Memo to Obama: How can anyone forget Staten Islanders?

If I were Barack Obama, I would get on Marine One and fly to Staten Island as soon as possible.

If he were, as he said, concerned not about the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the election, but its impact on families, he would be in Staten Island right now, helping the forgotten residents of the borough where many of New York City’s firefighters and police officers and their families live.

How can anyone forget them?

Then there are the ordinary (well, they are also extraordinary) Staten Islanders, like my best mate, James McCausland, who lives with his wife, Maureen, in a two-storey flat, about a kilometre from the water. I had sent him an email a few hours before the storm, asking him if they were going to be evacuated, and to stay safe.

I had done the same with my friends and relatives in the storm region, from Virginia, Washington, Maryland, New Jersey, New York City, Southampton in Long Island, Albany in upstate New York, Philadelphia, and Vermont.

But I hadn’t heard back from James, and just assumed it was a power problem, and he’s not a great email sender anyway. Then I heard the ABC News this morning, and their lead story was about the “forgotten borough” of Staten Island, where 19 people had died, but they were getting no coverage from the media, or, more importantly, no help from the authorities – federal or local. And I watched a six minute story on NBC News in this article on Slate and I got angry … and worried about my mate: http://slate.me/TYSVJs

So I called on his cell phone, and the first response was from Verizon, saying: “All the circuits are busy, please call again later.” Well, that’s good, I thought, at least the phones are working. I waited and the second time, he answered, and I said: “James, are you dry?”

‘WE’VE LOST EVERYTHING’

His response: “We’ve lost everything, the apartment, the furniture, the car’s gone. We did manage to save the pictures, which were the most important things. It was absolutely unbelievable. The water was up to five feet outside the window, and it was a raging torrent. It was coming up through the floor.”

Were you asked to evacuate? “Yes,” he said, “but if we had, we wouldn’t have saved anything. It all happened so fast. It just rushed in like a tsunami and within 20 minutes, the water was pouring in. We ran upstairs, but it started to come up after us. We were isolated, and it was pretty scary.”

At least you had your cell phone, I said. “Well, no, not then, the transformer of our provider, Verizon, was damaged, and we had no way of getting in touch with anyone.  And the storm surge came with 80-kilometre winds. It was a combination of a hurricane, a northeaster, high tides and a full moon.”

Full moon, I said, I hadn’t heard that before. How bloody ominous! “Yes,” he said. “Everything worked against us.”

He and his wife are in a hotel room now on the island (the photo above is of James and Maureen at their wedding in 2009), but if the New York City marathon hadn’t been cancelled, they would still be in their damaged, raw sewage-sodden apartment. There’s a story there. The marathon has only just been cancelled, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg had originally decided to let it go ahead, insisting it would not divert resources from dealing with the aftermath of Sandy. http://bit.ly/Sm2Kly  Ironically, former mayor Rudy Giuliani was saying in Sydney on Wednesday that New York could cope with anything, and local authorities could handle it better than the federal government. http://bit.ly/TknCdC

When I asked James if he knew that Giuliani was in Sydney when the storm hit, he laughed: “Bloomberg was quoting Giuliani when he said the marathon would go ahead.”

But then, of course, the backlash came. I mean how bloody insensitive would it have been to allow the race to start from Staten Island, which along with New Jersey, had bore the brunt of the storm.

Part of that backlash came from James’ son, Bryan, who lives and works in Bangkok. (That’s him on the right in the photo above, with his father and his sister, Clare.) He wanted to help his father, so he asked his 500 friends on Facebook to email Mayor Bloomberg to tell him to stop the marathon. Again, the power of the social media worked to convince the mayor to call off the race.

This meant that victims like James and Maureen could move into hotels like the Hampton Inn Hilton, after they cancelled marathoners’ reservations. A victory for the social media, common sense and Bryan McCausland. Good on you, Bryan, who was born and bred in Melbourne. His father and I came to Australia in 1971, but James moved back to New York three years ago with his second wife, Maureen, whom he met when he was recovering from a serious cancer operation.

So any disappointed marathoners, who had to go home or move somewhere else, should feel good that victims of the worst recorded storm in U.S. history are benefitting from the cancellation of the race.

At the end of our conversation, I told James I was glad I called, and that he and Maureen were still alive, but sad that they had lost everything. He replied: “We’ll get through it, Tom, don’t worry.”

Spoken like a true New Yorker.

President Obama, I know the election is only a long weekend away. But make yourself feel better. Go visit Staten Island, and speak to some of those 47 per cent of Americans Mitt Romney doesn’t have time for, and make them feel better.

2 thoughts on “Memo to Obama: How can anyone forget Staten Islanders?

  1. That brings Sandy home.

    Interested to see the Economist are (only narrowly) backing Obama to be President again. It gave my view of American politics a jolt to realise the sage and independent UK based thinkers have a far more positive view of Romney’s candidacy that I do.

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