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Know Your Rights
Source: New York Times
Subject: Housing & Environmental Justice
Type: Media Coverage

17 Months After Hurricane, Recovery Effort Plods Along

To walk east into Far Rockaway, or west along the south shore of Staten Island, is to reach storm-raked lands half healed.

Seventeen months after Hurricane Sandy, bushes remain brown and brittle from the ocean waters that passed over them. Sycamores produced few leaves last summer. Stores are shuttered on Midland Avenue and Beach Channel.

You step inside St. Mary Star of the Sea and listen to Latino and African-American women and two reverends. They tell of apartments that remain wrecked and rising rents. Jobs and aid are scarce.

All recall the new mayor promised swift, concerted action during a campaign tour of their neighborhood.

And now?

Father Fulgencio Gutierrez sorts his words, careful as a fishmonger. Like everyone here, with the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, he supported Bill de Blasio. “The recovery?” He offers a wry smile. “It’s very, very slow.”

“Some days it feels like we’re forgotten by him,” he said.

Few more dramatic governing challenges confront the new mayor than helping those on this peninsula and in the working-class precincts of Staten Island and Coney Island. Many homes are still years away from being repaired; officials with the city’s inaptly named Build It Back program just last week scheduled their first repairs, 17 months after Hurricane Sandy blew on through.

Wander into more or less any home and apartment in the flood zones, and you hear Kafkaesque tales of federal, state and city red tape wrapped tight as rope around a maypole.

“Please; you need a Valium to apply for these programs,” said Jean Ferrera-Rodriguez, who owns a home in Hamilton Beach, just off Jamaica Bay. “All they do is show you PowerPoints with no power and no point.”

Last Friday city officials applied for billions of dollars in federal aid. They also announced a deal Sunday with Senator Charles E. Schumer in which they persuaded federal officials to replace wheezing temporary boilers with new ones for public housing towers.

So much remains. The mayor only now is about to appoint his rebuilding czar, and rebuilding responsibility remains spread across five agencies.

“Everyone agrees relief has been slow to get out the door,” said Phil Walzak, a spokesman for the mayor. “But now it’s happening, and it wasn’t happening before.”

The mayor has not been snoozing. He passed sick-day legislation, enriching the working lives of 300,000 New Yorkers, and he embarked on a crusade for universal prekindergarten impressive for its fervor if not for its success. He confronted snowstorms, an explosion that leveled two buildings and a campaign against him by the charter doyenne Eva Moskowitz.

But busy days do not purchase immunity from criticism. He knew he was going to become mayor after the Democratic primary in September. His promises to these disaster-torn neighborhoods were emphatic.

“We didn’t ask for Sandy; we wish we never met Sandy,” Mr. de Blasio told these same families last fall. “Let’s take this aid and make it into something that starts to remake this city in the name of equality and decency.”

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo contributed his own curious decisions. His administration agreed last week to spend $58 million in federal aid building dunes to protect Breezy Point, a gated, middle-class neighborhood at the tip of the Rockaway Peninsula. The homeowners refused, in exchange, to open their private beaches to the public.

Few in the Alliance for a Just Rebuilding, whose member groups include such mayoral allies as Make the Road by Walking and Faith in New York, have summer bungalows. Renters here are almost absurdly poor, with a median income of $18,000.

Residents slept for months in cars and ramshackle apartments, four or five to a room to fend off the cold. They are working-class people, many undocumented, and operate without a safety net. They want jobs — as federal guidelines provide for — rebuilding their neighborhoods.

They talk of terrible memories embedded like slivers in the psyche. The waters that rose until Angelica Gonzalez was standing on her bed on Staten Island, and she wrapped her arms inside the shirts of her son and daughter.

If they died, I wanted to die with them,” she said.

Her daughter still breaks into tears at the sound of the shower.

Luis Laguna, a powerfully built block of a man in work shoes and jeans, and a thick ponytail, rescued so many on Staten Island, plunging into those waters.

“I tried to keep cool, as the water rose, más y más.”

He lived for months with 14 people in a one-bedroom. His rent has gone up $300. Promised rental vouchers never came.

“Since the hurricane, it is just challenge after challenge,” he said. “Mr. de Blasio has to keep his word to us.”

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