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Hundreds of Thousands in N.J. and N.Y. Lack Power in Slow Post-Sandy Recovery

November 5, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In New York and New Jersey, access to basic supplies remain limited and hundreds of thousands of people went without power or heat as temperatures dropped into the 30s. Kwame Holman reports. Then, special correspondent Rick Karr examines how the Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn is coping with damage from superstorm Sandy.

GWEN IFILL: The Northeast took slow steps toward recovery today, one week after Hurricane Sandy hit. But for many in New Jersey and New York, normal routines are still a long way off.

We have two reports, beginning with an overview from Kwame Holman.

KWAME HOLMAN: It was the closest thing to a full-scale morning commute since the storm hit a week ago. And it taxed transit systems to the limit in New York City, Connecticut and parts of New Jersey

MAN: We keep missing trains just because it’s so packed. You can’t even enter the train.

KWAME HOLMAN: Lines stretched for blocks as thousands of people tried to get to work.

Trains from New Jersey to New York remained out, but key subway lines connecting Manhattan to Brooklyn under the East River were open. And the Staten Island Ferry was running.

ELIZABETH GUTIERREZ, Staten Island resident: I don’t think it’s really normal for anyone right now. We have so much on our minds right now, especially for those who have family that lost everything, you know. So, not normal yet.

KWAME HOLMAN: The transit challenges came on top of a cold night for thousands of people still without power, with temperatures dropping into the 30s.

MAN: We have hot soup, hot chocolate, cleaning supplies, blankets.

KWAME HOLMAN: As of today, some 1.4 million homes and businesses across seven states still were in the dark. Well more than 700,000 of those were in New Jersey, where Governor Chris Christie visited with victims and volunteers today.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE, R-N.J.: There’s still 760,000 people, households without power. So, that’s still not good. But there’s two million that have power that didn’t last Tuesday.

KWAME HOLMAN: In New York City, power has been restored to nearly 80 percent of those who lost it. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Sunday the rest will have to wait a while longer.

MAYOR MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, I-New York: Con Ed is getting to them. And it will probably take the better part of this week for most of them to get back, but you can see the end of that, and they will be fine.

KWAME HOLMAN: The mayor also warned today that some 40,000 people may need shelter.

MICHAEL BLOOMBERG: Many buildings were flooded well — flooded may well be out of commission for a long time because of damage to boilers and electrical systems. They may include public housing, as well as private apartments. As I said before, I am very optimistic on us getting back not everyone, but most of the public housing buildings and the developments that have suffered.

KWAME HOLMAN: And the U.S. secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, put the housing issue at the top of her list, as she toured damage in New Jersey on Sunday.

JANET NAPOLITANO, U.S. Department of Homeland Security: Housing is really the number-one concern. We lost a lot of housing stock here in New Jersey. And we don’t even know yet which of the houses are repairable and which are irreparable losses.

KWAME HOLMAN: Getting fuel was an ongoing trial as well. Long lines have become a fixture at service stations in New Jersey, where gas is being rationed and in New York, where it’s not.

CHRIS DAMON, Seeking Gas: The cops told us to go down and turn around. And we have been around the block five times. And every time we come around, it’s a different cop telling us to go back the same way.

KWAME HOLMAN: The lack of gas only added to the frustrations of some commuters today.

MAN: I ran out of gas, so I had to turn around and go home before I had to push my car home. So, with all the traffic and no trains running from Brooklyn to Manhattan, I couldn’t get in.

KWAME HOLMAN: Still, 90 percent of New York City’s 1,700 schools did manage to reopen today for the first time since the storm made landfall.

SUJEY VEGA, New York: It was pretty confusing because we got the call last night that the school was actually open. So, this morning, it was kind of a hustle and bustle to get them here on time.

KWAME HOLMAN: Schools will close again tomorrow for Election Day. And with some polling places in the dark, parts of New York will use alternate polling stations, while displaced people in New Jersey will be allowed to vote by e-mail.

Meanwhile, amid all the problems, the region also is bracing for another round of damaging weather. A nor’easter is set to blow in Wednesday with cold rain and winds up to 55 miles an hour.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to our second story: a day in the life of one community in New York City where residents are coping with power outages, housing problems and no heat, as those temperatures dipped below freezing.

Special correspondent Rick Karr spent yesterday in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn.

RICK KARR: Red Hook Brooklyn is defined by its relationship to New York Bay. It’s as close as New York City gets to having a waterfront village.

But early last week, the surging bay scarred the neighborhood.

Sunday morning broke crisp and clear and Red Hook streets were lined with black garbage bags filled with sodden debris that had been pulled out of hundreds of flooded buildings. Residents had hung soaked linens out to dry.

Much of the neighborhood still lacked electricity. Residents lined up at a gas station for fuel for their generators. Pumps sucked water from basements that were still flooded.

As the morning went on, a new flood swept into Red Hook, hundreds of volunteers. Requests for help poured into a nerve center. Coordinators assigned tasks to people who had come to help, handed out gloves, mops and cleaning supplies, and send the volunteers off to work.

Some of them distributed clothes, blankets, food and supplies. Others got to the dirty business of clearing waterlogged wood and drywall from flooded basements.

Stuart Price was part of a group of 20 volunteers from Tulsa, Okla.

STUART PRICE, volunteer: We came up to watch the marathon. My daughter was going to run in the marathon. And it was going to be a big celebration. And they canceled it. And we’re so gratified that we’re here to help others.

We know in Oklahoma, we have tornadoes. And let me tell you, we had the Murrah bombing. And when we have our tragedies, people throughout the country, they throw in and they come help us. So, it’s the least we could do.

RICK KARR: Some Red Hook residents were pitching in, too.

JOHN MCGETTRICK, Red Hook Civic Association: Sir, do you want a sanitation crew here tonight to do a pickup?

RICK KARR: John McGettrick has lived here for a quarter-century. He’s co-chair of the Red Hook Civic Association. His house was spared. And since the storm, he has spent 18 hours a day running errands of mercy and checking to make sure the power is coming back across the neighborhood from its industrial quarter to its large housing project.

He hopes the storm will end up strengthening ties in what was already a tight-knit community.

JOHN MCGETTRICK: Hey. Fine, fine.

You know your neighbors. And in the past, when we suffered the effects, the adverse effects of environmental assaults, we did work together to prevent that. I think this will renew the bonds that were there once.

It will also get us to ask questions as to how this can be prevented in the future. We have to come up and recognize the global warming, global climate changes here and what can we as a society do to lessen the pollution that makes it so and to prevent the inundation that’s happened to many parts of the city.

RICK KARR: Red Hook has a tough history. It was the setting for the film “On the Waterfront.” Recently, the neighborhood has attracted new development, wine bars, cafes, trendy shops, expensive waterfront condos and homes, even an Ikea store.

Those changes have skirted the public housing complex, where more than half of the neighborhood’s residents live. As the sun started to set and temperatures dropped towards freezing, residents of the Red Hook houses lined up for supplies and to get free electric space heaters.

Jesse Fields got one before they were gone. His place has electricity, but like much of the rest of the complex, no heat, no phone service and no Internet. Fields said that almost none of his neighbors left after city officials ordered them to evacuate.

JESSE FIELDS, New York: Some people didn’t leave because they were afraid that their house would be broken in, you know. When the lights are out and you are living in these buildings, it’s a dangerous situation because you don’t know who is lurking in the hallways.

RICK KARR: Once the storm ends, Fields said, the gentrifying part of Red Hook, along its main drag, Van Brunt Street, got all of the attention.

JESSE FIELDS: I have seen them when they were pumping the water out. And maybe a day after, the lights were on. It’s the people that have the money is the ones that’s in charge. The ones that pay the highest are the ones in charge, just like Wall Street.

RICK KARR: The project’s largest building had no utilities at all, no electricity, no heat, no water, no gas. Residents had already spent nearly a week climbing as many as 12 stories through pitch-black stairwells.

WOMAN: Anybody coming down? OK. We’re coming up.

MAN: We’re coming up.

RICK KARR: Margaret Mehl-Lopez and her neighbors make that climb several times a day. She and her family, including her year-old granddaughter, Melanie (ph), had huddled into one room to conserve batteries and heat. And they still had no idea when the situation would improve.

MARGARET MEHL-LOPEZ, public housing resident: They give us all kinds of stories. They promised us that it is going to be on yesterday. Never came on. They promised it will be on day. Never came on. Some people are saying it’s not going to come on until maybe midweek next week. We don’t know. Nobody is giving us a direct answer.

RICK KARR: Inside the Red Hook houses, the formula for surviving Sandy’s aftermath was the same as outside.

MARGARET MEHL-LOPEZ: Keep your friends and your family close. You know, we’re all — regardless of black, white, green, purple, no matter what color we are, we all got to stick together and help each other out. That’s the best we can do. We have to survive.

RICK KARR: Tonight, Margaret Mehl-Lopez and her family still have neither heat nor electricity, with the temperature expected to dip to 30 degrees.

GWEN IFILL: Rick Karr has more from the close-knit neighborhood of Red Hook. You can read his reporter’s notebook online.