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Hundreds Line Up for Free Food, Water in Neighborhoods Without Power

By  Patrick Wall James Fanelli and Patrick Hedlund | November 1, 2012 9:17pm 

MANHATTAN — Hundreds of people struggling with power outages and no running water in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy lined up to receive free food shipped in by federal authorities Thursday, after growing desperate given the lack of electricity and food nearby.

Crews from the National Guard planned to hand out prepackaged meals and bottled water at 13 storm-ravaged locations across the city Thursday afternoon, from the Lower East Side and Coney Island, to the Rockaways and New Dorp Beach on Staten Island.

The provisions were sent by FEMA after reports emerged of tenants in buildings without power, many of them elderly or disabled, running out of food three days into the blackout.

The 300 or so or so people who gathered at Chelsea Park on West 27th Street were pleased to see their meals arrive.

"I'm very, very grateful for this," said Carmen Serrano, 49, as she waited for food and water with her two granddaughters, ages 4 and 7. "All my food went bad."

At the front of the line, Elliott Chelsea Houses resident Celeste Rivera, 45, said she was becoming desperate after having gone days without power, running water or heat. She ran out of cash to pay for groceries and couldn't use her EBT card in local stores that lack power, she explained. Rivera had instead been going to a nearby church that was handing out food each morning. 

"We're in dire straits," she said. 

Workers with the National Guard and volunteers from the Salvation Army handed out self-heating meal packs that included such foods as cheese tortellini, spaghetti and meatballs, sloppy Joes, pork sausage and beef ravioli.

Sandy Peters, an elderly woman who declined to give her age, said she hadn't found any nearby stores to buy food after the storm.

"There's nothing open," Peters said.

She had vegetables, bread and pasta and a working stove at home. She took a crate of water to share with neighbors.

"It's terrible," she said. "I really didn't think it was going to be like this."

At one delivery location, on East 10th Street near Avenue D, local residents relied on a goodwill organization to get their hands on much-needed supplies when federal authorities didn’t show up until hours later.

Abounding Grace Ministries handed out items like sandwiches, soup, cereal, oatmeal, raisins and Gatorade to about 400 people who began lining up as early as noon for the food.

"Look when we are getting help. Four days later," said Wanda Padua, 49, a resident of Section 8 housing in East Village who was one of the first in line to receive the donations.

A NYCHA worker who lives in the Jacob Riis Houses on Avenue D was similarly outraged over the response, saying that police went door to door to check on tenants in her building for the first time Thursday.

"It's just ridiculous. You can't laugh to keep from crying. It seemed that more attention was paid to other areas than it was down here," said the worker, who declined to give her name.

"I've been working for the city for so many years, and I've never seen this — where they're knocking on doors to make sure residents are OK."

A spokeswoman for the Mayor’s Office said the free meals did eventually arrive about 6 p.m., despite a scheduled drop-off of 4 p.m.

Pastor Rick Del Rio, an organizer with Abounding Grace, said that the city has generally failed to deliver for residents in the East Village.

“They have just neglected this area,” he said. “I have no idea why.”

Mayor Bloomberg said Thursday that volunteers would be making deliveries directly to homebound individuals who can’t access the food themselves.

In the East Village, organizers said they compiled a list of people who can’t get out of their apartments, based on information from the local police precinct, word of mouth and interviewing people in line.

Volunteer Martha Woods, a resident of the Jacob Riis Houses who asked to help with handouts Thursday morning, said she heard of one elderly woman who hadn’t eaten in three days.

"They're going to bring some food to her," she said.

Back in Chelsea, the neighborhood-based nonprofit Hudson Guild helped organize the distribution and also coordinated food deliveries to homebound residents.

They enlisted teens in the agency's youth programs who live in the neighborhood to deliver the meal packs and water on dollies. They focused on a senior-only building within the Elliott Chelsea Houses, delivering food to people that the organization knew within the building and then knocking on their neighbors' doors.

Some volunteers had also been carrying up food, according to Elliott Chelsea resident David Rodriguez, 40.

"They've actually been going up to the projects," he said. "Nobody goes up in the projects."