Abandoned by the U.S. government, hurricane-ravaged Staten Island turns to the Occupy movement 

A Demonstration of Humanity

In many cases, the effects of sandy were quite catastrophic to the Staten Island community

Stratton Lawrence

In many cases, the effects of sandy were quite catastrophic to the Staten Island community

All Veronica Skibinski wants is a yellow tag. She had one two weeks ago, so she hired a crew to gut her home in Midland Beach, four blocks from the ocean on Staten Island. Mold-covered drywall and water-logged appliances were hauled to the curb. Thousands of dollars were spent installing new heating and electrical systems.

Then Skibinski got red tagged. In the far reaches of post-Hurricane Sandy New York City, the ability to piece together a family's life can come down to the color of the papers taped to the front door. Yellow means you can enter your home and rebuild, eventually working toward a green tag, the designation that it's time to move back in. Red means you're more or less condemned until you're told otherwise. In Skibinski's case, that's because an adjacent house is in danger of collapsing on hers, thanks to a growing sinkhole caused by the floodwaters that pooled in her neighbor's basement.

That's the thing about these New York beach communities — they're not designed for storm surges. Instead of building atop stilts with blow-down walls, like we do here on Folly Beach or Isle of Palms, these homes have basements, 100 yards from the ocean.

***

Veronica and her neighbors seem foreign to me. I lived in Manhattan for three years as a kid, but the congenial South is so ingrained in my psyche that the harsh accents and matter-of-fact attitudes of the people of Staten Island seems far removed from what I know.

I'm not even sure what's drawn me here on this dreary, misty day. My destination was an Occupy Sandy distribution center, where I expected to find a collection of anarchists and activists like I'd encountered volunteering in New Orleans after Katrina. When that storm hit, I felt called, making my way from California to the Ninth Ward to see what had become of another city I spent three years of my childhood in. New Orleans always felt like home. Staten Island feels uncomfortable.

***

It's standing room only on the L train just after dark. As the primary vein between Williamsburg and Manhattan, the train is a vessel in demand. But despite the large number of people on the train, there's an eerie silence. I imagine that every ear on the train pops as we dip under the river and the air pressure changes and yet nobody acknowledges the shared sensation.

In the days after Hurricane Sandy, the portions of the L line that run under the river were flooded — an aquarium. It stayed that way for two weeks.

***

I can't say what makes me turn around. A few hours before, I'd passed him in a long tunnel connecting the red and L lines. "New York Times published poet" the worn cardboard reads. I rubbernecked but walked on by. At the time, the man looked like he was writing a poem for someone. Hours later, I return to once again board the L train.

There he is, asleep. I keep walking. Fifty, maybe 60 steps. I look back. Keep walking. What the hell?

Giving in, I turn around. He is slumped over and sound asleep when I bend down and nudge his arm. His name is Donald.

"Hey, I want to hear one of your poems"

He comes to life, sort of. I notice several things all at once. The skin on his hands is peeling away at all angles, and his yellow fingernails seem ready to flake off and fall to the ground. But that's nothing. Donald smells like only a man who lives underground amid refuse can smell. I turn my head to catch my breath.

A woman stops soon after me. She's been passing him since he set up here after the storm, she explains, but she hasn't paused. She had known him from 10 years before. He used to set up at an outdoor booth on the Upper West Side, and she once stopped and bought a poem. It's in her dresser at home.

"You're one of the reasons I love living in New York," the woman says to Donald.

She's worried about where he'll stay tonight.

"I stay with my cousin in the East Village," Donald says, but it sounds like a lie. "Don't worry."

He's only underground until after the holidays. Then he's giving it up. Going to do readings. Maybe teach. Get back on the radio.

click to enlarge STRATTON LAWRENCE

Thirteen years ago, on New Year's Eve, a reporter from the Times met Donald and included one of his poems in a piece about the turn of the millennium. To Donald, that legitimizes his existence. Sometimes he cackles.

It takes the better part of half an hour to politely excuse myself, even after giving him $5 for a few printed pages of poetry. When he sees that I'm really going, he catches and holds my eyes.

"You know, when Walt Whitman wrote Leaves of Grass, he pushed copies of it around New York in a wheelbarrow and sold it for whatever people would pay."

***

The silver lining of tragedies has always been that they bring people together. After Sandy, an overlooked bum becomes a neighbor. For a moment, people talk to strangers and break the silence of the crowd.

High school teacher Jimmy Carter instructs autistic students at a school on Staten Island. Growing up, his summers were spent at his grandmother's house in New Dorp Beach, about halfway down the borough's coastline.

"When Hurricane Irene rolled through it was just rain. This neighborhood got a foot or two of water," Carter recalls. "So when the warnings came through about Sandy, people said, 'It's not going to be that bad.' They didn't know there was going to be a 12-foot wave of water coming through here."

Thousands of residents of this and nearby neighborhoods are still displaced, either in temporary shelters set up in schools, churches, and hospitals, staying with friends and family, or away from New York altogether. Nobody is counting on much help from their home insurance — most people here were covered for wind, but not for the water that's left behind thousands upon thousands of rotting homes.

click to enlarge Bike club member Jimmy Carter mans a tent helping hurricane victims - STRATTON LAWRENCE
  • Stratton Lawrence
  • Bike club member Jimmy Carter mans a tent helping hurricane victims

In the months since the storm, Carter has dedicated all of his free time to helping his neighbors in New Dorp recover. His motorcycle club, Rolling Thunder, mans a 24-hour village of tents and tarps in a small city park, offering hot food, diapers, and clothing. One tent features chairs and TVs where displaced families can relax and try to feel like they're at home.

Alongside scores of bikers, firemen, and policeman, volunteers with yellow "Occupy Sandy" patches man the grill, roasting ribs, hot dogs, and eggplant for the buffet, available around the clock, without charge, to anyone who shows up hungry.

"On Thanksgiving morning, I cooked 20 pounds of bacon, 140 eggs, and two giant boxes of pancakes, just to try to give everybody that sense of normalcy that it's a holiday," Carter says. "This is about gathering the community together. It doesn't matter if you lose certain buildings or homes. Sandy has affected us in such a way that there will always be a tie to each other."

click to enlarge The Occupy Sandy distribution center fills in the void left by the government’s absence - STRATTON LAWRENCE
  • Stratton Lawrence
  • The Occupy Sandy distribution center fills in the void left by the government’s absence

Carter says these things amidst what looks like a war zone. Piles of debris, stacked head high, line the street behind him. Lights glow from only two of the 20-or-so houses on the road. Most have collapsed on themselves. A few have burned. He points to one house where, during the storm, a man tied a rope to himself and swung out of the second-story window, pulling six people, one-by-one, from the raging flood in the street below. Two weeks later, during a cold spell, he lit a fire in the chimney and what was left of his house burnt down.

It's an uphill battle. Rebuilding the neighborhood will literally take years, and Carter worries that people will give up. Many of the homes were built before World War II and can't meet today's building codes. Even the foundations may need to be reestablished.

"There are a lot of memories in this neighborhood that will never come back again," says Carter. Then he mentions how his family spread his grandmother's ashes on the beach a block away, where he and his pals would spend the long July days as children. He looks back across the street toward the tent village says, "I won't leave here until we're done."

***

After Katrina, New Orleans commanded the world's attention. Nearly 2,000 people perished. Even long after the initial shock, however, the Ninth Ward remained in the public eye — and for good reason. Had the collective conscience of the planet not turned to Louisiana and helped it rebuild, it would be an immense cultural loss to our nation.

After Sandy, however, there will be no Treme, no Beasts of the Southern Wild. Spike Lee may decide to bring some attention to his beloved and beleaguered Red Hook neighborhood, but Staten Island and Far Rockaway, Queens, do command the passion and pity that the Big Easy did in 2005.

First of all, these New York towns are not cultural bastions. Secondly, the damage is spread out over a wide area, with pockets of devastation amidst a city and a world that keeps on ticking. Finally, there's no clear villain or anyone to blame. This time, there's no Army Corps of Engineers, no George W. Bush, no conspiracy about a government bent on destroying a mono-racial hood rife with crime and welfare dependency to rally around. However questionable those theories were that the powers that be didn't want to help the poor, crime-ridden African-American neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward, at least Katrina gave us the option of blaming someone else.

But in Staten Island, the people suffering are mostly white, and they're hurting from a storm that brought a wave three-quarters of a mile inland, unlike anything this part of the East Coast has experienced in our lifetimes. And the scariest part? There's a fear that because of global warming we'd better get used to these kinds of storms. This could be the new normal.

***

Back in Manhattan, the suffering on Staten Island is so distant that it might as well be in New Orleans. The 14-mile-long island of Manhattan controls both the universe of the five boroughs and much of the world economy, and it can't afford to take too long of a breather. Although thousands of city residents in the other boroughs are living in shelters months after the storm, they are but a blip on Manhattan's mainstream consciousness.

Within days after Sandy, the going street souvenir in Manhattan depicted a map of the island sporting a line at 20th street, below which read "SoPo — South of Power." Once the majority of those buildings were back up and running, New York had effectively moved on.

Of course, there are reminders everywhere. At the super-hip Mission Chinese Food restaurant, the menu advertises that a dollar from each entrée will go to benefit Sandy victims. It's a common gesture across town. The 12.12.12 benefit concert at Madison Square Garden inspired the world's biggest acts to donate performances.

Manhattan does deserve some credit. They've faced unthinkable tragedy and kept on living. But part of that intense focus means that the suffering of large numbers of their fellow New Yorkers can occur with the city limits yet be virtually out of sight and mind.

Neighborhoods like Staten Island's New Dorp are the Big Apple's random seeds. Sure, they could grow into something, but mostly you just spit them out. Even getting there requires a journey: take the subway to Manhattan's southern tip, catch a ferry to Staten Island's northern end, and hop a train for 10 miles to the middle-of-nowhere, except that this "nowhere" is still full of people — they're just not the ones that run the show.

People out here feel abandoned. The middle finger and "Thanks Bloomberg" spray-painted on a house a few hundred yards from the ocean isn't an expression of gratitude.

***

Ben Cox had planned to spend the winter with friends from his summer resort job in Eastern Europe, but when Sandy struck, he knew he had to help. Today, he works at a gymnasium which has been transformed in to an Occupy Sandy distribution center.

click to enlarge STRATTON LAWRENCE

"I'd never seen New York before, but the storm happened and they needed me here, so I came up," says Cox, who sleeps with other volunteers in an unheated house that he helped gut and rebuild. "Nobody is getting the help that they really need. So many people lost everything."

Cox had experience working with Habitat for Humanity and on church mission trips, so he felt that his skills were worth offering to the recovery effort. On his trip north, he didn't expect that every day he'd be wearing a face mask and protective suit to remove mold from homes, or that he'd be proudly displaying an Occupy patch on his sleeve.

"I did not identify with Occupy before I got here," says Cox. "But this isn't about a protest."

Cox claims with pride that when it comes to offering aid and recovery, volunteers like himself are "showing FEMA up." Indeed, when Paula Deen visited Staten Island in December to distribute a truckload of hams, she made her public appearance at this church gym, the borough's primary Occupy distribution hub. On Staten Island, FEMA and the Red Cross have either packed up or are downsizing operations, while the motorcycle clubs and Occupiers soldier on.

Amidst the national debate over the federal aid package for Sandy victims, an early January tweet from the Occupy Sandy Twitter stream read, "The cavalry isn't coming from Washington. The cavalry is us." Justin Stonediaz, a volunteer and Occupier since the Zuccotti Park standoff, echoes that sentiment.

"FEMA is designed to stop a tragedy from rotting and getting worse. It is disaster management until a situation is stabilized," he explains. "The Red Cross is designed to set up first-response shelters, and then move on. But what Occupy is doing is injecting this hard-line mutual aid concept into the community, and that's disrupting peoples' expectations about aid and charity."

Immediately after Sandy, Stonediaz points out that those with the financial ability to rebuild quickly followed the standard "best practice" of spraying bleach and tearing out and replacing drywall. Today, the wet wood encased inside the new drywall is allowing mold to spread through homes' structural timber, leading many people who thought they'd already seen the worse to seek out help from Occupy's hubs throughout the borough, from their tool rental programs to actual manpower teams.

For the poor and displaced, however, the road ahead is as dark and uninviting as the sky on a chilly, damp December day in Staten Island. There will be no FEMA trailers here — it's not in the city's long-term interest. Stonediaz worries that New York will rezone neighborhoods like New Dorp with new flood-resistant building codes, effectively forcing many long-time residents off their land.

"It's in the city's best interest to upgrade everything, and that means shifting from lower middle class to middle-middle class," he says. "But the storm has made the lower-middle class into upper-lower class. That's the critical story, and it's why Occupy is sticking around. When nobody else is listening in a few months, we'll still be here."

***

If you've ever met a die-hard Occupy activist, you've likely met a conversationalist. On an individual basis, it's easy to dismiss them as "all talk." But when the people of Staten Island have needed help, it has been the Occupiers who have banded together to provide it, while the government seems to do little but dole out more red tags.

Veronica Skibinksi's red-tagged house is catty-corner to the Occupy supply center. Over a hamburger, gazing out with weary, tired eyes, she seems grateful just to have someone to listen to her story of losing everything, from family photographs to the flat-screen TV.

"I keep calling the mayor's office and the building inspector, and nobody gives me any answers," she says. "Everyone keeps passing the buck. My house is rotting away because of bureaucratic red tape."

While Skibinski fights back tears, a woman pulls her sedan up to the sidewalk and opens the trunk. "I have two boxes of socks and 30 handmade baby quilts," she says to the Occupy volunteer who walks out to greet her. Parishioners at this woman's church in Connecticut had knitted the quilts. Each panel features children's drawings of flowers, dogs, and suns sporting big smiles. When it came time to get the blankets into the right hands, this Episcopal church turned to Occupiers who the year before had been beaten by cops and burned with pepper spray to lend a hand.

"When we started this, people were making a hard distinction between the Occupy movement and Occupy Sandy, but if you get what is going on, you see that all is one," says Stonediaz. "When I came down and started yelling on Wall Street, eventually my arm got tired. Then I looked behind me and saw all these people cooking and making art, and I realized that it wasn't just a protest movement. Zuccotti Park was a mutual-aid experiment. We don't demand things, because we demonstrate it. And when we want a culture of mutual aid, we make it."

For Stonediaz and his fellow Occupiers, Hurricane Sandy is a chance to show "a little taste" of the better world they envision to a population of people that may have never before contemplated or understood the Occupiers' motivations. On Staten Island, simply by replacing the idea of charity with one of mutual aid, they've already won their battle.

***

Whether Occupy fizzles or morphs into something of another name, its legacy will be altered by the response of volunteers who have acted under the Occupy banner since Hurricane Sandy in New York City. Hippie commune comparisons aside, the simple fact that a catastrophic event naturally pulls us together and inspires selflessness demonstrates that a better world is possible, even in prospering times of peace.

"We were always a close-knit beach community here, but this tragedy brought people so much closer together," says Skibinski of her Midland Beach neighborhood. "Before, you might go months without checking in on a neighbor. Now, everyone genuinely asks, 'How are you doing?' There wasn't the kind of camaraderie that there has been since Sandy."

When your closest neighbor is a mile away, you make darn sure that you know them. But when surrounded by people on all sides, everyone is a stranger.

In the wake of tragedy, the walls that divide us quickly disappear.

***

There's a moment in Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa where he lies at night and aches for Africa, missing the land, the spirit, and the people of the continent. What's so poignant about the scene is that he's still there, living ahead of himself in the days before his departure.

It's difficult to believe that I feel this way about New York, this relentless city of hustle, bustle, and get-moving-or-get-out-of-my-way. Despite spending three formative years here, leaving at age eight to move to Virginia, I've never felt to the need to return for long. After moving to the South, I remember being teased by classmates for the pace of my gait — it takes a little while to get off of Manhattan time. This trip , however, has struck a chord. Strangely, New York feels like home.

Weeks later, back home in Charleston I learn that in a small way I am from Staten Island. My great-grandfather, who I share a name with, settled in the town of Richmond in the borough's historic center after emigrating from England with his parents at the age of eight. My own grandfather, Hank, regularly spent summers with his grandparents in Staten Island.

Unbeknownst to me, while I listened to stories of pain and inspiration from Veronica Skibinski, Jimmy Carter, Justin Stonediaz, and others, my own name is etched into a gravestone only a mile away.


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