Surviving Hurricane Sandy: The Island That New York City Forgot

While attention has been focused on other parts of the city, Staten Island—the second largest borough in terms of geographical size—continues to reel from the effects of the storm.

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Paul Moakley for TIME

A flooded section of Hylan Boulevard, one of the main streets on the south shore of Staten Island, New York, on Nov. 2, 2012.

Staten Island has always been the forgotten borough of New York City. I’ve lived here all my life, and after Hurricane Sandy, the island is feeling as neglected as ever. You can’t escape the devastation here. My family came through relatively unscathed — though they are mostly huddled in my brother’s house. But they, like all other residents of the island, were witness to the terrifying power of the storm.

The first floor of my mother’s house was destroyed and now reeks of mildew. The tenant there is living upstairs on my mom’s floor, with no power or heat. In the Great Kills area of the island is my Aunt Barbara’s house. And on the street where she lives is now an entire marina of boats. Large luxury fishing boats have crushed into houses and block intersections. Aunt Barbara and her family are living on a generator but are running out of gas. On Halloween night, her son Fred was almost arrested for siphoning gas from a huge boat on their street. My brother and I drove to Woodbridge, N.J., and waited almost three hours in line to buy gas for them.

(PHOTOS: In the Eye of the Storm: Capturing Sandy’s Wrath)

The headline of Thursday’s Staten Island Advance screamed in bold “14 DEAD SO FAR — HOMES RAVAGED, LIVES RUINED.” But many people here feel no one is listening to their pleas for help or coming for support. Only after one horrific tale emerged did the rest of the city and country pay attention to Staten Island. That event took place in one of the most devastated areas on the island, along Father Capodanno Boulevard. There, a young mother named Glenda Moore tried to reach a shelter and lost her two sons, Brandon, 2, and Connor, 4, after their car stalled in the suddenly rising floodwaters and they tried to escape.

Many residents live just off the water. And as you travel along south, the evidence of destruction just grows and grows. Piles of furniture and garbage are stacked in front of countless homes. Many residents in the town of South Beach off Father Capodanno Boulevard can’t go back into their houses until they see a yellow sticker from the Building Department on their door letting them know the building is safe. Many are clearly unsafe — in fact, uninhabitable and stickered in red to indicate they have been condemned. The area is pockmarked with collapsed homes.

(VIDEO: After Sandy, Returning to Ruins in Breezy Point)

Aly Mahgoub was in his South Beach house during the storm. “I ran to the garage to grab some stuff, and in a matter of minutes the water was up to my knees,” he recalls of the Oct. 29 surge. “I brought all the kids to the third floor, and in about an hour and a half the water was past the first floor. I had a Chevy Tahoe and it was smacking into the house and it went through the garage. The waves were hitting my house. It felt like I was in the middle of the ocean. It made it up to the second floor of my house.”

Late on Nov. 1, Lorenzo Ameno, a lawyer, was pumping the water out of his basement — which meant he was lucky enough to have a generator to power the pump. “We evacuated when we saw the water rising and thought it best just to leave,” Ameno says. He returned to find a Mercury Mountaineer jammed between the walls of his house and his neighbor’s home. A Dodge Ram had floated into the side of his house. He said, “I’ve tried contacting FEMA, and there has been no response. I don’t even think FEMA has showed up in South Beach. We’re all neighbors and waiting and nobody has showed up. Only National Grid [the gas company] to shut off the gas and Con Ed to shut the electric.”

“I have homeowner’s insurance, and I tried to call my agent today, and I just can’t get through,” says the frustrated lawyer. “President Obama promised a swift recovery, and we are on Father Capodanno and there is nothing here. There are no services; there are no police, no Red Cross [in the neighborhood]. There’s nothing. It’s just devastating on top of devastating.” He adds, “I really do believe that Staten Island is the forgotten borough … There should really be newscasters here showing the devastation on Father Capodanno and nobody helping us.”

“The mayor here doesn’t want to come and they are pulling bodies out left and right,”  says Michael Harven, who lives with Ida Vernat and their 11-year-old daughter in an area called Ocean Breeze. They all escaped — along with their small terrier — just when the floodwaters began to rise.  “When we came out and saw the water coming across the street, we left,” says Harven. “The water rose to about 10 feet high in the area, so people were trapped.” He and Vernat found out today that their house had a yellow sticker, which means that though it is damaged, they can return to live in it. Still, says Vernat, “My daughter doesn’t want to come back and see this. She’s scared.”

(VIDEO: TIME Explains: Hurricane Sandy and Climate Change)

Only a few houses away from Vernat and Harven’s home, searchers found the body of an elderly woman. Peeking through a shattered bay window of the home where she was discovered, I saw a green oxygen tank. In the small living room, all her furniture had been tossed about by the flood. Her neighbors say her cat survived.

Near the corner of Father Capodanno and Midland Avenue is a gigantic emergency command center. Harven says it isn’t very organized. When he went in to ask about his home on Nov. 1, he says, “The Office of Emergency Management didn’t know the Building Department was here. FEMA said they were too busy getting set up. No one is communicating, even the city. Half this community wants to leave. They don’t want to ever come back.”

Driving into the Midland Beach neighborhood right after sunset requires going through an obstacle course of debris and random streets filled with stagnant floodwater. At the Hess station on New Dorp Lane, there’s a line of cars about a mile long. In the pitch black of Cedar Grove Avenue, Lucille Mack, who works at Showplace bowling alley, is serving pizza on the hood of a car. “We want to help give people something for their stomachs at least,” she explains. One resident who was eating out on the street told me that he and his wife took refuge in the attic of their one-story home, even as the entire facade of the house fell off and the next-door neighbors’ home completely collapsed.

Across the street, a Red Cross mobile unit was handing out supplies and volunteers were organizing things at an impromptu donation center in the dark. One volunteer said, “Nothing from FEMA yet, no Con Edison trucks, we haven’t had any inspections. The cops came by and made sure people were alive, but nothing has been inspected that I know of.”

On my way home I notice another mile-long line for gas at another Hess Station, close to where a giant water tanker washed up on land. I take a photo of the line for gas. A cop keeping the line orderly says, “Come back in 20 minutes when they run out and you’ll really see a riot.” He may have been joking, but Staten Islanders are struggling, and many are beginning to lose patience. We are tired of being forgotten.

PHOTOS: Staten Island — Christine Osinski’s Unseen Photographs of New York City’s Forgotten Borough