Visiting Staten Island A Year After Sandy

Oct 28, 2013
Originally published on October 31, 2013 8:56 am

One of the communities ravaged by Hurricane Sandy was Staten Island, the New York City borough of just under half a million people.

According to reports, 16 percent of the borough was flooded, and more than 75,000 residents were affected.

A year after Superstorm Sandy, families living in Staten Island are still struggling.

Despite money from FEMA, insurance policies and family savings, some residents haven’t yet rebuilt their homes. Others can’t meet new requirements for raising houses above flood level and buying flood insurance.

New York is offering buyouts to the largely middle class and blue collar families on Staten Island, to turn the coastal land back into marshland. Entire neighborhoods are opting for the buyout, but some residents worry that the money won’t be enough for them to relocate.

Others are suspicious. They think the land will be turned over to developers who can afford the new regulations.

Here & Now’s Robin Young visited Staten Island recently, and reports on the palpable sense of fear, but also the fighting spirit, of Staten Islanders.

She visited one street in the New Dorp Beach neighborhood with former Golden Glove fighter and ESPN boxing commentator Teddy Atlas, who lives on Staten Island. His nonprofit, the Dr. Theodore A. Atlas Foundation, helps struggling families.

Guests

  • Teddy Atlas, founder of the Dr. Theodore A. Atlas Foundation in Staten Island, N.Y.
  • Sharon Curry, executive director of the Dr. Theodore A. Atlas Foundation.
  • Mary Roberts, a 90-year-old Staten Island resident affected by the Hurricane Sandy.
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ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW.

A couple of weeks ago, ahead of tomorrow's anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, we drove around Staten Island, across the Verrazano Bridge from Lower Manhattan, with former Golden Gloves fighter and boxing commentator Teddy Atlas and his assistant, Sharon Curry. At one point, Teddy returned a call from a guy named Kenny.

KENNY: Hello?

TEDDY ATLAS: Kenny, you called me.

KENNY: What are you doing?

ATLAS: I'm in the car, driving. What are you ...

KENNY: I just received the package, Teddy. Thank you, man.

ATLAS: No problem. You'd better do the thing that I told you to do.

YOUNG: Uh-oh. Teddy Atlas has a dark past. When he was a kid, his face was cut badly in a street fight. He served time for armed robbery. He ran with mob enforcers, held a gun to Mike Tyson's head when both trained with the legendary Cus D'Amato, when Teddy thought Tyson had been inappropriate with a relative. What exactly were we hearing?

KENNY: Teddy, I'm trying AA. You talked to him. I'm trying everyday, everyday I could do. I'm on a new medicine also now.

YOUNG: New medicine? It turns out, the caller has MS. Teddy is helping him, part of turning his pugilistic powers of persuasion to good causes.

KENNY: It might help me. I'm trying, Ted. I'm trying, you know?

ATLAS: Yeah. Well, just keep doing it.

KENNY: Yes.

ATLAS: Keep fighting harder.

KENNY: OK, Teddy. Thank you, Teddy. All right. Hey, Blue Teddy, this means everything...

YOUNG: In 1997, Teddy Atlas founded the nonprofit Theodore Atlas Foundation, to help struggling families on Staten Island. It's named after his beloved father, a doctor who treated the poor.

Your background - a Golden Gloves fighter; also, someone who hung out with mob enforcers; by your own description, at a - you know, was a juvenile delinquent on these very roads we're driving on, how did this happen? How did the change happen?

KENNY: I had to take care of something first before I could just be free of what I had to be free of. You know, my father was a great man. He was a great doctor. He built a hospital - he actually built a hospital that had 22 beds in it so poor people, basically, could get free hospitalization. And he covered it. He did house calls until he was 80 and he charged $5 - or he charged nothing. But he was never around. He was great, great man, and I didn't look up to Mickey Mantle. I didn't look up to none - I looked up to him, and I couldn't get his attention. And I found out that the only people that got his attention seemed to be the people that had problems, that were broken up.

YOUNG: So you made sure you had some problems.

ATLAS: So I went and found problems and - so I could get the doctor to come over to me. And once I got that out of the way and I figured that out - and it was stupid - but once I got that out of the way, then I was kind of free to just - to be what I wanted to be. And it's a little easier now.

YOUNG: I'm thinking too, though, that, you know, years hanging out with a mob enforcer and being a Golden Gloves champ, you know how to twist an arm or two, I'm imagining.

ATLAS: Hey, you know, we give help to people. That's the main thing, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

ATLAS: That's what counts, you know? We've had a couple situations where some people that were pretty desperate - and in this case, it was senior citizens; they had nobody to look out for them - called us up and said that they - a lot of their monies had been used to fix things in their house that never got fixed; thousands of dollars for home repair. And some crooked construction guy - or whatever he was - came over and never finished it and took off, and took all their money. And yeah, we made a phone cal and we told the guy, you get back over there, and you fix that.

(LAUGHTER)

ATLAS: And they called us up and said, thank you, Mr. Atlas, so much. The man, we were wrong. He was a nice man.

(LAUGHTER)

ATLAS: He came back, and he fixed everything - and he did some extra. So it's OK. It's OK.

YOUNG: The Theodore Atlas Foundation finds a wheelchair here, a plane ticket to get cancer treatment there. But when Sandy hit, tractor trailers filled with donations started to roll in. Volunteers would eventually leave this interior island and cross the bridge to Long Island's Rockaways. But first, they fanned out in their own Staten Island seaside neighborhoods.

ATLAS: And we just opened our trunks up and said hey, listen. We've got diapers. We've got cereal. We've got batteries. We've got flashlights - because there was a lot of people that were trying to stay with their homes, and there was no electricity. We would just pull up to a street. We went to the Rockaways, to these projects, because I started thinking, I said, you know, you see the homes on the water. After you feel sick to your stomach, you pick yourself up and you say, OK, let's get going. Let's help these people. Then you see their homes are gone.

But not too far away - maybe a mile or two - are people living in projects. They didn't lose a home so you don't see that, you don't feel tha;, that doesn't bang you like a left hook does in my business. But you know what? They're stuck in there. They're senior citizens. The elevators ain't working, the electricity is gone. You don't see what they lost because guess what? They didn't have that much to lose to begin with.

So I stopped in the police precinct. The police captain was a boxing fan. And he said, Teddy! And I said, yeah. Hey, listen. I need you. I said, I need to get in those projects. And they got these cruisers and - with the lights and everything else. And I've got to be honest, it was nice knowing that - knowing I could get out - and I wasn't handcuffed, you know? That was...

(LAUGHTER)

SHARON CURRY: Be in a cruiser, and know you could get out.

ATLAS: Yeah. OK. Yeah. I mean, it was. It was a little gift to me. And that was nice. And he gets on his megaphone and I couldn't believe what he did. He says, come on! Teddy Atlas is out here. We've got stuff to help you. Man - people just started coming out of the buildings. And I was like, all right, good - because I was scared that we're not going to be able to help enough people. I was worried about it, how - and they were like, you know, they were a little suspicious at first.

They say - I remember one guy says, Teddy! And they were, you know, boxing fans, a lot of boxing fans. They said, what are you doing here? And I said, well, we're here to help you out. I was worried that, you know, you guys were forgotten, maybe, for a second. But I want you to know that you're not. And he goes, yeah. We were forgotten. And I said, but you're not. You're not now. And then - all of a sudden, they hugged me. And they said, yeah, we're not now.

YOUNG: This emotion - this is a sweet moment for you, I can see.

ATLAS: Yeah. It was - anyway. I see all the group, and I read them. I'm in boxing, you know, I read people. I mean, I know Xs and Os. I know how to fight. But I got to know what's inside someone. And I look around and I say, OK, this is what we're going to do. I said, we're here to help you; you've got to help me. I need you guys to do something. Put yourself second, and put what I'm going to ask you first.

What is it? What is it, Ted? We're with you. I said, I need you to go and knock on doors. The elevators ain't working, you're young, you can run up steps - to know who's senior citizens, whose got kids, and find out what they need. Got ya. Got ya. We had a little humor. There were - one guy started yelling, I need cereal. How about Cheerios? I said, well, what do you think, this is Kmart? We got - you putting orders in? Then he goes - and they started laughing at him. Teddy's straightened you out. Yeah, you think it's Kmart. So...

YOUNG: And here...

ATLAS: (Unintelligible)

YOUNG: That's Teddy Atlas, remembering Superstorm Sandy a year ago, and setting out to help victims on Staten Island today through his Theodore Atlas Foundation. You're listening to HERE AND NOW.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW.

And we've been visiting New York's Staten Island with former Golden Glove fighter Teddy Atlas who has become something of a corner man for survivors of Superstorm Sandy. Teddy runs the Theodore Atlas Foundation, a small nonprofit. He's added Sandy relief to its mission of helping families, many of whom are deciding whether or not to stay. There are new requirements to raze some homes, everyone's flood insurance has spiked. New York has offered to buy back shore residences and return to land to marshland.

But these homes, a mash-up of small bungalows and brick two stories, belong to middle class and blue collar workers and immigrants. Some say they owe more on the mortgage than the state will give them, or they worry that they won't find affordable housing elsewhere. Others who didn't qualify for or take the buyback have used a combination of FEMA and insurance money and savings to rebuild. But as Teddy said, they've run out of gas.

ATLAS: They're back, but they got nothing in the house. They have no more money, so we're giving beds. They got nowhere to sit, so we're getting couches. They have nowhere to wash their clothes, so we're getting washing machines. We're at that point.

YOUNG: On this day, Teddy is going to visit a family in the New Dorp Beach area. They've requested windows. As we drive along the water, he remembers the 10th city that was here a year ago.

ATLAS: It was like a refugee camp. And we put a roof on someone's house, this guy, Eddie, an immigrant from Egypt. And he had come over here, he put everything into his little bungalow and he lost it, and he needs a roof. And he was living in there. And I said, Eddie, how are you staying here? It's so cold. He said, well, I had to send my son somewhere else, but I can't leave it here because he was afraid that, you know, people might come in and - you stay with your house.

YOUNG: I understand there are entire communities, neighborhoods, that are taking the buyout.

ATLAS: Yeah. And some of them have no choices, because - I mean, look. A lot of these people that now are being told they had to put their houses on stilts in these areas because these areas are being zoned now and stuff - they can't afford that. If you have a cynical thought - and if you're in the boxing business, sometimes cynical thoughts can pop around the corner - and you wonder who's going to wind up with these places, you know? At the end of the day, it's some politician handing it off to allow a subcontractor to come in and - I don't know.

YOUNG: Well, but Governor Cuomo said at the time that the goal was to return it to nature.

ATLAS: Oh.

YOUNG: So that it acts as a barrier.

ATLAS: Yeah, but - you know, those words sound good, you know? They can smith words together, but the reality is these people have to live somewhere. Las Vegas has a betting line in everything, all right? I kind of doubted that you could go to Vegas and bet that Mother Nature is going to be left to her devices with these properties 10 years from now.

YOUNG: But who would - but...

ATLAS: There could probably be houses and there's probably construction and there's probably something where somebody, you know, put things there and made money.

YOUNG: But who would want to make that investment when you see what happened here? People were washed away, homes were washed away.

ATLAS: You can justify almost anything. Let's go in and see these people.

YOUNG: We're looking for 90-year-old Mary Roberts who didn't take the buyback because she was able to rebuild her home after Sandy with that combination of FEMA and insurance money and all her savings. But the area didn't feel safe, so she went to visit family. And while gone, someone burgled her house. There was a fire. She's asking Teddy's foundation for new windows. But when we pull up, she's sitting outside with her daughter Jean(ph) and her next door neighbor Eddie, who turns out to be that Egyptian immigrant now living in a small rabid bungalow, recovering from cancer surgery.

ATLAS: Hey, Eddie. We put a roof on Eddie's house.

EDDIE: Oh, you did, you did that.

CURRY: Yes, I remember.

ATLAS: Yes, yes.

CURRY: OK.

ATLAS: You OK, Eddie?

CURRY: I remember.

ATLAS: What happened? You had surgery?

EDDIE: Colon surgery, yeah.

ATLAS: Are you all right?

EDDIE: Yes.

ATLAS: You're going to be fine.

EDDIE: OK.

ATLAS: You're strong. You survived this. You're going to survive this. Right or wrong?

EDDIE: OK.

ATLAS: All right?

EDDIE: All right. Thank you so much. The very first day someone came to me here and he told me, tomorrow we got to look for you and move.

YOUNG: This is very hard for you to talk about.

EDDIE: The following day, I found a big truck filled with old wood and I thank him. They did everything. They had lifted me up. They saved me.

YOUNG: They gave you the roof and - over your head, literally. I'm looking at it. It's beautiful. And then, Mary, you, next door, had gone away and your home is then torched. I mean...

MARY ROBERTS: Yeah. Look. That's the worst part.

ATLAS: I know.

ROBERTS: Hi. How are you doing?

ATLAS: Good, how are you?

ROBERTS: Well, I'm a little still depressed over it.

ATLAS: Yeah, of course. But for a minute, you can be less depressed because we're going to get you the windows you need.

ROBERTS: Oh, thank you.

ATLAS: OK?

So - and that's one piece that has to be done.

ROBERTS: Yes, right. Right.

ATLAS: That'll be one less piece you have to worry about.

ROBERTS: Right, right.

YOUNG: OK. Now, Mary, why, you know, some might say why stay, you know?

ROBERTS: Well, I haven't made up my mind yet. I may not stay and I may. I don't know.

YOUNG: How much - I mean, don't you have to pay new insurance now?

ROBERTS: Oh, they raised me already. They raised me. What are you going to do? I can't talk about it. I'm emotional.

ATLAS: Everything is going to be OK. Listen. Everything is - you're not alone. You're not alone. But you have people...

ROBERTS: Oh, yeah.

ATLAS: ...you have other people. You found new family.

ROBERTS: Right.

ATLAS: You know?

ROBERTS: Right.

ATLAS: And that new family ain't going nowhere. So we'll take care of these windows, OK?

ROBERTS: Good.

ATLAS: And then you know what? We'll look at what else is there, too, OK?

ROBERTS: Thank you.

ATLAS: OK?

ROBERTS: Thank you very much. Thank you.

ATLAS: OK. All right.

ROBERTS: Appreciate that.

YOUNG: For now, Mary is living with her daughter Jean who takes us inside the burned out house.

Oh, god.

Everything that was replaced after Sandy is destroyed by fire and firefighting water - new furniture, new appliances. They have to start again without FEMA or depleted family savings, and energy. Teddy is visibly shaken.

ATLAS: Let me tell you - I mean, you know, that's - for the foundation, that's...

JEAN: Yes, I know.

ATLAS: Look. It's a chunk. And we're going to - you're not going to come back in here and not have appliances. I'll take care of that. OK? You OK?

JEAN: I (unintelligible) the first time - I don't have insurance.

ATLAS: Yeah. But you're not alone.

JEAN: I can't.

ATLAS: You got people standing right next to you, that they can be part of that space. And you know what? You do have the strength because you'll find it. You'll find it. And you're not finding it alone.

YOUNG: Outside, Teddy and his colleague Sharon Curry walked down the street and huddle.

ATLAS: Yeah, we're trying to figure out a game plan over here.

YOUNG: Jean greets a young neighbor driving by with her child in the car.

JEAN: Hi, Nivea(sp).

CURRY: And you got to be a strong bond.

JEAN: Yeah, because she's having a rough couple days now.

ROBERTS: Yeah.

JEAN: I can imagine.

YOUNG: How's your house?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We're not finished but I'm - it's livable.

YOUNG: How - what is it like, though, to have your house come back, but then have a house like Mary's on your block or even Eddie's is, you know, in tough shape and the house next to that, I see everything pulled out on the porch, I mean...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah. It was hard. It is. It is. When I look outside, I'm like, my god.

YOUNG: How are you feeling on this one year anniversary?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm afraid. Like everybody else, I'm afraid. You don't know what to expect of the weather and they're saying there's so many storms lingering and - I don't know. I'm afraid.

YOUNG: Did you ever think of leaving?

JEAN: Oh, yeah. If I would have had the money and somewhere to go, I would've left the next day.

YOUNG: You know, this must've seemed like a dream place to live before that. You read on the ocean, this playground.

JEAN: Yeah. It was nice. But it's scary now. I mean, look, the weeds are growing. Before the weeds were here, you can see the ocean.

YOUNG: Yeah, but now it's completely - down the end of the street, it's completely overgrown.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah.

JEAN: And it is, it's real scary now.

YOUNG: And before we left, we walked a few hundred feet to the water. You could see the Statue of Liberty on the horizon, a million dollar view. Mary Roberts and her daughter Jean told us today Mary's insurance has offered $100,000 to rebuild her burned out two-story home and replace all she owned. They say estimates are much higher than that. Mary still doesn't know is she going to stay. For pictures and more on Staten Island's Theodore Atlas Foundation, go to hereandnow.org.

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Robin Young.

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HEREANDNOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.