Life after Sandy still difficult for New York’s poor

The elevators had been out for four days at the Jacob Riis Houses, a public housing complex in Lower Manhattan, and there was only one way down for Adonis Brice.

The stairwell: 11 flights turned pitch black since Hurricane Sandy tore through the city and cut off electricity, water and heat. These 154 steps were his only path to the bread, candles and water he needed to care for his two small children, jumping on the mattress in the bedroom.

Brice, 26, took a serrated knife from the kitchen, where the sink was filled with stacks of dirty pots and dishes. He put on his coat and slipped the knife into his pocket. He walked past the bathroom, where a putrid odor wafted from a toilet that hadn’t flushed in four days. He kissed his girlfriend, Dalisha.

“Lock the door,” he told her, walking out.

Four days after the storm, New Yorkers talked of their subways roaring back, of Amtrak restoring service and museums opening, and the sense that life once again was taking on a recognizable rhythm.

But on the Lower East Side, in a housing complex of 19 brick high-rises where about 4,000 poor and working-class New Yorkers reside, life remained darkened and difficult. The Jacob Riis Houses, built during the Truman administration, were named for a muckraking journalist whose chronicle of 19th-century slum life was titled “How the Other Half Lives.”

At Ninth Street and Avenue D, the other half was alive, but it was not living so well.

All morning, people lined up at open fire hydrants to fill pails and jugs with water. They walked across the street to buy bread from a man who they said had doubled the price, to $2. They went in search of cigarettes, an ATM that worked and their benefits checks.

Each trip began and ended with a walk up and down those darkened stairs.

“Nobody comes to help us,” Brice said, walking down slowly, finding his way with the glow of a cellphone. “The cops don’t come in here. No one’s bringing us flashlights. No one’s bringing water. No one’s doing anything.”

Down he went, the 11th floor turning into the 10th and then the ninth. “There could be dead people inside these apartments,” he said. “We wouldn’t know.”

He was trailed by his brother, Andre, 21, and a friend, Steve, 24, both of whom were visiting the night Sandy raged — when a few blocks away the Con Edison plant went “boom!” as they described it, and the lights went out all over Lower Manhattan. And they hadn’t left since, lighting the gas stove to keep warm, trying to figure out what to do next.

“We defend each other,” Andre said.

As they arrived at the second floor, they passed a Chinese woman and her 12-year-old son, the two lugging a wire cart containing an oversize red pail filled with water. After each step, the woman grunted.

“Don’t let go,” Enuyan Ouyang, 57, warned her son in Cantonese.

“This is crazy,” Bryan Ouyang replied in English. He stayed with her. Water splashed out of the pail. It was 10:20 a.m., and they had 11 more flights to go.

Up.

Their apartment is at the top of the building, on the 13th floor.

On the third floor, they encountered Raymond Perez, who lives in Apartment 3C with his 82-year-old grandmother. A couple of days earlier, she had slipped on those darkened stairs.

“For $10, I’ll take that up for you,” Perez told Ouyang. Her son had to translate for her. She shook her head and spoke in Cantonese.

“She said she only makes $700 a month,” the boy said.

They started walking up again, reaching the fifth floor at 10:26.

“Sometimes, I wish we lived on the first floor,” the boy said.

At 10:39, they arrived at their apartment, where his father answered silently. The boy’s mother said they would turn around and make another trip for more water soon.

Ten floors down, in Apartment 3H, Jeanette Luciano, 50, was getting ready to leave. She needed food, but first she had to get her $702 monthly disability check. The office where she usually gets it was closed. She would have to ride the bus to Harlem.

She was afraid to leave her apartment, her two televisions, her laptop computer. “The last time there was a blackout,” she said, “the apartment downstairs was robbed. Completely robbed.”

Out the door Luciano went, down the stairs, blinking as she emerged from the stairwell and walked into the gray light of the day.

On the sidewalk in front of the building, a crowd clustered around a van. The owner was allowing people to charge their phones off his battery for $2.

A few yards away, Phil Trueba was helping his grandmother into his car, after climbing six floors to her apartment and telling her that he was taking her to the Poconos until the power returned. He had led her down the stairs, and now they were outside, next to Ramel Green, 61, who leaned on a cane after walking down 11 flights.

Green’s plan for the day was a trip by bus to Harlem to visit his ex-wife. Then back before dark to climb his way back to his apartment.

“It’s a poor rat that has one home,” he said. “Ever hear that one?”

On a bench to his right, Jamie Diaz, 67, sat with two jugs of water he had bought for his sister, who was on the ninth floor and too sick to come out.

This, he said in broken English, would be his third trip to her apartment this day. He shook his head, then stood, walked inside the entrance, took out a flashlight and began climbing.

When he reached the first floor, he stopped and put down the jugs. He took a few breaths.

A moment later, he pressed on.

Paul Schwartzman specializes in political profiles and narratives about life, death and everything in between.
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