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Battered by storm, Staten Islanders feel forgotten

By MEGHAN BARR Published: November 3, 2012
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Gazing at her bungalow, swept from its foundation and tossed across the street, Janice Clarkin wondered if help would ever come to this battered island off the coast of Manhattan.

“Do you see anybody here?” she asked, resignation etched on her face. “On the news, the mayor's congratulating the governor and the governor's congratulating the mayor. On what? People died.”

Staten Island was devastated beyond recognition by Superstorm Sandy and suffered the highest death toll of all of New York City's boroughs, including two young brothers who were swept from their mother's arms by the swirling sea and drowned. Yet days after the waters receded, residents feel ignored and forgotten.

That sense of isolation is deeply rooted on Staten Island, a tight-knit community that has long felt cut off from the bright lights of Manhattan — the city from which the island once tried to secede.

“It's always been that way. We're a forgotten little island,” said Catherine Friscia, who stood with tear-filled eyes across the street from the Atlantic Ocean in front of homes filled with water and where the air smelled like garbage and rotting fish.

“Nobody pays attention to any of us over here. Nobody.”

In the shadow of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, dazed survivors roamed Staten Island's sand-covered streets this week amid ruined bungalows sagging under the weight of water that rose to the rooftops. Their contents lay flung in the street: Mud-soaked couches, stuffed animals and mattresses formed towering piles of wreckage. Boats were tossed like toys into roadways.

Aside from a few fire trucks scattered along the shore, there were no emergency or relief workers in sight. Residents washed their muddy hands with bottled water and handed out sandwiches to neighbors as they sifted through the soggy wreckage of their homes, searching for anything that could be salvaged.

Spray-pointed on the plywood that covered the first floor of one flooded home were the words: “FEMA CALL ME.”

Sticking together in the aftermath of the storm has kept Staten Islanders who lost everything from completely falling apart. Self-reliance is in their blood just as the island's very geography lends itself to a feeling of isolation from the mainland: the only way to get on or off is by car, bus or ferry.

After the storm, residents who had evacuated had to wait until Wednesday to return, when the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge finally reopened to the public.

Most of the deaths were clustered in beachfront neighborhoods exposed to the Atlantic Ocean along the island's southeastern shore, an area of cinderblock bungalows and condominiums. Many of these homes were built decades ago — originally as summer cottages — and were not constructed to withstand the power of a major storm.

Diane Fieros wept as she recalled how she and her family survived by huddling on the third floor of their home across the street from the ocean, watching as the waves slammed into the house and the water rose higher and higher, shooting through cracks in the floor. A few blocks away, several people drowned.

“The deck was moving, the house was moving,” she said. “We thought we were going to die. We prayed. We all prayed.”

Fieros rode out the storm with her two sons, her parents and other extended family members. She pointed to a black line on the house that marked where the water rose: at least 12 feet above the ground.

“I told them, `We die, we die together,“' she said, her voice cracking. “You saw the waves coming. Oh my God.”

The storm has reopened old frictions among local officials who maintain Staten Island's infrastructure remains inadequate and that it has little sway on City Council compared to the other, bigger boroughs. In 1997, Staten Islanders voted in favor of seceding from New York City and incorporating on its own, buoyed by a belief that the borough pays more in taxes than it receives in return and that it's typically put last on the list for city services.

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