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Ravaged Staten Island: Torn Apart, Comes Together

Anger seethes but community shows resilience in storm's deadly aftermath

- Common Dreams staff

Thousands of homes on Staten Island were searched for the dead and survivors, including this house, swept into a marsh in Oakwood. Neighbors helped recover items from the house. (Michael Appleton for The New York Times)A full four days after Hurricane Sandy ripped through New York City, residents on battered Staten Island have emerged as the most heavily impacted by the destruction. What's worse, the battered residents of the mostly blue-collar workers islands, now charge they've been severely neglected by emergency services in the storm's immediate aftermath.

"Of the 40 deaths attributed to the Sandy in New York City, 19 of them were on Staten Island," reports The Atlantic Wire, "and that number could rise as  police continue to search homes for survivors and victims."

The New York Times on Friday puts the total death toll from the storm in the US and Canada at 95, "with 48 deaths in New York State, 40 of them in the city. Twelve deaths have been reported in New Jersey and four in Connecticut. The storm also killed at least 69 people in the Caribbean before it whipped toward the Northeast, including at least 54 in Haiti and 11 in Cuba."

But tensions are growing on the low-lying and relatively low-income Staten Island as despair over the destruction turned to anger about the poor response.

Borough President James Molinaro blasted the Red Cross at a press conference on Thursday, calling the relief organization as an “absolute disgrace”.

Asked by NBC News to explain his comment, Molinaro said, “because the devastation in Staten Island, the lack of a response.”

“You know, I went to a shelter Monday night after the storm. People were coming in with no socks, with no shoes,” Molinaro continued. “They were in desperate need. Their housing was destroyed. They were crying. Where was the Red Cross? Isn’t that their function?”

"The city of New York right now is talking about getting water out of the Battery Tunnel and preparing for a marathon," decried US Rep. Michael Grimm on Thursday as house-to-house searches continued. "We're pulling bodies out of the water. You see the disconnect here?"

NBC evening news reported on the controversy:

A heart-wrenching story of two boys swept from their mothers arms by the storm emerged Thursday along with the sad news that their bodies had been discovered.  The mother had tried to flee the storm in her car, but was forced to flee after flood waters rose around the family.

Reuters reports on the swift arrival of "a wall of water" that flooded to Hamden Avenue and the community spirit that potentially helped save the lives of other island residents:

Most of the hardest hit neighborhoods, including Hamden Avenue, were under evacuation orders. And while residents said they regretted the decision to ignore the order, many said they were surprised the damage was so significant. When Hurricane Irene swept through this area last year, it hardly left a mark.

"It was like living through Titanic, but on ground," said Krystina Berrios, 25, who works for a home care agency. "You would never think in a million years having to go through something like this."

Berrios lived in an apartment in the basement - though she passed the storm with family on the building's second floor - and everything she owned was destroyed.

She said she spent Monday night glued to a window, terrified that the water would rise even higher and drown her family. At dawn, Berrios spotted the lights of a rescue crew, and her family was taken to dry land a few blocks inland.

She returned for the first time on Thursday morning, after hearing rumors that vandals were breaking into people's homes and stealing what had not been destroyed.

If there is a hero on Hamden Avenue, the neighbors said it would be Gus Veintimilla, a 30-year-old sanitation worker. He lives at the end of the street, just a few houses down from his parents.

He was awakened in the aftermath of the storm by the sound of city rescue workers knocking down doors as they helped people from their flooded homes.

But after taking the most severe cases - a mother and father trapped on their roof with their four young children, among others - the team did not return.

Veintimilla spotted a man in a six-foot wooden dingy and asked if he could use it.

Over the next three hours, he delivered his neighbors, family by family, from their flooded homes to dry land.

"I just said,'Get your stuff together. Take whatever you need,'" he said.

As the relief effort continues, even as tensions grow and accusations fly about the levels of emergency aid being offered or the wisdom of holding the New York City marathon on Sunday, residents in Staten Island will most likely find the greatest sense of security in their neighbors. Again, from Reuters:

As residents on Thursday began the process of cleaning up their ruined homes, Patrick Donaghue, a 26-year-old from the area who works in Manhattan's Fulton Fish Market, arrived in a car packed with donated clothing and toys, and bags of groceries.

He opened the trunk and told the crowds of people to help themselves.

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