On Friday, a few New York City residents were caught on camera literally screaming at Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Senator Chuck Schumer about the continuing lack of food, water and shelter in the city. After what I saw on Saturday, I can say that these residents were more than justified in their screaming. In fact, after visiting Coney Island and seeing the devastation that remains uncleared; the burned, broken, dirt-covered cars that remain unmoved; the houses that remain full of water-soaked debris; the yards full of household belongings now turned into garbage; the streets full of wandering, newly homeless residents; and the sad-faced children who swarmed my car for the coffee and food I brought them, I know what these residents know. The storm was fast and punishing. Many people had nowhere to go. The water came through their doors and up through their basements before they could react. The water, at times mixed with sewage, was chest high and receded over hours, taking lives, belongings, vehicles and entire neighborhoods with it.
I also know why the residents are angry: Almost a week after Hurricane Sandy hit New York, FEMA and state and local relief services are only faintly present or not present at all. The relief job isn’t getting done and the media has downplayed the lack of response and the dire needs of the people left behind. I thought times like these were a reason for big government, but as I was told Saturday by a demoralized fellow citizen, “ain’t nobody cares, just gotta take care of yourself, no one else will, that’s all.”
A vast area outside of Manhattan but within the limits of New York City is in desperate need of help. Despite assurances from President Barack Obama, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg, things are really not getting back on track. Hurricane Sandy destroyed block after block; the residents, who were not wealthy to begin with, and were stretched thin by the economy before the storm, don’t have the resources to fund the necessary cleanup efforts; over 2 million remain without power; thousands lack not only power but also sanitation, street cleaning and public transportation.
Together with our friend George Lewis, an English artist and photographer, my wife and I took action. We made dozens of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, boiled 54 eggs, bagged numerous apples and granola bars with other necessities and bought large boxes of coffee and donuts. Then we drove the short 25 minutes from Midtown Manhattan to Coney Island. While Midtown has emerged from the storm relatively unscathed, Coney Island has been drowned — along with Staten Island, the Rockaways, City Island and vast stretches of Long Island.
When we left Manhattan Saturday morning, we thought that everyone was on the mend, that the worst was over and that there would be no one who needed our help. Boy, we were wrong. As we drove into the large Coney Island neighborhood, we saw only one FEMA tent and one National Guard area; otherwise it was block after block of despair. We made three stops, and at each one our car was surrounded by anxious adults and children as soon as we opened our tailgate. These people did not want handouts but were thankful for the help. The group was a mix of races and religions. Many cried when accepting food from us. Most had incredibly sad stories to tell. Many had children with them who needed attention. Others had elderly relatives who were not getting care. At one stop, we were surrounded by a group of 30 people in need. I was grateful that I could be of help, and though our full SUV was quickly depleted, I believe we assisted over 75 people and their families in a substantive way. Many asked us to come back. We couldn’t refuse, so we spent the afternoon in Westchester buying more food, and we’re going back to Coney Island today.
I don’t know why politicians haven’t called on businesses to assist in the relief efforts. I know Chase would gladly find and fund relief trucks. Morgan Stanley would pay for food trucks. Wal-Mart would send trucks full of blankets and clothes. It would make a real difference.
I encourage all those who can to actively become involved in the relief and rebuilding efforts in New York. Please don’t think that big government or big charity will take care of it. They haven’t. Figure out a way through your workplace, church or community to lend a hand in helping our fellow citizens get back on their feet. We can end this tragedy.
Myers Mermel is a Manhattan real estate owner/investor and was a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in New York in 2010.