LI poor among hardest hit by superstorm Sandy

A truckload of cleaning supplies, clothing, toys and A truckload of cleaning supplies, clothing, toys and other household items were delivered to people who were hard hit by superstorm Sandy in Mastic Beach. (Nov. 18, 2012) Photo Credit: Randee Daddona

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Many of the communities hardest hit by superstorm Sandy's trail of destruction were municipalities with some of Long Island's highest poverty rates.

Among them are Mastic, where 12.8 percent of residents live below the federal poverty line; Freeport, where the poverty rate is 11 percent; and Long Beach, where 9 percent of residents make less than the federal benchmark of $23,050 for a family of four.

"Even before the storm, Long Islanders were already struggling in a way that they weren't before," said Gwen O'Shea, executive director of the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island, an umbrella group for the area's nonprofits.

When the storm hit, about 63,000 Suffolk households and 39,000 in Nassau were reliant on food stamps. While county social service officials say it's too soon to determine if there has been an uptick in requests caused by the storm, they note that in Nassau 115 recipients applied for additional food stamp stipends to replace food lost in the storm and power outages. In Suffolk, the county has received nearly 3,000 such requests since Sandy hit on Oct. 29.

"You have workers like dishwashers and waiters who've lost a considerable amount of wages or their jobs altogether because of the storm closures," O'Shea said. "These are folks who before the storm were trying to hold on and not fall off the cliff, and now find themselves in a more vulnerable position than ever."

Relief agencies have traveled throughout Nassau and Suffolk distributing food and clothing, and the federal government has provided financial assistance including unemployment benefits for those who lost wages when businesses were shut down. But many low-income residents say the fixes don't completely erase concerns about the costs of making their homes livable or replacing food lost in power outages.

Derreck Dodson, 25, of Freeport, who lived at the Red Cross Shelter at Nassau Community College after the storm, said he worries about whether his family will find an affordable apartment to replace their damaged home after the shelter closes.

"It's stressful," Dodson said. "But you try to look at the bright side -- we're still here, breathing, and that's what counts."

Maria Perez has been sorting through the soaked remnants of her apartment, which is subsidized by the Long Beach Housing Authority. Perez said she has gone to the Federal Emergency Management Agency recovery center near Long Beach City Hall. But she found the application process intimidating and isn't sure she filled out her paperwork properly.

"You try to take it one day at a time, but sometimes you wonder, 'When will it end long enough for you to catch up?' " Perez said.

For many families, repairs due to Sandy come on top of Tropical Storm Irene-related fixes they still can't afford.

Catholic Charities of Rockville Centre recently identified 120 low-income Long Islanders who lacked the means to repair mold and structural damage to their homes caused by Irene, said Kristy D'Errico, head of disaster relief efforts for the group.

"The challenge for many is not only the lack of finances, but also the know-how to navigate through the system and identify resources that can help them," D'Errico said.

Richard Koubek, chairman of the Suffolk County Welfare to Work Commission, said one upside to the devastating superstorm is the hiring that will take place for the region's massive rebuilding effort. "We don't know in the long term, if it will be a permanent setback for the working poor, but Sandy has certainly been a great leveler."

"For the first time, many of us who are not poor got to feel what it's like to be poor -- living with no power, with no heat . . . [and] thinking, 'Wow, I can't get from here to there. We're running out of food and there's no way to get food,' " Koubek said. "It was frightening, but it exposed us to the vulnerabilities so many on Long Island feel all the time."

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