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Isolated NYC Borough Says Help Is Slow After Sandy

On Staten Island, garbage is piling up, stench hangs in the air
Updated Friday, Nov. 2, 7:21 p.m. ET

Brooke Clarkin tries to salvage some personal items from her mother's home in Staten Island on Thursday. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEW YORK (AP) - 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. On 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 - the city from which the island once tried to secede.

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"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. Nobody."

In the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, dazed survivors roamed Staten Island's sand-covered streets this week 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.

Aside from a few fire trucks scattered along the shore, there were no emergency or relief workers in sight. 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."

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.

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After the storm, residents who had evacuated had to wait until Wednesday to return, when 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."

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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.

Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro suggested this week that people should not donate money to the American Red Cross because that relief agency had neglected his borough.

"We have hundreds of people in shelters throughout Staten Island," he said. "Many of them, when the shelters close, have nowhere to go because their homes are destroyed. These are not homeless people. They're homeless now."

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.

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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."

RELATED ON SKYE: Photos - Before and After Superstorm Sandy


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If you're blaming the government, shame on you. The government told people to get out of harm's way. If you're still in it, that's your fault (although some may not have been able to, so it's not their fault).. God is the only one who controls the weather, so blame the Republican right-wingers for not praying hard enough. That'll teach 'em

November 03 2012 at 10:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Not this much commotion was made by the news media when Katrina hit. Katrina was much more devastating. You Yankees sure are a bunch of whiners.

November 03 2012 at 10:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Hello, Ethan!!

After the cleanup, there should be a vote on seceeding from New York City.
Commandeer the bridges that link it to NJ and Brooklyn and set up own cheaper toll authority, not Port of NYNJ or MTA.
Then vote on joining the State of NJ, where geographically, you are a part.

November 03 2012 at 9:49 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

Fema is very chaotic ,after katrina they gave money to the wrong people, so many people that didn't need it got plenty of money ,,and people who already lived off the government got way too much assistance. but so many of the working class who should have got assistance didn't get help. where I lived people didnt have electricity for about a month, stores were closed we didn't have access to much at all but fema and red cross and all media camped out in neworleans , but nothing here .we did get water from fema because some fema trucks got mixed up and accidently found us. we live in a big community about 25 miles from neworleans. I hope this does not happen again to victims of sandy.

November 03 2012 at 9:43 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Harsens Island

Some of the readers and bloggers have it right. I've lived through more than one Flood and know the devastation. This isn't the time to blame but now maybe people will realize just how important self reliance and good neighbors are. This Government or any administration can only do so much.....and when they do, it often times isn't fast enough. That's where business and charitable organizations shine.
I pray for those who are suffering. In the future heeding the warnings and preparing for self reliance is a must. Oh...and next time don't look down on Non-Union Labor who are seeking to help you. Shame on those Unions turning away the Electrical workers seeking only to relieve those suffering.

November 03 2012 at 9:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I think it's really sad when our country helps other countries with food, water and money, yet we have a disaster and the big "O" doesn't offer any assistance. OK they were warned, that still doesn't help the fact that they are in need. I have seen adds in the past that request food, water and clothing for people all around the world,. Yet when we have a problem here I not only don't see other countries helping I don't see even our own people lending a hand. If in their shoes, wouldn't you feel a little pissed? No gas, no food, no water. The place smells like hell and you are living in unsanitary conditions. Where is our hearts to help our own???????

November 03 2012 at 8:54 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

To Linda, last year Irene was not overhyped. There was a lot of flooding in some of the same areas wiped out now. Also, Irene was much more of a nightmare for people hit in other areas such as upstate New York. we were relatively lucky in that one. People just have to always take these things seriously because your luck can run out. It's better to just get out of a threatened area when warned to do so. If nothing happens people should be happy that nothing happened and not gripe about the inconvenience. There can be dire consequences when reasonable warnings are ignored.

November 03 2012 at 8:54 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Greg Nugent

the response to this hurricane reminds me of the response to hurricane Katrina. There's a lesson here don't rely on the government

November 03 2012 at 8:49 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This article makes you believe that the entire island was ruined. What about all those folks in the 900,000 dollar homes. They seem to be ok. Why don't they start helping their fellow neighbors.

November 03 2012 at 8:08 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I think the issue here is not that they decided to stay with their homes - last year they hiped the storm and nothing happened now everyone should just get out and take what is most important to you - they did that to protect what they had after the storm . They knew the storm would be bad and damage might be there. The issue is where is the HELP. They should not have to wait days for water, food etc. Also the whole set up was wrong - setting up at New Dorp High School - who tells them it is there - who brings them there - all their cars are gone - why can't they get some tents put up with heat and food at the nearby sites of their homes - there is another storm coming now - so they need to get out of there.

November 03 2012 at 7:40 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
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