Written by Winnie Romeril
New York, January 15, 2013 — At a glance, living in a hotel for months on end sounds quite luxurious. But for parents like Flora Mendez Salinas, the isolation and added burdens are tremendous. When Superstorm Sandy hit in October 2012, all at once Flora lost her belongings, her apartment and her job. Her story is typical for many of the families living in limbo in more than 3,000 New York City-area hotel rooms.
“There are a lot of families still trying to survive in their homes,” said Red Cross casework supervisor Christina Hujanen. “A lot of them don’t want to leave for fear of things being taken. They’re just hoping that something will happen that will allow them to go back to how it was before the storm.”
Despite this valiant attempt to make it on their own, many storm survivor’s bank accounts are empty, their credit cards are maxed, and they simply can’t take living without running water, heat or electricity through the New York winter, as they have been since late October. Because of this, each day 20 to 30 additional people are requesting housing assistance from NY City authorities and are being placed in hotels.
However, the challenges are many. Firstly, few hotels allow cooking in the rooms, which means families like Flora’s must buy every meal — a costly endeavor in one of the most expensive cities in the country. Every couple of weeks, the Red Cross loads up debit cards with hundreds of dollars per family so they won’t go hungry.
This is one facet of emergency feeding being provided by the Red Cross. In the worst impacted areas, Red Cross trucks still hand out hot meals and snacks, adding daily to the more than 10 million meals and snacks served since the storm hit. In addition, the Red Cross is funding area food banks to deliver grocery boxes to families who have the means to cook but no income, since so many people lost their jobs when their place of employment was destroyed in an already tight economy. The Red Cross foresees feeding at this pace for some months to come, to the tune of up to 60,000 meals per day.
Secondly, most hotel rooms in the city don’t have a fridge. So, what do you do if your child gets sick and needs amoxicillin – a commonly prescribed kid-friendly antibiotic which must be kept refrigerated? Luckily, Flora’s children have remained healthy. Red Cross nurses, caseworkers and call center operators, however, all report an uptick in concerns from parents about what to do about refrigeration of medications as more children get ill from the prolonged stress of living cooped up inside, waiting in limbo, compounded by the cold winter weather.
“These kids are losing out on part of their childhood,” explains Red Cross casework supervisor Christina Hujanen, who travelled from Minnesota to NYC in mid-December to help Sandy survivors. “It was sad over the Christmas holidays to see the wrapping paper outside their hotel rooms, for those who were lucky enough to get something. These families didn’t have the Christmases they were hoping for.”
Finally, consider what it means to be far away from your neighborhood and familiar surroundings. Flora’s nine-year old daughter, Odalys, goes to school in Brooklyn. That’s where Flora, Odalys and Christopher, the 10-month old, lived in a first floor apartment before Sandy struck. It flooded, they lost everything, and now the apartment is uninhabitable. It’s a two-hour trip from their Manhattan hotel to Brooklyn to get Odalys to her school, where the girl has friends and teachers who know her. Flora has kept her daughter in that school despite the distance, knowing the importance of getting children back into their routines as soon as possible is key to their recovery. It takes another two hours at the end of the school day for Flora, with Christopher tethered to her chest in a Snuggli, to go and pick up Odalys.
These trips have impacted Flora’s meetings with caseworkers. Sometimes she misses the caseworker’s visit to her hotel. “I’ve waited for her until 5:30 in the afternoon sometimes, but she still wasn’t back and I couldn’t stay later with as many cases as I have,” explains Linda Greenfeld, who works for Samaritan Village, one of the many agencies lending their caseworkers to this mammoth task of finding housing and referral support for the growing number of people registered in CAN (currently over 8,500 across Sandy-impacted states). CAN, the Coordinated Assistance Network, is a multiagency online databank where over 200 service organizations register client information. CAN is geared towards needs assessment and recovery plans so families don’t have to repeatedly answer the same questions and they can connect to the help they need more efficiently than before. Hundreds of Red Cross caseworkers are involved in this process.
On days when her caseworker found Flora at the hotel, but her bilingual child was in school, Flora hasn’t had translation. Up until today, the assigned caseworkers in Manhattan thought Flora could read English and understand it if spoken slowly. However, with one simple phrase Flora confided her uneasiness about her future to a Red Cross Spanish-speaking volunteer, “Qué nos va a pasar?” (What will happen to us?). To answer her question, Winnie Romeril sought out Linda, her Samaritan Village caseworker, and finally Flora got some of the answers she needed. A new plan is emerging: to move Odalys to a Manhattan school, find day care for Christopher, and secure an apartment and a job so she can start anew.
The obstacles to success are considerable and typify what families throughout this area are up against. Finding an affordable apartment was a challenge before Sandy, now it’s next to impossible.
“I was about to start a factory job. I had daycare for my baby so I could work there while Odalys was in school,” Flora thinks back. “And then the flood waters filled our apartment and I can’t ever go back there. The factory is no more,” she tells Linda through translation. “I hate taking handouts and living this way. I want to work, be independent and, with help from their dad, just care for my kids.”