Unseen City: Of Many Voices, A Few Are Heard
Aside from the fact that Superstorm Sandy was almost 18 months ago, the stories of survivors have changed little. There are still many survivors who cannot go home and are bereft of hope. Put simply, they have not found a way forward.
It is not for a lack of trying.
On Saturday, Mayor Bill de Blasio held a press conference in one of the most brutally impacted areas of the city, in Rockaway Park Beach. The Rockaways faced the full fury of the ocean, resulting in fire and death. The heartbreak there continues as residents struggle to bounce back economically, spiritually, and psychologically.
One notable part of de Blasio’s press conference, in which he announced his key Sandy recovery team, was what didn’t happen.
Though held in a public library, at least 20 people who said they were area residents were literally left out in the cold. They were forced to stand in the rain and yell at the sky about their long, weary road to move past the devastation wrought by Sandy.
Inside there were platitudes and just the right amount of harsh criticism for the former administration. Little, if any, has ever been done to own up to the massive failures of New York City’s Sandy recovery. In fact, if placing blame in this case were truly a game, it would look something like hamsters running on wheels that never go anywhere, and only give the sense of momentum.
But for the City Council’s Committee on Recovery and Resiliency, they are far from playing games. In fact, the only thing its members seem to know how to do is come out swinging and go straight for a knockout. Perhaps that’s because they are fighting for the very lives of their constituents. Formed with the backing and support of Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, collectively they represent Coney Island (Chair Mark Treyger), Lower Manhattan (Margaret Chin), Steven Matteo (Staten Island), Carlos Menchaca (Red Hook), Rosie Mendez (Lower East Side), Donovan Richards (Far Rockaway), and Eric Ulrich (The Rockaways and Broad Channel).
The new committee held its first hearing on the expensive, sometimes failing, temporary boilers in Sandy-affected public housing. The result was an almost overnight $100 million resolution to fix the problem.
Their second hearing Monday held jointly with the Committee on Housing and Buildings and the Committee on Environmental Protection, was just as strong.
It focused on the city’s housing recovery program Build It Back, and was a rare and fine moment in city government, as, in a highly unusual move, testimony of administration officials was put last, behind a panel of Sandy victims. They made eloquent, heartfelt speeches that moved the audience to tears and applause.
David Wynn, president of Coney Island’s Seagate Association, said his community still has 27 homes that are uninhabitable.
“Not one homeowner ever received help from Build It Back to this day,” said Wynn of his community.
A second Sandy survivor, retired firefighter from The Rockaways Joseph Palmer Doyle, said Build It Back had done nothing but waste his time and energy.
“We are financially ruined,” said an emotional Doyle, who called himself “a very proud man” who had worked hard all of his life to have a home. All of that is in ruins now—not just for him, but for other area residents. “We have lost neighbors through illness, suicide, and death.”
The hearing went on for hours. Public Advocate Letitia James and Mark-Viverito were there for much of it. The committee members asked all the right questions about money, contractors, broken promises, help for undocumented workers, and why New Yorkers couldn’t build anything back yet.
Their most notable contribution, though, was giving Sandy survivors a moment to directly address the powers that be in the new mayoral administration.
That they had their say under those immortal words inscribed in the city hall chambers seemed only fitting: “A government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”