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Superstorm Sandy aid center on Staten Island fights order to leave

A makeshift aid center set up on Staten Island after Superstorm Sandy is told to leave a park, but victims say they still need it.

May 06, 2013|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • A cat explores the rubble of a home damaged by Superstorm Sandy in October in the New Dorp area of Staten Island. A volunteer aid center has been told to leave a park, but many victims living in temporary housing say they still need its help.
A cat explores the rubble of a home damaged by Superstorm Sandy in October… (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles…)

NEW YORK — It has been six months since Donna Graziano packed a barbecue into her car, drove 15 miles from her Brooklyn home to Staten Island, and began cooking for residents of a neighborhood ravaged by Superstorm Sandy. Her one-woman effort in a seaside park expanded into an aid hub that has drawn donations of food, generators, clothes, diapers and household goods, and has become the go-to center for locals seeking advice on everything from emergency aid to mold removal.

Now, the city's parks department says it is time for Graziano's Cedar Grove Community Hub to dismantle its five tents so that the park and nearby beach can welcome summer visitors and begin a major dune reinforcement project. It has given her until Wednesday to find another place to run her freelance aid agency.

Locals who still rely on the hub say they won't leave without a fight, a quandary that highlights the lagging recovery of areas hit hardest by Sandy and the competing interests at play as officials move toward normalcy even as some storm victims struggle with needs unmet.

"The focus should be on fixing up our community, not cleaning up a beach," said Tracy Freeo, a regular visitor to Cedar Grove, which is about a quarter-mile from the ocean in the New Dorp neighborhood of Staten Island.

"They gave up their lives to help us get ours back," she said of the volunteers who have joined Graziano since Sandy hit last October and who staff the Cedar Grove hub 24/7. "Whether it was a roll of toilet paper or just a conversation, they gave comfort."

As Freeo spoke, Graziano did what she usually does from morning until night, when she drives back home to Brooklyn and to her 4-year-old daughter. She sat at a table inside the main tent fielding storm victims' calls and urging them to attend a rally protesting the city's plan to close her down.

When two women entered the tent in search of diapers, she directed them to a volunteer, who led them to another tent stacked with household goods. Behind her, a young man dished up hot meals to passers-by, many from nearby houses still without kitchens.

On the street outside, homes condemned by city inspectors sat with boarded up windows and splintered porches, the grim repetition interrupted by others in various states of repair.

Graziano, a tiny, gravel-voiced woman of 41 with flaming red hair, acknowledges that some might call her an enabler, running a comfort station for people who would rather enjoy free food and conversation than face post-Sandy life in a neighborhood that isn't what it used to be. Graziano says she would happily go back to her old life in Brooklyn, working as a wedding planner and caring for her daughter, if she thought the neighborhood she adopted could take care of itself.

"But six months later, we're still feeding people," she said, slapping her hand down on one of the hot plates of the buffet in the main tent.

"At six months, this should be gone," Graziano said. "But what do you tell someone who has no insurance, has to pay rent while their house is fixed, and is still having to pay a mortgage: 'Hey, I can't help you anymore'?"

Graziano estimates that each day she serves 30 to 100 people in various ways. Some, like Anthony Gambino, need a place to wait for mail delivery. A hulking man with tattoos covering both arms, Gambino is renting a temporary apartment several miles away, but mail still comes to his original home, which is not yet habitable.

"This is a sanctuary for a lot of people," said Gambino, who lost his car and his household belongings to Sandy.

Others, like Colleen DiPersia, use the hub to monitor the rebuilding of their nearby homes and to consult with Graziano and other locals on the necessities: where to find rebuilding supplies, how to tackle mold issues, how to wrestle with insurance companies slow to release checks.

"We're not freeloaders," said DiPersia, whose home was a total loss. She receives $1,400 a month in federal emergency aid to pay for a temporary two-bedroom apartment that she shares with her husband and two children.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency says it realizes that not everyone has recovered from Sandy, which was a hurricane until shortly before it made landfall Oct. 29 and killed 43 people in New York City — 23 of them on Staten Island. More than 250 individuals or families are still living in hotel rooms, and thousands live in temporary apartments or with family and friends.

But debris removal is nearly 95% complete, according to FEMA, and the city says Graziano's tents, loaded with donated clothing, food and household supplies, are sitting on parkland that last summer drew 30,000 visitors.

The parks department also plans to bring in 41,000 cubic yards of sand to protect the coastline at New Dorp and Cedar Grove, spokeswoman Tara Kiernan said.

"We appreciate the group's service to the community following Hurricane Sandy and know they will continue to provide to those in need at their next location," she said.

Where that might be is anyone's guess. Graziano says she's looking for a new space. Her supporters, meanwhile, speculate that the real reason the city wants to close the hub is because some homeowners don't like having activists from the Occupy movement, who are most of Graziano's volunteers, in their midst. The city says politics has nothing to do with its plans.

One of those volunteers, Allan Eaton of Ontario, Calif., said even if that were the case, more important considerations should prevail.

"I look across the street and see a house that hasn't been repaired at all. I see a house that's been leveled," Eaton said. "Are they going to put the issue of some volunteers being Occupy-ers over the needs of residents?"

tina.susman@latimes.com

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