NY Public Housing Residents Hit Hard By Sandy

Nearly a week after superstorm Sandy pummeled the East Coast, thousands of Americans are still without basics like power and clean water. Host Michel Martin speaks with New York Times reporter Michael Wilson about how some New York Public Housing residents are facing unique challenges in the storm's aftermath.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Later in the program, it's become an article of faith that more education means more opportunity, but our next guest says the market is being flooded with lawyers who cannot find jobs. And so she's asking the question: Is a law degree still worth it? We'll have that conversation in a few minutes.

But, first, we want to talk about the aftermath of that major storm, Sandy, that slammed into the East Coast. And, yes, that was a week ago, but if you have electricity yourself and have been watching or listening to the news, then you know that many places are still devastated.

Here's New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: The magnitude of the problem is we think we could have something between 30,000 and 40,000 people that we're going to have to find housing for. We are working on it.

MARTIN: The mayor said that at least half of those are public housing residents. Some 400,000 New Yorkers live in public housing. New York Times reporter Michael Wilson visited one such project, and he's going to tell us about the conditions there at the Coney Island Houses.

Michael Wilson, thanks so much for joining us.

MICHAEL WILSON: Thank you. Great to be here, Michel.

MARTIN: You know, a lot of people will have heard Coney Island, they know about the amusement park. But tell us a little bit about the Coney Island project, and tell us what you saw there.

WILSON: Well, yeah. The projects are west of the Coney Island that the world kind of knows and loves with the roller coaster and whatnot. There are big, tall 14 - the building I was in has 14 stories. It was - it's known as building number three out of, I believe, five. And there are over 100 apartments there, and I got various estimates, from a half to most to, you know, less than half of the people chose to ride out the storm when I visited on Thursday. This was, what, three days after the storm.

MARTIN: And talk about some of the conditions that most concerned you.

WILSON: Well, I walked in unprepared, with no flashlight. I'd gone to Coney Island for a different story and was redirected into the housing. Walking into the lobby was startling. It is so quiet and so dark and eerie. And then progressing forward to the staircase, opening that staircase and looking up into just pitch blackness was - it really kind of took your breath away for a minute. And you hear these, you know, day-to-day noises upstairs, like a baby crying, but everything sounds spooky in the pitch dark, you know.

So I waited in the lobby until three teenagers approached, and two had a flashlight and one had a candle, and they invited me up to their eighth-floor apartment. They live in different apartments, but they kind of were hunkering down together and spending their days together, mostly collecting things to keep going, like, for example, water.

Two or three of these kids had large jars and buckets that they had just filled from a fire hydrant down the street. Someone had opened up a fire hydrant. People were running down there, collecting water and hauling it back upstairs so they could flush their toilets. They knew not to drink it, but they were using it for the bathroom.

MARTIN: And are people - do people have enough food?

WILSON: People were running out of the food that had been in their freezers by the time I got there. So the refrigerator food was long gone. The freezer food was wrapping up. And, just that day, the National Guard arrived, and a long line formed outside a school. The National Guard was handing out MREs, meals ready to eat, which, you know, the military uses on a daily basis. These folks had never seen one, and it was interesting. There was a lot of kind of reading instructions and trying to figure out how to make the meals warm and whatnot.

MARTIN: Is the issue here that people are trapped, that they can't - people can't get to them? Is it the issue because these buildings are high-rises, that there's no water to get up to the upper floors? Is the issue that people are - they have no way to access what they need, that people are - have disabilities, for example, and that able-bodied family members can't get to them? What is it that's making things so tough there?

WILSON: Well, a lot of these folks say, look, I didn't leave because I have nowhere to go. Now, that seemed to change every day. I think the population of the building dwindled every day, as people decided to avail themselves of the shelters. I saw the police arrive one day and hand out fliers that were - the headline across the top of the flier was: It's not too late - meaning you can get out of here and go to a shelter with power.

The issue in the building I was in is that the basement was flooded with water, and that is where the electrical equipment is. So until they could pump out the basement, they couldn't get anything like power back. Water - I'm not sure what the delay was in getting water on.

MARTIN: You reported on - some people had some really interesting perspectives on the situation. I mean, on the one hand, you pointed out that a lot of people were really helping each other. There were neighbors who were haul - you know, going up - you know, walking flights and flights of stairs to help out people who weren't even part of their own families, that people were helping out other relatives. They were sharing food. They were sharing resources, and so forth. But you also described, you know, some fear, people's fear of being kind of attacked in the middle of the night. What was this origin of that fear? Why did people feel that that was a possibility?

WILSON: That's just - it must be human nature, Michel. It's interesting. The banding together of strangers that are in the same building coupled with this kind of fear of people from outside the building, as if everyone else is bad and we're good. You know, I mean, the idea was that you just didn't want to be outside after dark. And so the people I met were - it was like something out of a movie, like, as the sun was falling, you saw more and more people streaming into the building. It's kind of - you know, with one last look over their shoulder, almost, like, OK. We're home. We're hunkering down.

There had been some looting on Mermaid Avenue in Coney Island right after the storm. You know, some of it, like, people grabbing necessities out of a store that had a broken window. Other incidents of, you know, guys walking away with big screen TV sets out of a Rent-A-Center.

As word of that - those sorts of crimes spread, people became more afraid. Halloween, of course, took place two days after the storm. I think that - the anticipation of mayhem was far greater than what actually happened, but that was still lingering in the air when I was there the next day.

There were a ton of police officers when I was there, and that was a relatively new development. I believe the nearest precinct actually was flooded, and the police had to evacuate right after the storm. But they were back in huge numbers. Every single corner that you drove down had two or three police officers standing on it. I mean, the show of force was amazing.

MARTIN: We're joined by New York Times reporter Michael Wilson. He's been reporting on the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy in New York, and we're just talking about one particular area, the Coney Island Houses. It's a public housing project, and he spent some time there and is describing the conditions there.

One of the people you interviewed also fascinated me. He said, look, you know what? I have relatives on Staten Island. My situation's no worse than theirs. So, you know, boo-hoo, is what he said. And do you think that that's true? I mean - or is it just the question is that people who less to begin with have less - they have less margin? They can't afford to lose what little they had.

WILSON: That's a good point. The people I met hadn't lost anything except, you know, power and water, which is a big deal. But there wasn't any property damage to these or the other buildings, and I'm hearing that throughout the city, that the New York City housing - you know, the damage is mostly on those bottom floors where the electricity is. The actual apartments - so people could look around and see all their belongings. It's just, you know, food and things that they were losing, so in that way, it is relative.

But that - you know, the other side is they see the lights coming back on in Manhattan, and that is very - that's just...

MARTIN: Infuriating?

WILSON: ...demoralizing. Yeah.

MARTIN: Demoralizing.

WILSON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Which is it? Demoralizing or infuriating?

WILSON: Yeah. You know...

MARTIN: Which did you...

WILSON: It depends on the apartment, Michel.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Finally, before we - we have about a minute left. What's the prospect of getting resources into this area? I mean, one of the things that you pointed out is that there's been a heavy law enforcement presence, and I'm sure that that's - I'm guessing that that's comforting. But what about food, water, ice, things that people need, particularly people with disabilities who are isolated on these upper floors? What about that?

WILSON: I just - based on what I hear from the people in the building, is that that seems to be being stepped up. There's more - these fliers that are going around tell you about more and more places in the neighborhood to go and get MREs and go and get a blanket. There's truckloads of blankets coming into these neighborhoods, and all kinds of donated stuff and people trying to volunteer. So I think they're getting what they need.

I think that the heat is going to be a - you know, it's more and more of an issue. I talked to a guy this morning who has stayed in the building, Victor, who said his wife has become sick and...

MARTIN: I can imagine. Cold, dark, wet and scary.

WILSON: Yeah. They're - exactly.

MARTIN: OK. Michael Wilson. He's a reporter with the New York Times. He's been covering the situation in New York after Superstorm Sandy. We're just focusing on one particular area in Coney Island.

Michael Wilson, thanks so much for joining us.

WILSON: Thank you, Michel.

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