On Tuesday, January 15, by a margin of 241-180, the House of Representatives finally passed the long-awaited approximately $50 billion Sandy relief bill, which will provide money to hard-hit communities in Brooklyn and elsewhere devastated by the October 29 superstorm.
The vote took place just days after New Yorkers showed their impatience with the speed at which Congress had been moving to help the region in a series of protest marches. Some 70 days have passed since the storm; in contrast, federal aid for Hurricane Katrina victims was approved within days.
Members of the community had met in Coney Island on January 13 as part of the Walk a Mile in Our Shoes rally; a day earlier, similar marches were held in Gerritsen Beach, the Rockaways and on Staten Island, as well as in Nassau County and New Jersey.
The Walk a Mile in Our Shoes rally was a creation of The Sandy Claus Foundation, which began when Michael Sciaraffo donned a Santa suit after the storm and delivered toys to children whose homes were devastated. Since then, the movement has called loudly for federal funding to aid relief efforts, which the House of Representatives infamously avoided as 2012 came to an end.
“We are demanding the same respect afforded to Katrina victims when they received funding in three days. Why are we different? Why are we treated as second-class citizens?” said Sciaraffo on Sunday. “It is a crime that Congress has failed to act.”
Sciaraffo added that there is still danger lurking in homes ravaged by the storm. Experts say that though the cold has kept it at bay, mold will start to grow as the weather gets warmer. “This is not the time to play politics, when there are lives at stake,” he said.
Though most supporters came from affected neighborhoods, help came in from as far as San Jose. Organizer Peter Corless, who has family in Rockaway, came immediately after the storm to lend a hand in helping the Rockaway community. His relief effort crossed paths with Sciaraffo’s Sandy Claus project.
“Awareness is the greatest issue,” said Corless. “People are unemployed. Twenty thousand people don’t have power. How many people have to die?”
Apart from bringing awareness to suffering in Rockaway, Corless has a personal goal: to get his mother, who has been forced to move to Sunrise Assisted Living due to the effects of the storm, back to her house in Sheepshead Bay.
“We’re going to get you home, Mom,” promised Corless.
Many community members who attended the rally were dismayed at the meager aid they had received from FEMA.
Lucy Acevedo lost the entire first floor of her Coney Island home, as well as half of her front yard. Yet she only received $54 from FEMA because she already had flood insurance. She believes funds were misappropriated.
“There’s no reason to pay $300 for a hotel. I rejected the hotel and took a grant. I can pay $1,500 for rent,” Acevedo stated. “FEMA needs to get their act together.”
Resident Bonnie DiGiovanni said that some people were scamming FEMA, by claiming they were relocating to receive funds, but never moving. She called to alert FEMA, but was given a less-than-satisfactory answer.
“I was told they can’t go and check, that there are laws preventing that,” said DiGiovanni. “They should work on changing the system.”
Even through their own difficulties, people were able to focus on those even less fortunate. Amy Gonzales, a resident of the Seagate community, said her reason for coming to this rally was “helping ones that really need it, inside the projects.”
The Walk a Mile in Our Shoes rally was not the end of Sciaraffo’s effort to raise awareness for the necessity of federal aid. His foundation was invited by Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano to march to the Capitol Building on January 15, when Congress convened to vote on the relief bill, to stand for all the victims of the hurricane.