Battered by storm, Staten Islanders feel forgotten
New York • Gazing at her bungalow, swept from its foundation and tossed across the street, Janice Clarkin wondered if help would ever come to this battered island off the coast of Manhattan.
"Do you see anybody here?" she asked, resignation etched on her face. "On the news, the mayor's congratulating the governor and the governor's congratulating the mayor. About what? People died."
Staten Island was devastated beyond recognition by Superstorm Sandy and suffered the highest death toll of all of New York City's boroughs, including two young brothers who were swept from their mother's arms by the swirling sea and drowned. Yet days after the waters receded, residents feel ignored and forgotten.
That sense of isolation is deeply rooted on Staten Island, a tight-knit community that has long felt cut off from the bright lights of Manhattan.
"It's always been that way. We're a forgotten little island," said Catherine Friscia, who stood with tear-filled eyes across the street from the Atlantic Ocean in front of homes filled with water and where the air smelled like garbage and rotting fish.
"Nobody pays attention to any of us over here."
In the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, dazed survivors roamed Staten Island's sand-covered streets amid ruined bungalows sagging under the weight of water that rose to the rooftops. Their contents lay flung in the street: Mud-soaked couches, stuffed animals and mattresses formed towering piles of wreckage. Boats were tossed like toys into roadways.
Residents washed their muddy hands with bottled water and handed out sandwiches to neighbors as they sifted through the soggy wreckage of their homes, searching for anything that could be salvaged. Spray-painted on the plywood that covered the first floor of one flooded home were the words: "FEMA CALL ME."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano visited Staten Island on Friday, touring a shelter and a Red Cross distribution center where storm victims lined up to get food, water and clothing. A short distance away, a long line of cars snaked down the street, waiting to get to one of the few gas stations with fuel.
"We know that Staten Island took a particularly hard hit from Sandy, so we want to make sure that the right resources are brought here as quickly as possible to help this community, which is so very strong, recover even more quickly," said Napolitano, who was joined by Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern and Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro who a day earlier had sharply criticized what he said was the Red Cross's inadequate response in Staten Island.
Sticking together in the aftermath of the storm has kept Staten Islanders who lost everything from completely falling apart. Self-reliance is in their blood just as the island's very geography lends itself to a feeling of isolation from the mainland: the only way to get on or off is by car, bus or ferry.
After the storm, residents who had evacuated had to wait four days until the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge finally reopened to the public.
Most of the deaths were clustered in beachfront neighborhoods exposed to the Atlantic Ocean along the island's southeastern shore, an area of cinderblock bungalows and condominiums. Many of these homes were built decades ago originally as summer cottages and were not constructed to withstand the power of a major storm.
Diane Fieros wept as she recalled how she and her family survived by huddling on the third floor of their home across the street from the ocean, watching as the waves slammed into the house and the water rose higher and higher, shooting through cracks in the floor. A few blocks away, several people drowned.
"The deck was moving, the house was moving," she said. "We thought we were going to die. We prayed. We all prayed."
Fieros rode out the storm with her two sons, her parents and other extended family members. She pointed to a black line on the house that marked where the water rose: at least 12 feet above the ground.
"I told them, 'We die, we die together,'" she said, her voice cracking. "You saw the waves coming. Oh my God."
The storm has reopened old frictions among local officials who maintain Staten Island's infrastructure remains inadequate and that it has little sway on City Council compared to the other, bigger boroughs. In 1997, Staten Islanders voted in favor of seceding from New York City and incorporating on its own, buoyed by a belief that the borough pays more in taxes than it receives in return and that it's typically put last on the list for city services.
Molinaro suggested earlier this week that people should not donate money to the American Red Cross because that relief agency had neglected his borough. On Friday, however, he praised the Red Cross response and said he had spoken in anger.
"You see what the Red Cross is doing here today. They got 11 trucks out here For four days, this borough was cut off. No bridges, no way of getting off or on. Sometimes you get frustrated, you get angry. So I got angry, I was frustrated. I think they're doing a good job," Molinaro said.
The controversy surrounding this weekend's New York City Marathon, which was cancelled Friday by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, had special resonance among Staten Islanders. The lucrative race begins on the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, and would have brought nearly 50,000 runners to an area not far from the Staten Island neighborhoods where people died.
Resident George Rosado, 52, who spent two days scrubbing a thick layer of sludge from his tiled floors and was preparing to demolish the water-logged walls of his home, found the idea repulsive. Except for a lone hospital van offering bottled water and power bars, Rosado had seen no federal, state or local agencies in his neighborhood, which sits about a block from the ocean.
"Nothing, nothing," he said, choking back tears. "We're hit hard. Homes are washed away. People are dying. Look around. You hear anything? It's quiet."
The city's tourism officials have long complained that Staten Island is the one borough that nobody wants to visit. But that has never bothered the half-million people who reside in this community, which is more suburban than urban and has a high concentration of police officers and firefighters.
It's a place families are drawn to by the allure of having their own backyard and raising their children in a small-town atmosphere.
"We were all around family, you know what I'm saying?" said 68-year-old Joseph Miley, Clarkin's cousin. "A person went away and there was always somebody here to watch their house, watch their animals."
In fact, so many relatives lived on the same street that they jokingly referred to it as "The Compound."
That's all been wiped out now. The family's mud-spattered possessions lie dumped on the street; their homes will be bulldozed.
Billy Hague, 30, described paddling around the neighborhood looking for his missing 85-year-old uncle, James Rossi, who refused to evacuate before the storm.
"I kayaked back to the house and broke the windows and got in the house trying to find him," he said. "I found the dog, but I didn't find him until the next day until the waters subsided."
Rossi was among the 19 Staten Islanders claimed by the storm. His dog also drowned.
Hague, Clarkin and other now-homeless family members are bunking with relatives who live on higher ground, just beyond the reach of the devastating ocean waves. They have no idea where they will live. They do not have the money to rebuild their homes.
But they have each other. Amid the debris and the broken glass and the uprooted trees, an American flag blew in the breeze. Clarkin waved a dismissive hand at the scene of destruction. She considers herself one of the lucky ones.
"People perished," she said. "This is stuff. That's all."