A hotel room is traditionally a small space with cheesy furniture, stiff white towels, and multi-colored indoor-outdoor carpet that looks spotless but harbors microscopic critters. It is a facade, an appearance, a caricature of home. However, for a person who has lost everything, a hotel room is comfort, warmth, security, a link to independence, sanctuary. It is the only stability left. FEMA calculates hotel room space in time of disaster by price points and enforceable codes, and people as movable pieces on a game board that expires every two weeks.
It was almost four months to the day since I became a vagrant: roaming through the bowels of hell, searching through sewage for my treasures, a pawn in FEMA’s game of unrecoverable life. I was holding it together. But I was hardly all right. I entered the covered walkway to my hotel room, at the hour when waning winter sunshine brings a subtle chill to the day, returning from a day in the yard of my mold infested home. My clothes were shabby and stained, hair unruly, and my hands were vile. I was exhausted from crying. It was a typical post-Sandy day. I just wanted to go inside and scrub the day off.
A man in blue jeans approached me in the distance. I was unable to see his face, but he had grey hair and glasses. We met at the bottom of the black stone staircase, just outside my door. He had a tattered, desperate look. I immediately recognized him. He was one of us, the survivors – those who had lost everything in the SuperStorm of 2012, Hurricane Sandy.
He rounded the last post of the iron fence to the parking lot, looked me straight in the eye with compelling urgency, and said, “You’re FEMA aren’t you?”
I was startled by his recognition of me, and flattered. He had looked at me, not through me. I responded quietly, “Yes.”
We, each of us, understood the bond.
He was was obviously frightened. “FEMA’s paying for your room?” he said without introduction.
I understood his urgency immediately. I said, “Yes.”
“I have to leave. I got a call from FEMA.”
Everything that he was feeling, I had felt: the desperation, the fear, the vulnerability, the sheer terror of being told that you don’t belong, that you can’t stay, but you have nothing to go back to and no place to go forward; that empty, gut-wrenching reality that you did everything right, and now everything is so wrong. His fear triggered the advocate in me. It was 1970, when I saw a man in a wheelchair locked out of the public library on a cold rainy day.
“Was your house damaged?” I said.
“I lost everything.”
“I am so sorry,” I said. “Well, you are covered. They will pay for your hotel room.”
He repeated that FEMA had called to tell him he had to leave the hotel. “I have no place to go.”
“On Friday they extended the Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) Program, the
Hotel Assistance Program, until March 10.” I said. “It is o.k. You lost your house. You can’t go home. You are covered.” I was so sure. It was the right thing.
His face was blank, unbelieving. Insecurity was so much a part of our lives now.
“Where did you live?” I inquired.
” Lindenhurst. Cuomo was standing right in front of my house.” he replied.
“I’m sorry.” I said sadly. I knew Lindnhurst was really bad. But we all had really bad stories and really sad hearts. Oddly, none of us felt sorry for ourselves, just sorry.
“Listen to me,” I said, being pushy, “You don’t have to leave!” I was now an authority, giving out permissions.
He moved nervously about, looking for something solid to hold onto. “An insurance inspector who used to be a FEMA inspector told me early on, FEMA is going to deny you and deny you, and you have to keep appealing. Just keep appealing. And you will eventually get what you should.”. I told him. I had learned by dealing with FEMA that this was the truest advice anyone gave me.
But, he wasn’t convinced. He wasn’t ready. He was too much in the moment. We stood there together, him and I, trying to find some measure of security in fragments of information, success and failure, each of us had.
I told him to call FEMA, go to the FEMA website.
“Go to the American Red Cross.” I was running out of viable suggestions. They were sparse.
“The Red Cross told me they would help me, except, I am not working. If I was working, they would help me,” he explained. He told me he was a utility worker who did not work for two months each winter because of the weather. He said he was going back to work on March 11. He only needed the hotel room until March first.
“I don’t work,.” I insisted, like it would help. “I am disabled.”
“That’s different,” he explained.
I asked him what the FEMA caller said, because I knew they are all over the place, in professionalism, accuracy, and purpose. I knew that their communications were haphazard, confusing: lacking transparency and clarity.
He said he wasn’t sure. She wasn’t clear. He couldn’t understand her. That sounded right! Even the messages FEMA left were difficult to decipher. The letters were ludicrously unclear. They were an unfocused, transient bunch of people from all over: jabbing facts at you, impossible to locate afterward, moving on to another location before clarity or resolution, never following through. FEMA was an odd collage of documents and disorder: frustrating, accomplishing little. I suspected that he was a victim of FEMA shock, the trauma caused by the actions FEMA takes against the Hurricane Sandy victims, and its inaction.
I told him that it was announced on television on Friday that the Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program, the Hotel Assistance Program, was extended. That was the way it had worked. Every two weeks everybody covered by the Hotel Program was under threat of being thrown out into the street with no place to go. So far, at each two-week deadline it was announced that the Program was extended. Rumor is that this will continue until it is warm enough for people to live in their yards. Hearsay is that people in Breezy Point are living outside in tents in the winter cold. We each know people who were forced to go back into their homes without walls, without floors,without heat or kitchens. We each lost confidence in the system because of the way it treated us and those around us. We have watched FEMA consistently ignore, abandon, and devalue the survivors of Hurricane Sandy, and convert Recovery into a National Tragedy and the survivors into disbelieving, wandering refugees.
I told him the television said they were supposed to call each person to notify him that he was extended. I said maybe that was the call he received that was unclear. I never got a call.
I suggested that he call FEMA to clarify what it was about. He said he would go into the FEMA Headquarters in Lindenhurst tomorrow to get an answer.. That seemed like a good plan. I suspected that the call he got was really to inform him he was covered for another two weeks.
Sadly, I heard little that FEMA did that was positive, helpful or kind. I heard only terrible experiences of people being rejected, denied, devalued, depersonalized, threatened, dismissed, and thrown out. There was a current of frustration and hostility toward FEMA circulating among survivors. And there was misunderstanding by the public of the reality of the Recovery process. There was a strong bond among survivors for each other: for we were a new class of people, middle-class homeless people by natural event, looking for a way back, for stability, security, help, support, equity, justice; receiving nothing but indifference and callousness; supporting, maintaining and helping each other.
“Nobody is helping us.” he said. “Nobody cares!”
“I know,” I said.
Because that is the way it feels: everywhere you turn, a door slams in your face. You are told the money is gone, you can’t stay, you don’t belong. That is the experience of the survivors I meet! It doesn’t matter if they have no place to go, or small children, are sick, cold, or broke. I know that there are caring people out there. I just can’t see them..
There is little help, aid or support within the Recovery System: the systems are disorganized, unfocused, illogical, and uncaring. The media reports that each Sandy homeowner victim is receiving $30,900 in aid. I have met not one person who received such a grant. And, if you had Flood Insurance and paid premiums for that insurance, FEMA deducts that amount from any repair grant they allow to fix your home. People who had no Flood Insurance, received immediate pay-outs that far exceed those of insured survivors. So, instead of benefitting from being responsible, homeowners wait months longer than the uninsured, and receive a laughable pay-out.
But the most disheartening, is the public’s indifference to the plight of Hurricane Sandy survivors. This was a “massive event.” And, agencies and ordinary people are hiding behind that catch-phrase to go on with their lives and not be inconvenienced by those who are hurting and abandoned. There is so much gut-wrenching suffering among survivors, so much sadness, loss, and longing. And, the world went on without us. Nobody cares!
Locally, I see a divide at Merrick Road. The people below Merrick Road on the south shore of Long Island sustained loss and devastation in varying degrees, depending on how high their house sat on land. Some, lost basements and furnaces; some lost playrooms and garages; first floors; living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms. People who lived directly on the water, some of their houses were totally spared and some actually floated away. Many people, either because they lived on the water, or, like me, lived nowhere near the water but lived by a Sewage Treatment Plant and had a massive sewage surge throughout the house, lost everything. The survivors have an unspoken bond, and watch out for each other.
But sadly, the people north of Merrick Road never looked back. They prepared for the storm like the rest of us, but when their homes were spared, they watched the news, and then went on with their lives. A few took in friends or family who lost their homes, and they are heroes. But most went on, preparing for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and left the churches to feed and house the refugees, with no thought of what the holidays must be like for us. Christmas was the same as it always was for them, because a geographic quirk spared their homes from the “post-hurricane cyclone” that gobbled up our lives. I can only observe what I see.
So here we sit: the utility worker from Lindenhurst: the couple next door from Point Lookout with three screaming children; the 30-something couple on the other side of me, hiding their Yorkie under the covers when there is a knock on the door; the woman upstairs from Long Beach who fell in the shower and broke her wrist and ribs; the elderly church worker from Nassau Shores with an old car filled with carefully-wrapped antiques; and me from a Seaford sewer surge, who listens to their stories. We are each here, living in a hotel room begrudged to us, clutching a bag of our tiny treasures, in FEMA shock.
The utility worker walked past my room this afternoon and told me that FEMA did indeed throw him out: unemployed, with no place to go, refusing to give him any explanation. Everyone who leaves like this, takes a little piece of my heart with them. And I know that there, but for spinal cord injury, goes me. And I wonder if I am next!