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Pressure Building To Turn Lights On In New York


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up in the program, our panel of women journalists weighs in on, what else, the events surrounding former CIA chief David Patraeus' resignation from the agency. It's our Beauty Shop conversation and it's coming up in a few minutes.

But first, we want to head back to New York. It's been more than two weeks since Superstorm Sandy hit the New York region. Power has been restored to more than a million homes but tens of thousands of customers are still without power, and therefore without heat, in New York and New Jersey.

We reached out to listeners on Facebook to see how they're doing. Here's what Sherry Nocera of Levittown, New York in Long Island told us last night.

SHERRY NOCERA: I got home from work and found that the power had been restored. It is an amazing feeling. I feel like I won the lottery. The last 16 days have been a real trial for our family. It's been crazy. I have three kids. The only solution we were able to come up with was to stay with my husband's parents in western Queens. It takes about an hour to get them to school each morning. They've been crying at night that they're so tired. It's been an ordeal. The looks on their faces when they realized the power was on were just amazing.

MARTIN: Another NPR listener from Staten Island posted that she wasn't so lucky. She wrote, quote, "It is still a war zone here. No power, no gas, no heat. Not much hope." For more on the storm recovery we're joined once again by New York Times reporter Michael Wilson. He's been covering the storm cleanup effort and he joined us after Sandy hit and he's with us once again from New York. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

MICHAEL WILSON: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Just some news updates here. The chief operating officer of the Long Island Power Authority, Michael Hervey, announced his resignation yesterday after 12 years with the agency. Any idea whether he jumped or was he pushed?

WILSON: That'll remain to be seen, Michel. It certainly would seem like he got a lot of pressure. The governor's been quite critical, you know, outspoken criticism of the agency's response to the storm.

MARTIN: What is it that people are specifically - are there specific criticisms? Obviously, when you don't have power people are upset and, you know, you could hear just from some of our Facebook quotes just how upset and desperate people can be. But are there specific criticisms? Are there specific things that people are pointing to that they say they should have done that they didn't do or haven't done?

WILSON: There's a story in The Times today that gets into that. There was a meeting of the top officials of LIPA in the days before Sandy and it was a two-hour meeting and they spent approximately what they describe as 39 seconds discussing the storm. They're criticized for not trimming the trees that were likely to fall over in the event of high winds that in turn knocked down power lines. It's been said they should have done more of that. Those sort of things.

MARTIN: And let's get back to your reporting. You wrote a story earlier this week about public housing residents who were still without power. And you pointed out some things that people who don't live in dense urban areas like New York might not think about. For example, the fact that people need to go up and down stairs sometimes, you know, for 10, 12, 13 floors in total darkness.

And you referred to them as cold, dark and damp pockets of misery. How are those residents doing now?

WILSON: Well, when I saw them on Monday it'd been two full weeks since the storm. And several buildings that I had visited before the last time I was on the show had their power restored just hours earlier in Coney Island. But I did find a building in Coney Island where the power remained out and it was a building for senior citizens. Most of them are of Russian descent, and they were just tired.

You've never seen more tired people. Just after two weeks of climbing up and down these stairs. I met a women as she's descending the stairs with her home health attendant holding a flashlight for her. This woman, it took her about five minutes to get down each flight of stairs and she lives on the 14th floor. So that's more than an hour just to get out of your building. And, you know, God knows how long it took her to get back up.

MARTIN: Wow. The mayor of New York announced last night that power has been restored in all New York City Housing Authority buildings. But you visited some other low-income buildings that aren't run by the City Housing Authority. Are things different?

WILSON: Progress is just so slow. These people, whether they're in New York public housing or in a privately owned building that does not have power, you know, you see lights coming on in the neighborhood around you and not yours yet. So is it different? Yeah, I think, you know, everyone will be back on sooner rather than later at this point. But the mayor did say that there was some power restored to all the buildings.

I was in a building where, like, one hallway was lit up and the floor below them, the hallway was pitch dark. The apartments had power. Now, this does not mean that they have heat or hot water yet. That's an issue for boilers that were destroyed in the basements during the storm. And it's unclear when these people are going to have heat again. So they turn on the oven.

MARTIN: I see. I think that's in important distinction. Yeah.


MARTIN: I think that's an important distinction. Yeah. So you're saying, what, people might be able to turn on the oven for heat but that doesn't mean that the heat to their units is working.

WILSON: That's correct. They've been living for two weeks without power. They've been living on the gas burners on the stove. Which is not very safe, right? You turn these four burners on full blast and the whole apartment warms up after hours. Now they've turned the burners off and they've opened - they've turned on their electric stove and they keep the stove door just open. So it's like, you know, a big fireplace almost.

MARTIN: Yeah. Last time we talked the National Guard had just arrived to Coney Island and the Guards have also been to Staten Island and Queens. Are they making a difference?

WILSON: They're there and people line up every day for food and for water that they're handing out and that different volunteers are coming and handing out. So, yes, they are making a difference. The sense I get is that it's a part of your day that you can depend on now. If you want to go get in this line and get what you need, you know they're going to be there.

It's not like in the immediate days after the storm where everything was kind of word of mouth and rumors and I hear this and the police handing out flyers of what's going to be happening tomorrow. This is more like a - it's become a daily routine.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with New York Times reporter Michael Wilson. He's been covering the recovery effort in the New York region after Superstorm Sandy. So apart from housing, which is what we've been focusing on here, what are the other big issues for people right now?

WILSON: Well, the...

MARTIN: Gas? Gas rationing? Is that still going on?

WILSON: Yes. Gas rationing is still going on. This sense, again, that you get just from kind of looking up to your news in the morning on the computer and gasbuddy.com is a place that a lot of people have gone to, myself included, to check on the reports of the line. The sense I get is that, you know, the lack of gas is easing. People are spending less time in lines and more and more people are filling up everyday.

So and New Jersey canceled their rationing a couple of days ago and I would assume New York would follow suit soon.

MARTIN: Do people still feel tense? I know that in the specific areas just the tasks of daily living are so exhausting because, like, one of the listeners that we spoke to, Sherry, it was so chaotic for her kids and so destabilizing for them to be going from sort of place to place that she was camping out at an in-law's house but that meant their commute to school was just, you know, three times what it should've been.

And they were always late and the kids were just cranky and having to get up early. So that's kind of hard. But overall in the city do you have a sense that -things are - do people feel like things are returning to normal?

WILSON: You know, it's a cliche but it's true - the tale of two cities. I mean, there are parts of Manhattan where you would not know that there had ever been a storm. Everything is absolutely back to normal. You can, you know, you can walk out the door, walk to a fruit stand, buy an apple, and, you know, eat it.

Now, this is something that you can't imagine on corners of Coney Island right now. It's something so simple to be doing. These are people that are still eating, you know, meals ready to eat that are usually given to the military in combat zones. These people are exhausted, the ones that have been in the dark for two weeks.

And, you know, they've been told over and over for two weeks, oh, I think soon. You know, we should have you guys up and running soon. The generators are coming, maybe today, maybe - they've just, you know, the ones I've talked to said I don't believe it anymore. I've given up. The power turned on Monday and there was much elation. A gentleman I met who had promised to call me when the power goes back on called me right away.

The power's back on. The power's back on. Three hours and one minute later, he called back and said, the power just went off again.

MARTIN: Oh, no.

WILSON: I don't know what's going on here.


WILSON: And then - so that's Monday. Tuesday, he said the power came on at 11:00. He's all excited and goes out and buys milk, puts it in the fridge. 2 p.m., the power's off. Milk comes out of the fridge, so...

MARTIN: Oh, my goodness.

WILSON: It's hard to imagine, I think, the level of patience required.

MARTIN: Many people still would like to help, people who are not directly affected and are listening to this and would like to help. Do you have any sense of what it is that people can do to be helpful at this point? I mean, I think a lot of people's instinct is to, you know, go to the store, get a bunch of blankets and drive on up there, you know, and I'm not sure that that's necessarily the best thing at this point.

What are you hearing from those who are offering relief from city officials, for example, about what would be most useful?

WILSON: The city officials would direct you, I think, to 311 or 311.com to see where you could be best utilized. In the days after the storm, you know, running into the neighborhood with a handful of blankets to help - a lot of that was going on and I think that that starts to - you know, people start to trip over themselves and it needs to be more organized.

There is, of course, Occupy Sandy we've heard about in the last several days. They would know what's needed, where.

MARTIN: And, finally, what are city officials saying about the cost of rebuilding, the timeline for rebuilding and I know that things are still raw, but in the wake of Katrina, there is some discussion about whether it is even wise to rebuild in some areas. So could you just briefly, in the time that we have left, just talk about that, whatever you know about that?

WILSON: Well, everything is preliminary. You know, you see the number in billions of dollars changes, by my reading, day to day in terms of how much it's going to take to rebuild and you've got politicians recommending, you know - let's - like you say, do we rebuild? And, if so, should we put in more precautions, more storm barriers, better - should we put power lines underground in flood-prone areas so that the power is not so quick to go out? So these are the kind of conversations that are going to go on, I'm sure, in the months to come.

MARTIN: Michael Wilson is a reporter with the New York Times. He's been following the recovery after Superstorm Sandy, a rocky recovery, as he's been telling us, and he was with us from NPR's bureau in New York.

Michael Wilson, thank you for speaking with us. Keep us posted.

WILSON: Thank you, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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