Street vendors were busy last week on Broadway Avenue selling lamb over rice with white sauce, and families milled about Macy’s department store on 34th Street where Santa Claus told their children that “while Santa can’t get you everything you want, he will surely surprise you on Christmas morning.”
Yet as life is largely back to normal for many after Superstorm Sandy slammed into the East Coast, there remains so much to do. That’s what Paul Locke took away from his time volunteering with the Red Cross in New York in early December.
The retired Jacksonville police chief returned to Alabama Dec. 12 after spending 15 days there, mostly in the boroughs of New York City.
Locke’s job was to act in sort of a police-function capacity, following up on complaints and keeping tempers down when residents would – as he described it – understandably lose their cool at the slow pace of the relief efforts.
But those blowups were few, Locke said, and he spent most of his time making sure that feeding stations and shelters were operating as they should.
“You saw a few flashes of temper where people are getting frustrated, but that was a rare thing,” Locke said. “And 10 minutes later they’d say, ‘I am sorry. I just had to let it go.’ And you understand that. I’d have been worse than them I’d imagine.”
Locke described one beachside subdivision of around 2,800 homes called Breezy Point on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens. In the hours after Sandy hit, 111 of those homes burned and many more were flooded by storm-water. Amazingly, and despite the numbers of people who chose to stay in their homes even after an order was given to evacuate, no one was killed in that subdivision of tightly-packed homes.
Just how bad is it along portions of the East Coast? Locke said that things are “worse than I expected. It’s worse than what we see on TV.”
He described the residents of Breezy Point whose homes were destroyed by fire as the “lucky ones,” because while the majority of homes in the neighborhood had fire insurance, very few had insurance to cover flooding.
“And that’s something that doesn’t register when you see it. It didn’t register with me,” Locke said.
Homeowners have been cleaning as much water-soaked sheetrock and flooring as they can, so they can get electricity re-connected and reheat the homes to keep out mold, Locke said.
But the prospect of moving all those displaced families back into their homes does not look good in the near future, Locke said.
“If they started today, tearing houses down and replacing them, you’re still looking at a long-term event,” Locke said.
Many of those families are staying with friends and family, and there are several Red Cross shelters still open, but finding long-term housing for those families is the next biggest obstacle in the relief efforts, Locke said. On his last trip through Breezy Point, Locke could only find three homes with power.
Business as usual
Locke stayed just off of Times Square, and said that the city largely has picked itself up and moved on. The damage left behind is spotty, he said.
“You drive through some areas and you think, ‘they haven’t even had a rain here in six months. Everything’s just perfect.’ And you get 10 miles down the road and it looks like a bomb went off,” Locke said.
“The biggest thing I heard was they thought I had an accent,” Locke said. “I kept laughing. I said, ‘Ya’ll are the ones that talk funny. Not me.’ That really lightened people up. They enjoyed having something to laugh and smile about. They were ready for a break.”
Toward the end of his 15 days in New York, Locke said, there were signs that at least some of the families had begun to find places to live. He noticed that shelters had begun to consolidate, and some were closed for good, all pointing to an end to the first phase of disaster relief.
“Almost every day they were taking some off our list that we didn’t need to worry about anymore,” Locke said.
That’s good news, but for many who have lived in their homes for decades, finding a new place to live is not something done with happy hearts.
“They want back in their homes, and they want to be made whole again,” Locke said.
While the Red Cross can’t bring people’s lives back to the way they were before the storm, Locke said the organization is very good at putting the right people in the right places, and those people are working very hard to help. But he stressed “It’s not one of these things that you can make better quickly.”
The U.S. Senate passed a bill Friday to pay $60.4 billion toward recovery efforts to the states affected by the storm. The bill will now head to the House, where some say it may face an uphill battle with some conservative lawmakers who say the bill is bloated with unnecessary payments to Alaskan fisheries and museums unaffected by the storm. The House adjourned Thursday for the Christmas holidays.
On his trip home, Locke and another Red Cross volunteer discussed the frustration that he and many other workers felt at the enormity of the situation.
“He asked me ‘What did we really accomplish up there?’ and I didn’t have an answer. I helped people, yes. We protected people and solved problems, but when you look at the big picture you’d never know that I was there,” Locke said. “You just do what little you can and keep on going.”
Staff writer Eddie Burkhalter: 256-235-3563. On Twitter @Burkhalter_Star.