Hurricane Sandy and poverty

OK.  There is no more marathon.  I always thought that was a little crazy what with Staten Island and parts of lower Manhattan, Brooklyn still with no power.  I’m glad someone got some sense!  But I was struck by two headlines in the New York Times this morning:

In New York’s Public Housing, Fear Creeps in With the Dark

For Some After the Storm, No Work Means No Pay

It would be dark soon at the Coney Island Houses, the fourth night without power, elevators and water. Another night of trips up and down pitch-black staircases, lighted by shaky flashlights and candles. Another night of retreating from the dark.

Perhaps more so than in any other place in the city, the loss of power for people living in public housing projects forced a return to a primal existence. Opened fire hydrants became community wells. Sleep-and-wake cycles were timed to sunsets and sunrises. People huddled for warmth around lighted gas stoves as if they were roaring fires. Darkness became menacing, a thing to be feared.

A lack of friends or family in areas with power, or cars or cab fare to get to them, meant there were few ways to escape. Dwindling dollars heightened the pain of throwing out food rotting inside powerless refrigerators, and sharpened the question of where the next meal would come from. Some had not left their apartments since the storm swept in.

I heard a woman being interviewed who lived in public housing, not sure where, who was making her 8th trip of the day up the unlighted stairwell (there are no windows) with water.  She was talking about the generators set up in Central Park for the marathon and wondering why they couldn’t be moved to give her building power.  Remembering this is what made the New York Times headline catch my eye so quickly this morning.

Thousands of public housing residents in New York City defied evacuation orders because they underestimated the ferocity of Hurricane Sandy; now they make up a city within a city, marked by acute need. Any bathtubs filled with water on Monday are empty. Unflushed toilets stink. Elderly people with creaky joints are marooned on upper floors. Batteries are running out.

An estimated 400,000 New Yorkers live in public housing and many of their institutional brown brick buildings hug the waterfront.

On Thursday, 227 of the 2,600 buildings operated by the New York City Housing Authority remained without power, according to an agency spokeswoman, including many in low-lying neighborhoods like Coney Island in Brooklyn, Rockaway Beach in Queens, and Alphabet City in Manhattan, the areas most seriously affected by the storm.

I would imagine that many were afraid to leave for fear their apartments would be looted if they did so.  So there is fear, but there is also community.

On the Lower East Side, at the Baruch Houses, neighbors helped an older woman down flights of stairs because she was feeling ill. An ambulance emergency worker gave the woman oxygen and the neighbors helped her back up to her apartment.

“There’s a sense of community,” said Darryl MacCullum, 24, who lives at the Jacob Riis Houses in the East Village, where the tidal surge had, for a time, ringed the buildings like moats. “Neighbors I usually don’t talk to, I talk to now.”

The residents cooked for each other, eager to not waste food that was thawing fast. At the Red Hook Houses on Wednesday night, there was an impromptu outdoor barbecue for 25 people, with hamburgers, frankfurters and ribs sizzling on grills.

And there are muggings in the stairwells as well as fear that they are forgotten.

Darkness enveloped the Jacob Riis Houses.
Then there are the hourly workers who don’t get paid if they can’t get to work or if their place of business is closed.
While salaried employees worked if they could, often from home after Hurricane Sandy, many of the poorest New Yorkers faced the prospect of losing days, even a crucial week, of pay on top of the economic ground they have lost since the recession.Low-wage workers, more likely to be paid hourly and work at the whim of their employers, have fared worse in the recovery than those at the top of the income scale — in New York City the bottom 20 percent lost$463 in annual income from 2010 to 2011, in contrast to a gain of almost $2,000 for the top quintile. And there are an increasing number of part-time and hourly workers, the type that safety net programs like unemployment are not designed to serve. Since 2009, when the recovery began, 86 percent of the jobs added nationally have been hourly. Over all, about 60 percent of the nation’s jobs are hourly.Even as the sluggish economy has accentuated this divide, Hurricane Sandy has acted as a further wedge, threatening to take a far greater toll on the have-littles who live from paycheck to paycheck.On Friday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced that New York City and four suburban counties were eligible for disaster unemployment relief,which covers a broader spectrum of workers than regular unemployment benefits, including the self-employed like taxi drivers and street vendors as well as those who were unable to get to work.

New Jersey has also declared people in 10 counties eligible for disaster unemployment assistance. In Connecticut, residents of four counties and the Mashantucket Pequot Indian Reservation are eligible.

A New York Department of Labor spokesman emphasized that workers who lost wages should call to apply because the program is flexible and many eligibility issues would be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Disaster unemployment will help some, but not everyone.

Federal labor laws include more protections for salaried workers than hourly workers when a disaster hits. Employers must continue to pay salaries if the worksite is closed for less than a week, even though they are allowed to require employees to use vacation or paid leave for the duration of the closure. Hourly workers, on the other hand, do not have to be paid if the worksite closes. If the workplace is open but salaried workers cannot get there, their pay may be reduced.

So Sandy is not just about not being able to charge your cell phone or laptop.  For many it will be a step backward on the climb out of poverty.

Photograph of Jacob Riis Houses Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times.  Reporting for the NYT by By and  and CARA BUCKLEY and MICHAEL WILSON