'I've Never Seen New York Like That'

The Wall Street Journal - November 01, 2012


Floodwaters, smoldering fires and other hazards threatened thousands of people across Greater New York on Wednesday, nearly two days after Sandy churned through the region. The storm's deadly surge had yet to recede from much of Hoboken, N.J., on Wednesday, stranding thousands of residents in apartment buildings. Firefighters in Queens continued to try to contain fires burning on Rockaway Peninsula. And in sections of Staten Island and Connecticut, homes were cut off by menacing brackish moats, preventing first responders from reaching people in medical distress.

Elected officials described the floodwaters in historic terms for the East Coast. After a helicopter tour of the region, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the rows of inundated homes "disturbing and sad and troubling."

"I've never seen New York like that before," he said. "I've seen other parts of the country like that. I've never seen New York like that before."

The stubborn floodwaters frustrated residents desperate to get back to their devastated homes Wednesday. Their efforts were also complicated by warnings from authorities to not come into contact with the water, which was likely contaminated by sewage discharged into New York Harbor by wastewater treatment plants.

In the South Beach section of Staten Island, people waded through flooded streets in high rubber boots, while others inched forward in trucks and sport utility vehicles. Empty cars lay scattered across the roads, tossed there by the storm.

"Most of these came from somewhere else," said resident Jeanine Wright, an artist who has lived in the neighborhood for years. "At 6 p.m., the ocean came through my house. I don't know how to understand this. I've never been homeless."

The waters blocked traffic and created dangerous conditions for motorists.

An ambulance trying to reach someone suffering chest pains was stopped by deep stretches of water on Doty Avenue in Staten Island. The driver jumped out to see if the street was passable.

"I don't want to get stuck," she shouted back to her partner. After a few minutes, the driver backed up the street in search of another route.

Although New York, New Jersey and Connecticut have all been declared federal disaster areas, some residents said they hadn't seen anyone from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or other authorities with supplies.

"No FEMA, just people coming to look at our houses, some trying to get inside," said Veronica Nicholas, whose drenched home in Staten Island stank of sewage. "No one is here to help."

President Barack Obama, visiting Brigantine, N.J., on the Atlantic coast, said the tristate area and West Virginia "are really bearing the brunt of this incredible storm." He vowed to get them "all the help you need until you've rebuilt."

Hoboken residents said they were astonished by the storm's effect on their city.

With pools of water in the streets, Robert Capelli Jr. watched as a pump emptied what looked to be a foot of water from the ground floor of his family's house on Jefferson Street between Sixth and Seventh in Hoboken. He said he has never experienced such flood damage.

"As long as we've had the house, it's never flooded in a bad storm," he said.

Terri Lindgren, 53 years old, who lives on badly flooded Jackson Street in Hoboken, was desperate to leave but didn't know how. Contaminated water surrounded the stoop of her house, knee deep just steps from her door.

She had no boots and no working phone to call for help.

"I've been without my pain pills since yesterday," said Ms. Lindgren, who suffers from back problems, her eyes filling with tears. "I'm on my last can of cat food and stuff. I can't stay here."

Ms. Lindgren said she saw a National Guard truck go by but was inside at the time and couldn't get its attention.

"I figure it's going to be harder once it gets dark," she said nervously.

Neighbors in the square-mile city banded together as authorities tried to get help to those who were stranded.

On Garden Street, Phil Cohen, a commissioner on the Hoboken Zoning Board, didn't lose power and so he ran three extension cords through the mail slot in his house, attached to power strips and pasted a sign above his door inviting people to charge their phones. Mr. Cohen and his wife brewed coffee for the steady stream of people who arrived.

Another neighbor set up a flatscreen television on his stoop that residents, eager for news, gathered around as they waited for their devices to recharge.

Halloween-costumed adults distributed candy to those who were waiting, and one grateful resident baked cookies, Mr. Cohen said.

"It's a really beautiful sense of community on our block," Mr. Cohen said.

In Rockaway Park, a beach community in Queens, N.Y., a two-block commercial strip of more than a dozen buildings continued to burn Wednesday night.

The fire started Monday evening, residents said, but remained unchecked that night for hours as firefighters were hampered by floodwaters. A similar problem hamstrung efforts to fight a devastating fire nearby in Breezy Point that leveled more than 100 homes.

On Wednesday morning, A.J. Choudhary stood in front of his Papa John's franchise, which he opened less than a year ago.

Firefighters watched from the street as small flames flickered in the rubble.

"I hope I got the right insurance," said Mr. Choudhary, 38 years old, who owns half a dozen franchises in New York City and on Long Island. "It hurts to see it. The whole thing is gone."

In Fairfield, Conn., about five miles of the town remained flooded on Wednesday, Police Chief Gary MacNamara said. The water stopped receding and stood still, hindering efforts to rescue people trapped in their homes.

Fire and police crews began at 9 a.m. doing door-to-door searches and expected to continue into the night. By midafternoon, they began rescue operations after finding more than 50 residents who were desperate to leave.

"I think they are at the edge now," said Fairfield Police spokesman Lt. James Perez. "They made a decision to stay. They realized now that was a mistake. They realized they don't want to be here any longer."

--Pervaiz Shallwani, Jennifer Maloney, Michael Howard Saul and Jennifer Weiss contributed to this article.