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Northeast Storm Victims Begin to Lose Patience at Lack of Basic Needs

November 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Extensive damage to infrastructure and buildings in the Northeast has limited access to critical supplies of gasoline, electricity and clean water up and down the Jersey coastline and in New York City. Ray Suarez talks to New York Times' Patrick McGeehan about the state of New York's five boroughs, where patience wears thin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This was another difficult day in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. The U.S. death toll rose to at least 102, and for millions of people, basic needs became increasingly urgent.

Ray Suarez has the story.

RAY SUAREZ: Four days after Sandy hit, patience was in short supply. So were gasoline, electricity and clean water. Again today, car after car after car waited long hours at gas stations in New York and New Jersey.

WOMAN: It’s crazy, because people are fighting. They are jumping in front of each other. They want to get out of their car and they want to fight you. So you are going to have to stand in line to get gas, or you won’t get none.

RAY SUAREZ: This afternoon, in hard-hit Ocean County, N.J., Gov. Chris Christie promised help.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J.: We are working with FEMA, and we have lots of the oil companies — Gulf Oil and Hess have both said that they will deliver gasoline with the National Guard and FEMA to any gas station that is not giving out gas because they are out of gas. So, we are on top of the gas situation.

RAY SUAREZ: Frustration was also at a boil on New York City’s Staten Island, where local officials complained they have been largely ignored since Monday’s storm.

JAMES MOLINARO, Staten Island Borough president: This is America. This is not a Third World nation. We need food. We need clothing.

RAY SUAREZ: There was also an all-day fight over running the New York City Marathon Sunday morning, beginning on Staten Island. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg initially defended the decision to proceed.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, I-New York: It doesn’t use resources that can really make a difference in recovery and that sort of thing. It’s a different group of people.

We have to work around the clock for people to get through this thing, and I assure you we’re doing that. And if I thought it took any resources away from that, we would — we wouldn’t do this.

RAY SUAREZ: But late today, Bloomberg reversed course and announced the marathon was canceled.

Further adding to the frustration of many, the power was still off for well over three million customers, many of them in New York and New Jersey.

This man lives in Far Rockaway in Queens.

MAN: We are not sitting around singing kumbaya. This is really a dangerous, dangerous situation, and it’s a real dangerous place in the dark.

RAY SUAREZ: The power company, Consolidated Edison, said it hopes to have all the lights back on in Manhattan by tomorrow, but others could wait as long as Nov. 11.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo was unimpressed.

GOV. ANDREW CUOMO, D-N.Y.: That will be great for downtown Manhattan. I grew up in a place called Queens, and there’s a place called Brooklyn and there’s a place called the Bronx and a place called Staten Island. And they need their power back on.

RAY SUAREZ: Food was a pressing need in places like Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the AlphabetCity neighborhood, where volunteers have been handing out free meals. A local minister said many people are struggling.

MAN: They see that other areas are being taken care of, and they totally overlooked us.

Now, a couple days later, we are finally getting some resources, and most of the resources that have come in so far have not come from the city. They have come from different organizations, charitable organizations, churches.

RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, the long job of cleaning up moved forward, slowly.

MAN: This is the front of my house.

RAY SUAREZ: In Pleasantville, N.J., near Atlantic City, uprooted trees littered the landscape, along with homes declared unsafe for human occupancy. Returning residents spent the day picking up the pieces.

MAN: This is the house we all grew up in, all my cousins, and it was — my grandmother actually grew up in this house. It’s been in our family for over 120 years, and it’s withstood every hurricane until this one.

RAY SUAREZ: But for all the sudden new difficulties of just getting through the day, some optimism remained.

WOMAN: I don’t think that’s going to defeat us, this one perfect storm.

RAY SUAREZ: And there were more signs of progress. Federal officials waived a rule that blocks foreign oil tankers from bringing fuel to the Northeast.

And for more on how these problems are affecting residents, we turn to Patrick McGeehan, who has been covering the storm for The New York Times.

And, Patrick, I guess emblematic of what is going on in New York is what you saw in the West Side neighborhood off the Hudson River of Chelsea. Tell us about it.  

PATRICK MCGEEHAN, The New York Times: Well, yes, I was down in Chelsea today, where the power was still out in a building with no elevators, so you had to walk up six flights to get up and down.

And it is still dark around there. It’s completely different than it is up here in Midtown. And it’s been that way all week.

You know, people are mostly getting around on foot. The cabs are having trouble getting enough gasoline. There’s one gas station on the West Side in Midtown sort of west of the Theater District. And it has a line — it had a line this morning of cars, mostly taxicabs, all the way down to the Chelsea neighborhood, about 25 blocks.

And it had to represent hours in line and it seemed to be growing at the time.

RAY SUAREZ: Are people frustrated? Is there this sense almost everywhere you go that people somewhere else are getting helped faster than you are?

PATRICK MCGEEHAN: Yes, I think the frustration is starting to build. I think people are reaching the outer limit of their patience with being without power, particularly.

I think in the suburbs, it’s particularly bad because people expect to see a truck pass their house in their neighborhood with people up working on lines. And when they don’t see that, they think they have been neglected and ignored. And so you hear that from Long Island. You hear that from WestchesterCounty.

You hear less of that in New York City because people don’t really expect to see the repairmen, you know, in front of their building necessarily. And their power will come on sort of all at once, like in neighborhoods, as opposed to out in the suburbs, where some people need power restrung right to their house.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there a solid waste problem? I mean, with so much damage to so many things in so many places, is there just a lot of reeking, fetid stuff around that doesn’t have any place to go yet?

PATRICK MCGEEHAN: Yes. There are places where the city is starting to smell.

I was in this building today where I was passing — on my way up the stairs, I was passing people carrying huge bags of trash down the stairs trying to get them out of the building.

And that building had not had working toilets since Monday. So — and there are a number of places like that.

I was in the Con Edison utility company headquarters and they have been without power since Monday night, running on generators, but they don’t have their toilets working either. So — or they didn’t for much of the time.

They might be back on now, but it smells bad in some of these buildings. And I guess it’s going to continue for another day or two.

RAY SUAREZ: Are people getting enough information from local government about what they can expect and when? Do people feel well-informed?

PATRICK MCGEEHAN: I think they do, I mean, those who are able to get it. Receiving it is a problem if you don’t have power. But there has been no shortage of briefings by the mayor, Gov. Cuomo, Gov. Christie, utility company executives.

They are doing lots of outreach, but most of the news isn’t that good if you are without power. So I don’t know how much it makes people feel better.

RAY SUAREZ: Patrick McGeehan from The New York Times, thanks for joining us.

PATRICK MCGEEHAN: Sure. Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: Hurricane Sandy also devastated parts of the Caribbean, including Haiti, where 54 people died.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro filed a dispatch and photos from Port-au-Prince. Those are on our World page.