hampton Methodist Church, who recently “took down Sheetrock drywall, nails, mold, and debris, and provided mold remediation with vacuuming, brushing the walls, and sprays.” One team went and cried with a homeowner for an hour, listening to stories of loss, Ms. Ando said, calling this another form of help that is needed.
At a house in Freeport, she packed a utility knife, a shovel, and cleaning supplies to help people who lost everything on the first floor. The pastor is now looking to raise money for relief stations set up on behalf of the United Methodist Committee on Relief in Staten Island, Far Rockaway, Garden City, Freeport, and Massapequa.
With the holidays approaching, Mr. Rando will host a toy drive on Saturday at Sweet Tomato’s, with the donations to be given out by the Island Park Fire Department.
Whitmores nursery donated a “25-foot, gorgeous tree to the people of the Rockaways,” said Melissa Berman of Montauk, a member of East End Cares. It was lighted last night. She said the volunteer efforts continue and are “incredible to witness and be a part of.” She mentioned an ornament-making craft day with children at which volunteers supplied cookies, hot chocolate, and loads of art supplies, as well as ornaments made by East End kids.
A little emotional support goes a long way. On Facebook Ms. Berman shared an invitation to hand-write letters to those in the affected areas, to “someone who is most likely still cold at night or homeless . . . who has lost all material items. . . . Put your heart and soul into it.”
Letters received by Ruby Marketing Group at 16 Denison Road, Sag Harbor 11963 will be distributed prior to Christmas. Addressed to no one in particular, the letters will be given to “who we find on the street, standing by their homes, in warming centers” to share “encouragement, positive thoughts in times of adversity, and love.”
The biggest problems, Mr. Katsipis said, are “red tape and politics.” The biggest needs, “help, people’s time . . . it’s going to be a long haul.”