Volunteers serve Thanksgiving dinner in the Rockaways section of Queens,… (Stan Honda, AFP/Getty Images )
This year, Aiman Youssef is thankful to be alive.
The 42-year-old Staten Island man said he used to have a $300,000 house he could be thankful for, and a car, and two vans full of things he was going to sell on EBay. Then Superstorm Sandy ruined all that and the rest of his neighborhood too, so just being alive is the best he can ask for right now.
"It's survival — that's what it is now," said Youssef, who sleeps in a tent, where it gets cold early in the morning, around 3 or 4 a.m. especially.
But that tent is no ordinary tent; it's a full-blown Sandy relief hub, bustling with supplies and volunteers "like 24-hours-seven here," as Youssef put it in a phone interview. And on Thursday, Youssef's temporary home was just one of the many locations around the Northeast that stayed busy over Thanksgiving nourishing the thousands of Sandy survivors and volunteers whose lingering struggles know no holiday.
"If you come on Staten Island, you come to South Beach, you'll see some things that will twist your stomach a bit," said Farid Kader, 29, a volunteer with Sandy Yellow Team, a relief group that works with Youssef's distribution site and, like many others, spent its Thanksgiving holiday distributing meals around storm-affected areas. "It's starting to take a toll on people. Honestly, until the authorities rebuild things, I don't see myself hanging out with other people."
Kader mentioned the post-storm mold in ruined homes: "A lot of us are getting sick."
On the phone, Matthew Hillyer, a volunteer delivering meals, sounded breathless. "I'm pushing a shopping cart door-to-door," he explained. "After I get done pushing the cart, I'm going to try to hit every house in a 10-block radius."
Hillyer is associated with Occupy Wall Street, which has won plaudits for its storm relief effort, Occupy Sandy. Organizers estimated it served more than 10,000 meals on Thanksgiving.
Another Occupier, Robert Pluma, was also almost too busy to talk. "I'm literally taking my first break in two weeks," Pluma said, politely begging off. "I'm carving a turkey as we speak."
Sandy's billions in storm damage left thousands newly homeless amid a recovery effort that, many residents complain, has stretched the capacity of major aid agencies and federal and local governments. As of Wednesday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency reported that 453,000 disaster survivors had applied for assistance in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Rhode Island, with $844.4 million in relief aid approved.
That translated into a $19,000 check for Youssef — a help, he said, but not enough for him to rebuild his life.
"He's not the only one I've been hearing this about," Kader said of Youssef. "This whole area has been flooded, and a lot of the people here don't have flood insurance. It's bad."
In New York City, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's office said it planned to distribute more than 26,500 meals to 30 locations where residents had seen Sandy's worst.
"As we continue to recover and rebuild from the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy, our city will do everything we can to bring some of the comforts and traditions of Thanksgiving to families in our hardest-hit communities," Bloomberg said in a statement, adding that the city would also give out 2,400 turkeys.
In the city's outer boroughs, though, the government's post-storm promises haven't been enough for some residents, who had a somewhat tepid approval of Bloomberg's storm response in a Quinnipiac poll released Tuesday. Advocates for the New York City homeless community said the storm's aftermath had also widened a serious housing problem that had long existed for the city's down-and-out. Displaced residents have found themselves bouncing from shelter to shelter as officials struggle to find a place for them.
"The storm itself brought more transparency about the situation, because there's a lot more homeless people now, there's a lot more displaced people now, and it's all over the media," said Raul Rodriguez, who sits on the civil rights committee of Picture the Homeless, a New York advocacy group. "Before, it was more of a hush-hush situation."
Rodriguez added, "Everything is getting a little bit better, slowly but surely, but everybody's just holding on to their heads."
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie — whose no-nonsense reaction to the storm recovery has earned him rock-star adulation in the media and in polls — packaged and delivered 500 Thanksgiving dinners on Wednesday to a Lowe's with his wife and children.
"We are all one New Jersey family," the Republican said in a statement. "When one family member is in need, we are all there to help, no matter how great or how small. It's that commitment, resilience and generosity that make Mary Pat and I so proud of our state and our people."
The giving spirit extended beyond the Northeast. In Perry Township, Ohio, Lauri Weinfeld said she was offering a four-bedroom rental house to Sandy survivors for four months, rent-free. When asked why she decided to do it, Weinfeld said, "If I just say it straight up, it just sounds like I'm being sappy and altruistic.
"But if you have something you can share and somebody needs it, you can share it," she said. "I can only imagine how horrible it is to lose your home and all your things and not be sure how it's all going to come back together. I can simplify somebody's life at least a little bit."
She'd just published an email address for those interested — email@example.com — and by Thanksgiving Day, one person had written, she said.
Perhaps in the spirit of the holiday, they'd written only to say thanks.