By Meghan Barr
A silver lining frames the cloud of destruction left by Superstorm Sandy. In their hour of greatest need, families and communities — not the government — were the most helpful sources of assistance and support.
A poll conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that after the storm in New York and New Jersey, friends, relatives and neighbors were cited the most often as the people who helped them make it through.
People overwhelmingly said the Oct. 29 storm brought out the best in their neighbors, who shared generators, food, water and other supplies. Far fewer said they found help from federal or state governments.
Stranded in her darkened 20th-floor apartment in Coney Island with two small children, Irina Medvinskaya was feeling desperate in the bleak days after the storm. The elevators stopped working. The food in her refrigerator spoiled.
Without the help of friends and family — particularly her boyfriend, who lugged full water-cooler bottles up the stairs — she doesn't know how she would have survived.
"People who can bring you food and water, and walk up 20 floors?" she said. "That's family, not FEMA."
The nationwide survey of 2,025 individuals, including 1,007 residents of 16 hard-hit counties in New York and New Jersey, assessed the impact and recovery about six months after the storm hit, killing dozens of people and causing tens of billions of dollars in damage.
About 3 in 10 in the affected areas said they reached out to friends, family or neighbors for help. Sixty-three percent of those in the affected areas who turned to friends, family or neighbors within a mile of their homes, and 60 percent who sought help from first responders, said they helped quite a bit or a great deal.
Far fewer turned to the state and federal government. Sixteen percent said they contacted the federal government and 7 percent said they contacted their state government in the wake of the storm. Only 19 percent who sought help from the federal government said they were helpful; twice as many said FEMA was no help at all.
Roughly one-fifth, about 19 percent, said they reached out to their insurance company for assistance, about half of those said insurance companies were helpful.
Seventy-seven percent reported that the storm brought out the best among their neighbors, while just 7 percent said it brought out the worst.
The data showed that neighborhoods lacking in social cohesion and trust generally had a more difficult time recovering. People in slowly recovering neighborhoods reported greater levels of hoarding of food and water, looting, stealing, and vandalism, compared with neighborhoods that recovered more quickly.
How did neighbors help each other? About 52 percent said they shared food or water, 49 percent shared generators or access to power, and 48 percent took in neighbors with damaged homes or without utilities.
In neighborhoods hit hardest by the storm, sharing of resources was even more common, with 67 percent saying their neighbors shared food or water, 63 percent taking in neighbors, and 59 percent sharing access to power.
FEMA declined to comment on the poll. But several residents surveyed confidentially opened up in subsequent interviews with the AP.
Generosity prevailed in the hard-hit Long Island community of Lindenhurst, N.Y., where 25-year-old Joseph Ferlito's home near the Great South Bay was flooded. Unable to sleep in their home for weeks, Ferlito and his father leaned on the kindness of neighbors they had not met before.
People drove around handing out everything from water and cleaning supplies to hamburgers and shots of whiskey, he said.
"The neighborly love was more than what I've ever seen," Ferlito said. "I mean, everyone's friendlier now. You know them now. It was a way to meet people."
In Margate, N.J., 90-year-old Evelyn Golden said that the storm didn't cause much damage to her home but that it underscored the kindness of neighbors. She refused to evacuate, saying she felt safer at home than on the road; her children were furious with her.
Neighbors a few doors down called to check on her the day of the storm. By that time, "it had gotten very bad," she said. With electricity in the neighborhood out, she ended up staying with them for three days.
"The people were very nice," she said.
About a third of people in the communities most affected by the storm said their neighbors are closer now than they were before Sandy, and about 4 in 10 said they made new friends as a result of the storm.
Fifty-five percent said their neighborhoods have completely recovered, and 71 percent said they personally have completely recovered. The vast majority of Sandy victims have not moved to a new house — 94 percent are living at the same address as they were when the storm hit.
The national survey found that a majority of Americans favor state governments providing money to help local residents rebuild in the same neighborhood in the wake of natural disasters. Despite the risks for future disasters such as hurricanes, 65 percent of Americans nationwide support that type of assistance.
But in pockets of New York and New Jersey, storm damage remains a challenge. And about 5 percent of all residents of affected counties said their neighborhood will never completely recover. For some, the emotional and financial toll was just too much.
"I'll mentally never recover from this," said Carmen Eaderoso, 43, a mechanic and father of six who pumped 6 feet of water out of his home in Wantagh, N.Y. "It's always in the back of my mind. I talk about it now, I get choked up."
Eaderoso has fallen six months behind on his mortgage because of the overwhelming cost of repairing his home. Everything is fixed now, but financially, he's in over his head.
"I'm a person who goes to work, has a couple thousand in the bank," he said. "I didn't expect this to happen."
Sandy Unger, 48, a nurse, is worried about the future of Center Moriches, N.Y., her hometown on the south shore of Long Island.
Many people are selling their damaged homes because they can't afford to stay, she said. And the community has been flooded far more frequently since the storm because the tides have changed.
"The water comes up higher and higher," Unger said. "I don't know what's changed. It's not where I grew up."
The AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey was conducted April 19 through June 2, 2013, with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. The nationally representative poll involved landline and cellphone interviews in English or Spanish with 2,025 adults, including 1,007 who lived in 16 Sandy-affected counties in New York and New Jersey on Oct. 29, 2012. Interviews were conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago. Results for the full sample have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4.0 percentage points, for respondents in the affected areas, it is 4.7 points.