Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano had comforting words for New Yorkers suffering without power or basic services on Thursday. Her department includes the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), charged with coordinating disaster assistance.
“We literally have hundreds of teams now walking through areas that have been affected, knocking on doors, finding people, to make sure they know what kind of assistance they qualify for.” By her side, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the arrival of more than one million meals.
Yet on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, where the power has been out since Monday, official emergency response appeared scarce that day. Residents said that the Thursday night food drop was the first sign of a government presence in neighborhood.
A vacuum of official services led many citizen-volunteers to engineer creative solutions to basic needs like water and power.
Near the corner of Avenue C and 10th Street, dozens of people charged their cell phones, courtesy of TIME’S UP, an environmental group that had brought a generator powered by a stationary bike.
“In some cases [having a cellphone] could be life or death,” said George Piageon, a CUNY graduate student who was helping with the effort. “Like for people with grandmothers, who potentially have to dial an emergency number.” Piageon said that his group was not coordinating with any government officials to provide this service.
Similarly, the free food on a nearby table did not come from the feds, but from local storeowners who could not keep it refrigerated. The scene felt almost festive as a musician serenaded the group with his sultry trumpet. But for residents a few blocks south the situation was more dire, and their frustration was more palpable.
“I don’t see America here,” said Kip Lavingen, who was waiting at a food drop on the corner of Pitt and East Houston streets. “It took three days for [services] to get here.” He complained that his local deli would not let him buy items on credit, and that he had seen people picking through a dumpster for food tossed out by a local grocer (a situation also reported by The Daily News).
A government presence was not completely absent from the neighborhood. The Pitt and East Houston food drop was “a joint effort by a lot of different agencies,” according to Major Raphael Jackson, a member of the Salvation Army who said that volunteers had canvased the area with fliers to notify people about the food.
But for many residents waiting two and half hours for the National Guard to arrive at Pitt Street — on a line that wrapped around the block — the food drop was too little too late. Most scoffed when asked if government officials had come by previously to offer help.
“There are no “F—ing services,” said Male Acquino, who lives in a public housing complex on Pitt street, a high rise building without electricity, hot water, or heat.
He’s coping with the cold with, “You know, sweat suits and covers,” said Aquino. “And [it’s nice] if you have a pretty woman to hug and to hold.”
Most waiting on line said they knew little about relief efforts or when their utilities would come back. “Most of our information comes from word of mouth,” said public housing resident Bradshaw Liddye, who is relying on his battery-operated transistor radio.
The situation appeared much the same on the corner of Grand and Clinton Streets where Ben Yomtov was filling containers with water at an open hydrant. “Its just hearsay and listening to the radio,” he said, adding that this was the third time today he was carrying water up to his 10th-floor apartment. He had heard reports the Red Cross had been in the area, and thought water was being passed out inside an apartment building across the street.
But, no — the private apartment complex on the corner only had a Salvation Army flier taped to the front door, and another handwritten sign read, “Please be advised that the fire hydrant on Clinton Between Grand & E. Broadway is open if water is needed.”
Karen Walters, a board memebr at the four-tower Seward Park Cooperative complex, said she had not heard about government officials contacting residents, and the building was relaying primarily on the co-op’s management staff, some of who had been working for 48 hours straight.
The need for water was apparent on the corner of Delancey and Pitt Streets as well, where another hydrant spewed water as two residents from public housing complexes filled plastic bottles. Neither was sure who had opened the hydrant. “NYCHA?” posited Walter Joseph, who had heard the New York City Housing Authority had opened the faucet on Wednesday.
Nyisha Thompson shrugged and said most of their information about resources came not from government but from “people and the radio,” a remark which caused Joseph to smile and laugh.
“Can do you me a favor?” he joked. “Can you report to Con Ed and tell them we need help down here?”