Reportage: In the Shadows of Sandy

[Editor's note: click here see an accompanying photo essay to this piece]

The one thing Javier Morán misses most is a photograph of his wife and daughter. The young girl in the photo was barely in her teens; the woman, in her forties. Both were smiling, posing in front of the sea. The image was destroyed along with all of Morán’s belongings and the house he lived in by the swelling Atlantic Ocean on the night of October 29th, when the winds of Hurricane Sandy pummeled the eastern seaboard, from Florida to Maine, leaving 72 dead and unimaginable destruction in its wake. 

Four months after Hurricane Sandy left him homeless, Morán , 51, lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling of a makeshift room at the Midland Motor Inn, where he has lived since he lost his home. His eyes were dreary, and his attention focused somewhere faraway. Beer bottles sat open around the room, the TV was on but muted, the leftovers of a meal of eggs and beans gone hard and cold on a camping stove in the corner of the room.

“I think I’ll go back home in April,” Morán said hesitantly in his native Spanish.

“He always says that though,” chimed in José Parra, 39, his roommate sitting on the other side of the room. “We keep saying it but we never go through with it.”

José Parra (left) and Javier Morán sit in their room at the Midland Motor Inn. The  men were given a room free of charge for the first two months after the storm. They started paying rent in January, giving their employer $50 a week each, which pays for one room with one bathroom and one queen size bed that they share.*

Morán and Parra used to share a room in a small two-bedroom house a few blocks from the motel in Midland Beach, a working class neighborhood on the east-central coast of Staten Island. Now they share a room in the motel as their old rental-house sits empty behind a pair of padlocks, the marks of the water—six feet high—still visible through the chain link fence.

Morán speaks to his family regularly and sends them money when he can, but he has not seen them since they went back to Mexico eight years ago. Now his daughter is almost 20, his wife close to 50. That photo he lost was the one image he had kept to hold on to his memories of them. 

Morán and Parra are two of countless undocumented immigrants who lost their home to the floods of Hurricane Sandy. While the heartbreak and vicissitudes of undocumented immigrants are not unlike that of other hurricane victims, their legal status makes their efforts to rebuild, recuperate, and resettle considerably more complicated.

The legal status of undocumented immigrants puts them in an extremely vulnerable position, and the devastation on affected areas has been so great that little attention has been given to them. For help, they have relied on their communities, volunteer groups, and church-based charities, as they are usually ineligible to receive disaster relief from federal, state, and city governments. It is not a new feeling for them, accustomed as they are to living in the shadows; rather, it is one more burden in a life defined and constricted by their immigration status.

“As migrants we have been dealing with storms all our lives,” said Juan Carlos Ruiz, a minister in charge of St. Jacobi’s church in Brooklyn, himself an immigrant from Mexico. “The hurricane affected many people that have been historically abandoned.”  

Sandy formed as a hurricane in the Caribbean Sea on October 22 and soared through Jamaica, Cuba, and Haiti, killing at least 70 people, leaving thousands homeless, and causing millions of dollars in damages before reaching the United States, where the National Hurricane Center recorded at least 72 direct deaths. A total of 147 people died across the Atlantic basin, including fatalities in Canada, the Bahamas, and Bermuda.

At least 650,000 houses were either damaged or destroyed across the United States, and though the total monetary damages are still unknown, the National Hurricane Center estimates the cost at $50 billion. Sandy is the second costliest hurricane in U.S. history, only after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with damages set at $108 billion.

The night of the storm Morán and Parra, maintenance workers, were left in charge of the motel and the guests who chose to remain in the neighborhood despite warnings to evacuate. Though the motel was only blocks away from the beach, its inhabitants were able to stay on the second and third floors, steering clear of danger.

The two men never imagined that the storm would be as bad as it was. Like many New Yorkers, they thought people were making a big fuss about nothing, pointing out that Hurricane Irene in August of 2011 had been unexpectedly mild. As they saw the water surge up the streets they were amazed but not scared. It was only when the house across the street from the motel caught fire that fear kicked in.

“I never imagined this,” said Morán, but he and Parra remained calm to prevent panic among the guests in their charge.

The day after the storm when Parra and Morán went home they could not believe what they saw.

“Our home was turned upside down,” said Moran. “The couch was backwards and the refrigerator was in the middle of the living room, it was an unbelievable mess.”

José Parra trying to open the window of what was once his home in Midland Beach. The house has been gutted but the structure is still unfit to live in. Parra and Morán have yet to receive their security deposit back from the landlord.

Parra, a hard rock and metal enthusiast, lost his collection of CD’s and vinyls. “I miss that the most,” he said. “That and my tool collection,” he added, referring to the plumbing, electric, and carpentry tools he had collected over the 22 years since he arrived to the country at the age of 17. He estimates the tools were worth about $10,000.

The neighborhood looked like a war zone for weeks. Everyone’s belongings were strewn on streets and roads. There were holes through walls, missing roofs, and furniture and appliances scattered on sidewalks. Above it all, helicopters from the National Guard flying overhead, the spinning blades muting all sound. At least 21 people died directly from the storm surge in Staten Island.

Although the motel suffered considerable damage from the hurricane, it was deemed safe to live in, though the air inside the motel remains thick and musty with humidity.

Parra and Morán were given a room free of charge in the motel for the first two months after the storm. They started paying rent as of January. They give their employer $50 a week each, which pays for one room with one bathroom and one queen size bed that they share. Though the men live in conditions that most Americans would consider unacceptable, they don’t complain. Life must go on, work must go on, and money must make its way down south.  Morán makes approximately $150 a week, or $6 an hour, and sends half of that home to his wife and daughter. Parra, who works more days and longer hours makes $350 a week, and sends a third to his mother in Mexico. Parra also helps out when Morán does not have enough for food or rent.

 

Navigating the System

In the weeks after the storm, Make the Road New York, an immigrant activist group, conducted a survey that led to the first report on the unmet needs of immigrants –both documented and undocumented—in the aftermath of Sandy. The report, published in December, reflects the survey responses of 416 immigrants who were residents of some of the worst affected areas of New York in Staten Island and Long Island. So far this is the only report that has documented the needs of this population.

The main complaint people had was about the lack of instruction on how to apply for aid. Immigrants with little English language skills and little knowledge of the system found it difficult to navigate the bureaucracy and complete the paperwork required to file applications.

Legally, all hurricane victims regardless of immigration status are eligible for immediate short-term, non-cash disaster relief and services provided by government. This includes basic needs such as transportation, emergency medical care, crisis counseling, emergency shelter, medicine, food, and water.

It gets far more complicated when it comes to long-term assistance, which is available only to legal residents, U.S. born as well as so-called “qualified aliens,” which include lawful permanent residents, refugees, asylees, and other documented immigrants.

Midland Beach, four months after Hurricane Sandy.

Undocumented immigrants are able to apply for aid only through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), with the social security number of an American-born child or family member. Eligible immigrants could apply for FEMA’s Individual and Household program, which provides funds for temporary housing, home repairs, personal property, and medical and funeral costs. Of those eligible, many found the process to be frustrating and, in many cases, simply a waste of time.

Morán did not even bother to approach FEMA for aid, assuming that he would not qualify for any. Parra made an attempt to apply with the social security number of a U.S.-born nephew. When FEMA asked him for more documents, Parra decided to stop the process; it just wasn’t worth his time, he said.

But his giving up was more than an antipathy towards bureaucracy. Parra feels he is not entitled to ask for anything. He initially did so in desperation but later changed his mind.

“If you want something, you should work for it,” he said.

While it may be simpler to assume that undocumented immigrants did not apply for aid due to fear of deportation or legal ramifications, the reasons are more nuanced. Some, like Parra, think their lack of immigration status prevents them from asking for any handouts. Others said they felt there was simply no point in applying.

“They don’t understand the process, so they don’t participate in the process,” said Diego Ibañez, a community organizer in Far Rockaway. 

There is a shared feeling among undocumented immigrants of acceptance towards their place in this country: their legal status makes them conveniently invisible.

According to the Make the Road New York’s report, approximately 78 percent of immigrants in the disaster area did not apply for aid. Of those who applied, only one in four were found eligible.

The language barrier is one of the factors preventing many immigrants from understanding what relief they are and are not eligible for. Make The Road New York reported that one of the top reasons for immigrants not applying for disaster-relief was that they did not know how to apply, “suggesting that FEMA and the New York government did not do enough to inform this population.”

“These people [undocumented immigrants] have no connection to society and government,” said Jesus, an employee at a temporary FEMA relief center in Inwood, New York, who would not give his full name for fear of retaliation. He offered this as an explanation to why undocumented immigrants can’t be considered for long-term assistance.

Javier Morán rests on the floor of the room he shares with a friend at the Midland Motor Inn. Morán has been in the United States illegally for over a decade. He originally came to the country with his wife and daughter, but they have since gone back to Mexico. Morán speaks to his family regularly and sends them money, but he has not seen them since they left the U.S. eight years ago.

Lawyers assisting hurricane victims with Make the Road New York reported that FEMA gave at least three different procedures that were complex and confusing. The lawyers also found that some immigrants who were eligible for aid were turned down based on “erroneous grounds.”

Juan Carlos Ruiz, the minister at St. Jacobi met with FEMA officials in mid-January to speak about the application process for undocumented immigrants with U.S.-born children. While FEMA officials assured them that they would help streamline the process, he said many continued to complain about how cumbersome the requirements were.

Diego Ibañez, who has collaborated with Occupy Sandy and the Episcopal Diocese of New York, describes an attempt to apply for aid as an all-day travesty of confusion, frustration, and zero results. Ibañez accompanied a mother of two to a FEMA center in Far Rockaway, Queens. She did not know English so Ibañez volunteered his assistance. She was undocumented but her daughter was a citizen. They were sent from person to person, and supplied their documents and information multiple times. Though they had the daughter’s passport, birth certificate, and the mother’s identification, they were told she needed another document from the social security office to prove that she was in fact the mother of the child. Ibañez drove the woman to the social security office in Brooklyn, as the office in Far Rockaway had been shut down after the hurricane. Hours later, the employee at the social security office said that FEMA should not be asking for the extra document. 

“It was ridiculous,” said Ibañez. “These people don’t have the time or resources for this.” That was in January; three months later there has not been a final response or decision from FEMA.

Some FEMA centers had information available in Spanish and other languages, including signs and paperwork, but not all. The FEMA website provides information in multiple languages but it is not easy to get to the relevant section. “It really depended on who they encountered when they went into a FEMA relief center,” said Jessica Carmona, an activist and employee of Make the Road New York.

 

Renter’s Dilemma

Angel Martinez rented a second floor apartment in New Dorp Beach, Staten Island, a neighborhood adjacent to Midland Beach. While his property was not damaged, the building was deemed unsafe and he had to move out quickly. He was unable to find a place in the same price range. His rent went from $1,000 with utilities included to $1,500 for rent alone. The deli where he works the graveyard shift shut down for the first three weeks after the storm and he lost his income until he returned to work.

He continues to work the night shift for $9 an hour seven days a week. His 26 year-old wife Rosalía works part-time as a caretaker for the ill and elderly. Martinez and his wife both have Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers, akin to social security numbers for undocumented workers, which allow them to declare their taxes but does not entitle them to any benefits, such as long-term aid from FEMA.

Just like Martinez, many Sandy victims who used to rent their homes found themselves searching for housing in a market with prices that have shot up since they last signed a lease.

The Midland Motor Inn in Midland Beach, Staten Island.

Undocumented immigrants are highly likely to live in illegal housing, in apartments that aren’t up to code, without proper leasing contracts, without renter’s insurance and, in many cases, overcrowded spaces. This makes it very hard for tenants to make any demands to their landlord, such as asking for the return of security deposits.

It’s common for immigrants to share living spaces between multiple families, friends, and other subletters. FEMA rejects applications when there are multiple claims filed under the same address to prevent fraud, but this funnels out immigrants who would otherwise be eligible.

Angélica González, 41, lived in a rental home in Midland Beach with her husband and three children. The home was on the same property where extended family members lived. They shared the same address and the same last name so her FEMA application was turned down.

“My mother-in-law received money from FEMA,” said González, who is originally from Peru, and has been living with friends in a one-bedroom apartment for months. “We all just crowd in the living room. “

Although some landlords take advantage of undocumented tenants, many are Hurricane victims themselves who are trapped in their own bureaucratic process, wrestling with FEMA and insurance companies. They are unable to return security deposits or make the necessary amends to restore damaged housing even when required by law.

Javier Morán and Jose Parra’s landlord has told them that they can move back in once the house is repaired but as of yet, they have not received their security deposit, a total of $850. “He said it was out of his hands,” said Parra. The landlord did not return repeated calls to request an interview.

Now, five months past the storm, Morán and Parra are accustomed to the motel. They got rid of the queen size bed because the room felt too cramped. They traded it for a single bed; they alternate between the bed and the floor. Their usual talk about going back to Mexico continues, “Maybe in May,” said Morán. “Yeah, maybe,” said Parra.

José Parra sits in an event space at the Midland Motor Inn, which he is in charge of showing to possible clients. Parra—who has been on his own since he was 17—is also considering leaving the country to go back to Mexico.

 

*All photographs by Jika González

Jika González is a freelance journalist, photographer and multimedia producer from Mexico City. She is currently pursuing her master's degree at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York City. Jika has gained experience at Magnum Photos, BizBash Media, Conde Nast Traveler, and CNN's Mexico City bureau. For more information please visit www.jikagonzalez.com. Follow Jika on Twitter @JikaGlez.