More than two months since superstorm Sandy ravaged much of the northeastern United States, many New York City residents are still living without heat or electricity in the dead of winter as they continue to await desperately-needed relief assistance.
New York Communities for Change (NYCC), a social advocacy group, surveyed a cross-section of residents in hard-hit Rockaway, Queens and found that city government is failing to solve severe storm-related problems. According to NYCC:
"More than 60 days after the storm made landfall in New York, Rockaway residents continue to struggle to obtain food, clothing and shelter; their homes have been left moldy, cold and uninhabitable; many more are still without power."
Official relief assistance has been painfully slow for many residents, who NYCC says "have encountered insurmountable obstacles to receiving aid from relief agencies." Non-governmental organizations such as NYCC and Occupy Sandy, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement, have stepped in to fill the void. But these groups can only do so much.
"Mass-scale repairs and rebuilding requires local government to improve its performance on Hurricane Sandy-related problems," the NYCC report says.
Among the survey's findings:
* Almost one in five (18 percent) of surveyed Rockaway residents still have not returned to their homes.
* Nearly one in 10 (9.3 percent) still have not had their electricity restored.
* Nearly one in three (29 percent) are still without heat.
* More than one in five (21.9 percent) still have wet sheetrock in their homes.
* Nearly four in 10 (37.1 percent) still have mold in their homes.
The NYCC survey found that many Rockaway families have gone to extraordinary lengths to secure shelter, including couch-hopping, living in crowded studio apartments and signing leases on apartments while still paying mortgages on their homes.
The lack of heating is especially alarming, as temperatures in the New York area have recently plummeted into the 20s. Hypothermia is a big danger. So is frost bite, heart attacks and the flu. Low-income and older resident are particularly at risk for cold-related illness and death.
"Prolonged cold exposure can cause hypothermia and worsen other medical problems," New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley warned. "Hypothermia is called a 'silent killer' because the symptoms are not always obvious."
There is also a massive mold crisis, which also threatens the health of those affected. Wet sheetrock can cause mold to develop within three days if not promptly removed. NYCC claims the City's failure to implement a contaminated sheetrock removal program within a week of the storm is to blame for the rapid spread of mold in thousands of Rockaway homes.
According to a letter released by Public Advocate Bill de Blasio's office:
"Mold represents a significant health hazard, particularly for New Yorkers with chronic respiratory problems like asthma and emphysema. Exposure can result in shortness of breath, allergic reaction and severe respiratory distress. In a city where one in eight children have asthma, mold can render homes both unhealthy and unsafe."
De Blasio has recommended a four-point plan to combat mold caused by Sandy. First, he calls on Mayor Michael Bloomberg to specifically request Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) aid for mold remediation. Second, he urges on the City to establish a special mold hotline. Third, he requests expanded mold inspections. And fourth, he calls for the establishment of a health monitoring network for residents affected by storm-related mold issues.
NYCC also calls upon Mayor Bloomberg to immediately set up a mold and sheetrock removal program that reimburses homeowners for mold-related expenses, which can run to over $10,000. The group also urges the City to implement a "Rapid Repair" program that will deal with repair and reconstruction on a neighborhood-wide scale rather than a house by house basis.
"Too many residents are still living in cold, moldy, fundamentally unsafe conditions," the report states. "The Bloomberg administration must immediately alter its approach to recovery so Rockaway residents can start to rebuild."
In related news, the House of Representatives and the Senate on Friday passed a bill approving $9.7 billion for Sandy relief. The failure of Congress to act sooner enraged some Republicans, who control the House, most notably Rep. Peter King, who represents parts of Long Island and who threatened to quit the GOP over its blockage of Sandy relief funds. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, also a Republican, also blasted his party for what he called its "disgusting" lack of leadership.
"Last night, the House majority failed the most basic test of leadership and they did so with callous disregard for the people of my state," Christie fumed. "It was disappointing and disgusting to watch. There's only one group to blame... the House majority and their Speaker, John Boehner." Christie added that the Sandy relief bill "just could not overcome the toxic internal politics of the House majority."