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Dollars and disaster

By Saeed Shabazz -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Nov 22, 2012 - 10:29:40 AM

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Questions about land grabs, corporate abuses arise while New Yorkers struggle to survive after Sandy

Breezy Point, N.Y., Nov. 8, FEMA Federal Coordinating Offi cer Mike Byrne, right and New York Commissioner of Homeland Security and Emergency Services Jerome Hauer, second from right, visit an area where over a hundred houses were destroyed from fi re started by Hurricane Sandy. Photo: Jocelyn Augustino/FEMA
NEW YORK ( - City officials recently announced some 200 homes may need demolishing, while an additional 200 homes have been destroyed, and 500 structures need inspection and possible razing after Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc in some boroughs.

These homes are located in the predominately White neighborhoods of Breezy Point, Belle Harbor and Rockaway Beach in Queens; South Beach, Midland Beach and Fox Beach on Staten Island and Gerritsen Beach in Brooklyn.

What is not being talked about and of serious concern among grassroots activists is the future of public housing complexes in Far Rockaway, N.Y., and Coney Island left with no power for at least two weeks and still without heat or hot water at Final Call press time.

Possible environmental hazards are also slowly enveloping these Queens complexes as residents wear masks, fearful of growing mold, a stench and other problems.

Mark Torres, chairman of the People Power Movement-Movimiento Poder Popular, told The Final Call, “We want to make contact with tenants who are willing to organize for their rights.”

As The Final Call traversed through the complexes in Coney Island, Red Hook and Far Rockaway, the often heard complaint was housing authorities aren’t saying anything. So rumor mills are constantly in motion, speculating some buildings will permanently close. Top-level housing officials have leaked word to select media outlets that only a small number of residents may need to find alternate long-term housing.

“Bloomberg, NYCHA, real estate developers and Wall Street investors have been enforcing a racist and anti-poor policy against the mostly African American and Latino residents of public housing,” argued Mr. Torres. “They will manipulate this crisis to displace people; it will be gentrification and Black and Latino people will become economic refugees forced to leave their neighborhoods—searching for affordable housing—leaving the city altogether.”

Activist author Naomi Klein, who wrote “The Shock Doctrine” and coined the phrase “disaster capitalism,” warned Bill Moyers Nov. 18 during his PBS television show there would be an “exploiting of the crisis to hoard power for the few and to ram through policies that people don’t want.”

Pastor Constance Hulla of the Coney Island Gospel Assembly Church said it is well known that developers want to “turn all the housing projects into co-ops.”

“We have fought long and hard against Mayor Bloomberg, when he wanted to pour billions into the Coney Island boardwalk, making it a playground for the rich,” she added.

Standing in a courtyard in the Hammel Houses in Far Rockaway, a young Black man, who said his name was Supreme, 24, told The Final Call talk in the community the past five years has been housing authorities want to force people out. “A lot of people don’t understand, and won’t understand what is going on,” he said.

People are still shell shocked, admits Far Rockaway Councilman James Sanders, and it is evident there “are those who have plans (concerning relocation and displacement); and surely we want to know what are their plans.”

“While the rich and the business men are talking rebuilding, we are still talking about relief,” Councilman Sanders said.

“The threat is definitely there for dislocation, as we learned after Hurricane Katrina, when the powers that be want to move against poor people for property displacement, it is easier to use the pretext of disaster to remove people,” said Kali Akuno, a human rights writer, researcher and activist with the U.S. Human Rights Network. He added that government can use the environmental threats as a legal pretext to remove people.

Some environmental experts say physical, chemical and biologic hazards may already be in the air, as evidenced by people wearing masks in Far Rockaway.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005 there was the mysterious “Katrina Cough,” and a 25 percent increase in upper respiratory ailments in New Orleans.

“I would tell you that asbestos, cadmium, dioxins, fuel oil, and the other contaminants that have leaked into the houses, leaked into the water, etc.,” said Aton Edwards of the Harlem-based International Preparedness Network. “There is no real support for the development of the infrastructures needed to provide us with protection from these events.”

Residents in this Queens neighborhood are talking about the “Rockaway Cough.”

Councilman Sanders has been privy to meetings convened by the NYC deputy mayor of economic development, the state Economic Development Corporation and other business entities who are moving forward with reconstruction plans and how to aid businesses to recover. “We don’t have any businesses,” he said.

“The struggle is heating up,” the councilman continued. “It is going to be a life and death struggle against the big box empire,” he said, referring to efforts to have major corporations like Wal Mart and Home Depot play major roles in reconstruction.

Ms. Klein also referred to the big box empire during her interview with Bill Moyer, saying conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, the CATO Institute and the Heritage Foundation have gotten good at pushing a wish list of policies after major disasters.

The American Enterprise Institute and Heritage Foundation posted blogs Oct. 30, asking: “Do we really need the Federal Emergency Management Agency?”

The bloggers argued the federal government must realize the “private sector has a role to play” in reconstruction after disasters such as Superstorm Sandy. The AEI blogger argued for-profit private corporations such as Wal Mart and Home Depot “provided invaluable relief work” after Hurricane Katrina.

“The American Enterprise Institute would privatize the whole government, if they could get their way,” said Dr. Ray Winbush, director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University. As far as the premise that the big box stores saved Black folks, that is not true, he said.

“What I remember to be true, the big box corporations rode into New Orleans after our people were shipped out to Houston, Idaho and the state of Washington,” Dr. Winbush said. But Superstorm Sandy is an opportunity to do something different, for example in a place such as Red Hook housing projects, it’s a chance to be innovative, he said.

Pratap Chatterjee, executive director of, told The Final Call it is too early to tell what direction the profiteering will take until “we see who gets the contracts.” In 2006, CorpWatch published “Big Easy Money: Disaster Profiteering on the American Gulf Coast.”

Waldemar Albrect-Luna, a spokesperson for Occupy Sandy, an offshoot of the grassroots Occupy movement providing help to New Yorkers, said, “Step two of our community efforts will be the rebuilding programs and I am sure a conversation will occur concerning profiteering.”

But one area disaster capitalists want to control in New York’s reconstruction and rebuilding phase is labor, according to analysts such as Ms. Klein. They say corporate powers will lobby to the federal government to suspend Davis-Bacon, which mandates that workers be paid prevailing wages, not minimum wages.

“That won’t happen here,” vows Chris Silvera, a Teamster and grassroots labor activist. “People forget that it was the Millions More Movement that forced former president George W. Bush to back down on his proposal to suspend Davis-Bacon after Katrina, when we threatened to block any reconstruction in the Gulf.

“The youth will be playing a big role in this rebuilding, so we must see that they get the proper vocational training and for that we need some old time militancy in the streets.”

“We are running out of time to put into place a long-term strategy on how we participate in the rebuilding of the East Coast infrastructure,” Mr. Silvera said.