Nearly two months after a massive hurricane hit New York City and surrounding areas, the recovery continues, write Joan Oleck and Fran Hawthorne. The event exposed shortcomings, and also revealed some surprising strengths
The effects of Hurricane Sandy still plague New York City
On a chilly late-November afternoon, 26 days after Hurricane Sandy sent a 15-metre-high surge of seawater, oil and raw sewage down her New York City street, Mary Asperti Panetta opened her door to five strangers carrying crowbars and shovels.
They tore down the mouldy drywall of the two-storey, aluminium-sided home her family has owned for two generations. Then, throughout the darkened first floor, wiped out by one whoosh of Sandy, the volunteers swept debris, inspected electrical hazards, and mopped up the sludge that coated the kitchen cabinets.
Meanwhile, a steady stream of other strangers came by, offering free hamburgers, energy drinks and sleeping bags.
A dirty crystal vase sat forlornly on what was once Panetta's dining room table. Mud streaked the sides of an oak china cabinet - the only other piece of furniture Sandy had somehow overlooked.
Upstairs in the freezing-cold living room, Panetta, a 59-year-old property broker, had laid out to dry dozens of wrinkled, soaked, family photos - pictures of weddings, baptisms, her two daughters' birthdays. But other mementos couldn't be salvaged. "All my grandma's Christmas ornaments, my mum's ornaments, ornaments my girls made me in kindergarten," Panetta said sadly. "They're all gone."
Nor can she save the house exactly as it was. Although the toxic mould will eventually be removed, completely rebuilding the downstairs is too expensive, she said. She planned instead to turn it into a family room.
Her elder daughter, Vanessa, 33, had a more immediate worry. "We're praying for Christmas," she said. "It will be hard, because we always had the family here."
Even standing in the Panettas' devastated kitchen, it was almost impossible to comprehend the breadth of Sandy's destruction: 11 states hit, 109 deaths and untold billions of dollars in damage.
The brunt - an estimated $77.9 billion (Dh286bn) in damage - was reserved for New York City, adjoining Long Island, and, across a narrow strait of ocean, the famous Jersey Shore.
Miles of coastline were smashed, from the wealthy holiday houses of Deal, New Jersey, to the working-class, ethnic enclaves of the Rockaway Peninsula and Staten Island, home to many New York police and firefighters. In the amusement capital of Coney Island, the beloved boardwalk was missing large chunks. In Brooklyn's 175-year-old Green-Wood Cemetery, a historic landmark, clumps of thick, leafy tree limbs lay strewn across famous graves like weird floral arrangements.
Homes were tilted off their foundations; sand dunes clogged the streets. A mountain of debris in Rockaway topped several stories.
A series of natural flukes made Sandy particularly destructive. A strong high-pressure system, unusually warm ocean water, and a "wavy" jet stream combined to reverse the usual seaward path of hurricanes. Making matters worse was New York's geography, which funnelled the storm surge through Long Island Sound, building its strength as it crossed New York Harbor to flood Lower Manhattan and hit New Jersey and Staten Island.
On top of all that, a nasty nor'easter storm added heavy rain and wind nine days later.
Troubling human factors also played a role - notably the incentive that federal flood insurance gives people to live year-round in flood zones. Coastal residents, lulled by the lack of damage from last year's Hurricane Irene, ignored evacuation orders.
At the same time, however, New York's emergency services officials demonstrated that they had benefited from the hard lessons learnt during the devastating Hurricane Katrina of 2005.
President Barack Obama, visiting immediately after Sandy, promised that federal staff would "return everyone's phone calls within 15 minutes". The governors of New Jersey and New York followed his lead. And thousands of volunteers, like those at the Panetta home, swarmed the flood zones, often arriving days ahead of the official relief agencies. Within 10 days, $116 million in private donations had poured in.
"This is a 'get-to-work' city," commented Scott Porot, a veteran volunteer who has seen the best with Sandy and the worst with Katrina.
Luckily, John Buchanan had stocked up Stop 1, his small Brooklyn grocery store, with tinned goods, sweets, crisps, and Coke before the hurricane, but he couldn't stock up on electricity. So, wearing his overcoat and cap, he was selling what he could out the side window until it got too dark to see, at about 5pm - cash only. With business down 85 per cent, he had to lay off two employees. But how did he keep those Cokes cold? Mr Buchanan shrugged: "It's colder in here than outside."
New York City and its neighbours started pulling themselves back together the day after the storm. Within three days, 14 of 23 flooded subway lines were operating and the city's public schools reopened the following week.
The federal government's disaster agency, the Federal Emergency Management Administration (Fema), distributed grants to Sandy victims for temporary rentals and emergency repairs totalling $767m in New York and $292m in New Jersey by December 12.
Famously impatient New Yorkers were unruffled at first, ascribing their hardships to the intricacies of repairing saltwater-damaged electrical equipment.
But 10 days after the storm, 206,000 customers on Long Island and the Rockaway Peninsula, plus 41,400 in the city, still lacked power and heat. Homeless residents such as the Panettas were camped out with friends and relatives. And at that point, they were no longer so forgiving.
Particular anger was directed against the publicly regulated utility that handles most of the hardest-hit coastal areas, the Long Island Power Authority (Lipa).
Critics charged that Lipa was trying to get its numbers up by focusing on power restoration to inland towns while ignoring the worst victims: coastal homeowners with flooded homes. Among other complaints: Lipa had failed to stockpile enough light poles, its technology was outdated, and it hadn't taken the precautionary step of trimming trees that could knock down power lines. Consumer information on the company website was inconsistent or just wrong. Residents in many neighbourhoods didn't see a lorry for a week or more after the storm.
After 11 days with no sign of the power company, residents of the Long Island hamlet of Oceanside staged a protest, inviting press and politicians. Only then did Lipa lorries ostentatiously appear - in deliberate view of the TV cameras, protesters claimed.
"Nobody had the internet, we didn't have the news, we didn't have newspapers, and we in the city of Long Beach didn't get mail delivered for 10 days," pointed out Denise Ford, a Long Island county legislator who was at the Oceanside protest. Ironically, without those news sources, she added, "It was probably a week before we started realising the impact and how widespread the devastation was."
Then, even when Lipa or another utility proclaimed power had been restored to a neighbourhood, the lights did not immediately go on, because homeowners first had to hire licensed electricians to certify the safety of their homes' circuit breakers. That cost Lipa customers $250, while Consolidated Edison, the main utility that serves New York City, sent in teams to do the work free.
There were other complaints, too. Many people were confused at what they called the arbitrariness of the recovery, beyond what could be explained by natural causes such as elevation.
On the Coney Island boardwalk in late November, for instance, Lola Star's tiny souvenir shop had no electricity, only weak sunlight and a small generator. But two doors down, Tom's Coney Island diner was blazing, with hamburgers on the grill and two television monitors blaring sport and cartoons above the counter.
Meanwhile, as Jane Rosen headed into a second week without electricity in her suburban Ridgewood, New Jersey home, she finally gave up and went to stay with friends who had power - three blocks away
Patrick G McHugh, chief distribution engineer for Con Ed, explained the arbitrariness charge as a technical issue, stating: "You could have two feeders that run from a substation, one down each side of a block, and a tree falls on a feeder on one side."
And Lipa's chief operating officer, Michael Hervey, pleaded the sheer magnitude of the damage: 1.1 million customers - 90 per cent of the company's base.
"Unprecedented," Hervey said on a local news programme. "I know of no other utility company that had to restore 90 per cent of its customers." Lipa had started installing a new customer communications system when Sandy struck, Hervey added.
But New York governor Andrew Cuomo wasn't sympathetic. "It's been beyond repair for a very, very long time," he said, singling out this one utility.
"I don't believe you can fix it." He ordered a commission to investigate utilities' accountability for the damage.
By late November, Hervey and two of his top lieutenants had tendered their resignations.
Forty pews in the Gothic-style Episcopal Church of St Luke and St Matthew in Brooklyn were piled high with cartons of donated breakfast cereal, condensed milk, nappies, pasta, pet food, blankets, paper towels and one labelled "strange flavoured things", to be given out to hurricane victims. Volunteers started at a check-in table, then chose stations for "people with cars" or "people needing rides", or picked up food donations from the kitchen.
Welcome to Occupy Sandy, an offshoot of last year's Occupy Wall Street movement, now dedicated to hurricane relief (and, supporters say, the fight against capitalism).
Jumping into the breach left by the government agencies - sometimes days before any government or utility officials arrived - has been a multitude of volunteer and charitable organisations, from established giants like United Way and the American Red Cross, to businesses and small neighbourhood groups.
The Red Cross mobilised 300 vehicles to deliver food, water, and cleaning supplies in New York and operated shelters throughout the East Coast that, at their peak, housed nearly 11,000 people. Some 340 trained mental-health volunteers were brought in to counsel distressed New Yorkers.
By early December, the Robin Hood Foundation - New York City's largest poverty-fighting organisation, founded by hedge fund managers - had given out $5.2m in grants to neighbourhood groups. United Way New York awarded a further $100,000.
Locals criticised some of the behemoths for their bureaucracy and slowness. The Red Cross has only a limited mission - it doesn't hand out clothing or tinned goods, for instance - and volunteers undergo extensive training and travel long distances.
What really galled some critics was that, even as residents such as the Panettas dug out their houses, the Red Cross spent $181,000 housing out-of-state workers at a swanky Manhattan hotel. (The organisation's reply: It was prime tourist season and that was all they could find.)
But the big charities were only a small part of the picture. Almost as though Sandy's saltwater had irrigated the land it swept through, volunteers sprouted the minute the water receded.
They streamed in from New Jersey surf clubs, the Mormon Church, and a national group of US military veterans called Team Rubicon. The New York branch of Comhaltas Ceoltórí Éireann, an international Irish music group, served hot, home-cooked meals on weekends.
From the US Tennis Association came $200,000 worth of water bottles, food and souvenir clothing left over from last summer's US Open tournament.
Local pilots flew in volunteers from the Midwest. A ticket broker in Manhattan announced via social media that he had chartered buses to transport volunteers to Rockaway; 150 showed up with brooms and shovels the next day.
Business organisations that usually promote tourism at Sandy's beach resorts scrambled to help their members. The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce advertised shops that had reopened, to "encourage people to shop in areas hardest hit by Sandy this holiday season," according to spokesman Clemente Lisi.
Hotels donated unused bottles of guest toiletries; JPMorgan Chase gave employees compensatory time off for volunteering.
The day after Sandy struck, a Brooklyn construction worker, his girlfriend, and three friends visiting from Missouri and Massachusetts grabbed a water pump and some tools, and rushed out to devastated Rockaway. Within two weeks the five had resigned their jobs, moved into donated church space, and formed an organisation called Respond and Rebuild. Within five weeks that group had drawn 1,500 volunteers and mucked out, pumped, or gutted more than 100 homes. Next on the agenda: Donning hazmat suits and using heavy-duty chemicals to fully remove mould.
One of Sandy's biggest surprises was the reinvention of Occupy Wall Street, from what had seemed an amorphous group of protesters camping out in the world's major cities a year ago, without any clear goals, to an efficient - even bureaucratic - organisation of 60,000 volunteers serving hurricane victims throughout New York and New Jersey, including the Panettas.
OWS veteran Amin Husain, 36, a Palestinian-born lawyer now living in New York, insisted that the movement had always been more organised than outsiders thought. At the original campsites, "we fed thousands of people a day. We self-organised. We slept there," said Husain, who returns yearly to his home in Al-Bireh on the West Bank. Thus, OWS was doing the same work Occupy Sandy now does for hurricane survivors.
Even after police broke up those sites last fall and winter, a core group of organisers stayed in touch. They created four other offshoots, focusing on medical debts, banking, financial reform, and shareholder rights.
So when the hurricane hit, Mr Husain said, the network regrouped spontaneously. "People from Occupy were out in the field, and they were saying, 'We ought to do something.' "
Behind the scenes, there is plenty of organisation. "Team leaders" coordinate where to direct supplies and volunteers. In Rockaway, a typical hub operation sent out neighbourhood canvassers with a two-page questionnaire: "Do you have electricity?" "Do you need legal advice?" - after which other volunteers entered the answers into a computer database and marked a huge, census-style street map with neon pink and orange Post-it notes indicating which streets needed which services.
The sign-in process illustrated Occupy's split personality: before people could tear down mouldy drywall or dish out dinner, they had to sign a legal waiver promising not to hold Occupy responsible for any injuries. Then they had to listen to a 10-minute orientation about racism and the class struggle.
"The Occupy Wall Street crowd, they had no organisation - and now they've been doing incredible work along the peninsula, preparing meals, helping people clean houses," marvelled Seth Bornstein, executive director of the Queens Economic Development Corporation - a business-and-tourism promotion trade group.
In midafternoon at the car park of a Rockaway laundromat where volunteers and National Guard troops handed out free supplies, a middle-aged couple crammed their Lincoln Navigator SUV with bulging plastic bags and cartons, stray clothing and toys peeking out the tops. A police patrolman said it was the third day he had seen that same couple loading up.
The volunteer camaraderie stretched only so far. Almost every group had stories of scams.
Husain of Occupy cited a fight between a local and nonlocal family at the "free store" his group runs in Staten Island. The lunch-servers of the Irish Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann called in security to stop a man from taking a third crate of bottled water.
Empty homes have been burglarised, and people pretending to be utility repairmen have forced their way into others.
But volunteers also expressed sympathy. "This is a poor neighbourhood," said Greg, an artist and Occupy team leader in Rockaway who wouldn't give his last name. Many hurricane victims lost their jobs, face huge repair bills, and had no savings to begin with, Greg said: "It's a crisis every day here."
"Extreme weather is the 'new normal'," New York Governor Cuomo has said. "The denial and deliberation from extremists on both sides … of climate change are distracting us from addressing its inarguable effects."
In 22 months, three storms have hit New York with unprecedented force. And like other places around the globe that sit at sea level, the city is paying more attention to the fact that over the past two decades, the oceans have risen 3.2mm a year.
So the lesson is clear: More Sandys and Katrinas will come, and New York - and other locales - must plan better.
Already, Fema is expanding its designation of the city's flood zones. New York City officials are mulling constructing sand dunes, levees and berms. Proposed building codes would require putting household electrical and heating equipment above street level. A "Respond" commission appointed by Governor Cuomo will shortly deliver recommendations on what to change for next time.
But regulations can do only so much. Human foibles, too, must be considered, said Sheena Wright, a Respond commission member and the chief executive of United Way New York City. "What people originally thought was 'You have to get people out, you have to evacuate'," Ms Wright said in an interview. "There was not sufficient planning for, 'What if the people don't leave?'"
Accordingly, she recommends creating ground-level "connectors" to link big relief organisations to community groups that know where the need is highest. After Sandy, for instance, United Way linked the Red Cross to an existing soup kitchen in Coney Island that already fed 3,000 people a day.
To counter Lipa's egregious lack of communications during Sandy, Denise Ford, the Long Island legislator, said she liked an idea she'd heard, of placing huge screens in the central districts of hard-hit towns, to stream vital information for residents.
But all that is for the next storm. Right now, it is the first post-Sandy Christmas, and establishing the "new normal" isn't easy.
Mary Panetta and her daughters will not have the holiday at home this year; as of mid-December, their home had electricity, but still no heat or hot water.
They had received gifts of a sort: Fema had approved Panetta's applications for repairs and a hotel stay, and the New York City-funded Rapid Repair team of no-cost electricians and plumbers was hammering away on the first floor. Unfortunately, however, Ms Panetta reported, "an electrician told me that the drywall on the right side of my house is still loaded with mould." She was also feeling ill, she said, possibly from exposure to all that mould.
And Christmas? "We're probably just going to a restaurant. What else are we going to do? It's not 'our Christmas'."
Yet as she spoke, Panetta almost answered her own question.
"Maybe we could go down to the food bank and help out. Actually, in a way this could be a good thing, because it kind of gives you [the realisation] 'how lucky we are to be alive'.
"Even though we don't have our home yet, we're still able to celebrate Christmas together as a family - y'know?"
Joan Oleck is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York. Fran Hawthorne is an award-winning US-based author and journalist who specialises in covering the intersection of business, finance and social policy.