November 16, 2012. New York. FEMA can’t do any worse of a job with Hurricane Sandy than it did with Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In that instance, the federal agency housed millions of unsuspecting citizens into toxic mobile trailers. As people continued getting sick, FEMA continued denying there was anything wrong. Now, victims of Sandy are raising red flags over FEMA’s latest effort. How bad is it? It’s hard to tell since the agency has banned the media from entering the FEMA camps.
Reluctant Camp Freedom resident Brian Sotelo with his FEMA identity badge, standing on the road where he spoke to reporters. Photo courtesy of Bob Bielk & Asbury Park Press.
Things have gotten so bad on the East coast after hurricane Sandy, that President Obama made a personal visit to the area yesterday, vowing to turn the stalled disaster recovery around. “People still need emergency help,” the President admitted to a gathering of media outside a destroyed home in Staten Island yesterday, “They still need heat. They still need power. They still need shelter. Kids are still trying to figure out where they’re going to school.”
Parade of dignitaries
More than two weeks after Hurricane Sandy struck New York, New Jersey and the surrounding states, hundreds of thousands of people are still without power, water, food or permanent shelter. In a grand parade of millionaires and dignitaries, the most powerful men and women in America toured the devastation yesterday to see the horror for themselves.
Walking among the victims, the President even gave homeless former residents sympathetic hugs for the cameras. Obama was joined by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, US Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, and federal Housing Secretary Shaun Donovan.
As described by the Washington Post, the President’s helicopter ‘touched down in Staten Island, where a city of white tents — surrounded by neighborhoods still without power — serves as one of six disaster recovery areas in the region.’
Standing outside a damaged Church, President Obama remarked, “We’ve got some work to do. And I want you to know, I’m here to do it.” Shattered residents, still waiting for help, are wondering when he will put his money where his mouth is. Governor Cuomo has requested $30 billion in federal aid for his state alone. So far, President Obama has only authorized $1.5 billion for the entire East coast. The White House reminded the media that it included $600 million approved for direct assistance to individual victims.
Camp Freedom - Inside New York’s Tent City
As detailed by a handful of independent news outlets like Asbury Park Press, the media is bared from entering New York’s FEMA camps. The paper took its readers on a brief, first-hand tour anyway. After being chased away by camp guards, investigators lured some residents down the road to tell their story.
As they departed the camp gates, the reporters described the appearance of the fenced-in tent city saying it ‘more closely resembles a prison camp’. The FEMA camp resident who spoke to the news team even wore a government identification tag that gave the official title of his new home – ‘Camp Freedom’.
Located across Oceanport Ave. from Monmouth Park in Oceanport, the FEMA camp is a frustrating let-down for its helpless residents. Some, like Brian Sotelo and his family from Seaside Heights who happened to volunteer to talk to reporters, say they were lied to by relief workers who told them they were going to stay in solid structures with heat, water and other basic necessities. Instead, they were diverted to a tent city with little or none of the above.
“Sitting there last night you could see your breath,” Sotelo told the reporters, “At Pine Belt the Red Cross made an announcement that they were sending us to permanent structures up here that had just been redone, that had washing machines and hot showers and steady electric, and they sent us to tent city. We got f*cked.”
First pictures to be snuck out
As the Sotelos met the reporters up the road from Camp Freedom, the paper described Brian showing shocking pictures he took inside the camp while Renee ‘huddles for warmth inside a late-model Toyota Corolla stuffed with possessions, having to drive out through the snow and slush to tell their story’.
The pictures included ‘lines of outdoor portable toilets, of snow and ice breaching the bottom of the tent and an elderly woman sitting up, huddled in blankets.’ That image of the elderly woman has since gone viral.
Homeland Security shows up
Almost immediately, and periodically throughout their meeting up the road, a black government vehicle appeared at the top of the hill, watching Sotelo and the reporters. Indicative of the scene inside the FEMA camp as well, Brian Sotelo tells of an angry and frustrated mob inside Camp Freedom crying for help to the outside world. “Officials tried to stop them from taking pictures, turned off the WiFi and said they couldn’t charge their smart phones because there wasn’t enough power,” he explained.
The reluctant camp resident went on to say, “My 6 year-old daughter Angie was a premie and has a problem regulating her body temperature. Until eleven [Wednesday night], they had no medical personnel at all here, not even a nurse. After everyone started complaining and they found out we were contacting the press, they brought people in. Every time we plugged in an iPhone or something, the cops would come and unplug them.”
Photos courtesy of Brian Sotelo and Asbury Park Press.
Brian Sotelo wondered to the reporters why he wasn’t being allowed to return to his home. As a Red Cross driver, he’s driven past it a few times since the storm. As he explains it, his house only took about a foot of water from Hurricane Sandy, that’s it. He can’t understand why he’s forbidden from going home.
Showing his own version of the American spirit that we at Whiteout Press can appreciate, Brian Sotelo gives a glimpse of why he was one of the volunteers willing to walk out of the camp in front of Homeland Security guards and speak to the media. “Everybody is angry over here. It’s like being in prison,” he vented, “I’ve been working since I was 10. I’ve been on my own since I was 16. And for things to be so bad that it’s pissing me off, that tells you something.”
After a few minutes of speaking to the media and showing the pictures he took, Brian Sotelo slipped back into his pick-up with his shivering wife and kids. Turning and driving back, the Sotelos reluctantly re-enter Camp Freedom. Not being allowed to go back to their home, and with no place else to go, they simply have no choice. Welcome to the real life FEMA camps.
Special thanks to Asbury Park Press.
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