High School Student Documents Sandy's Aftermath
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It's been a frustrating and cold November in the Rockaways, one of the areas of New York City hit hardest by Hurricane Sandy. Thousands of people living in this coastal community were left without power or heat, and some are still waiting to get it back. Beth Fertig of member station WNYC spent time with a local high school student who's been documenting the experience.
BETH FERTIG, BYLINE: Seventeen-year-old Brandon McClain is on his way home from high school when he stops to pick up dinner for his family.
BRANDON MCCLAIN: Give me four meals. Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Four meals?
FERTIG: McClain is in the parking lot of a small shopping plaza, where city workers under a white tent are giving out boxed meals. Today, it's chicken and chili. This is the 16th day since the storm. Power is still out in this area, and the stores are closed, including the supermarket. McClain doesn't understand why there aren't more people here asking for food. He turns on a video camera and asks the workers.
MCCLAIN: Before, I mean, it was crowded here. What happened?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I don't know. I really don't know, sir.
FERTIG: He's been asking a lot of questions, lately. McClain lives smack in the middle of the Rockaways, in a working-class neighborhood bordered by public housing. It's not like Breezy Point, where a hundred houses burned down, or Belle Harbor, where single-family homes were flooded. Those areas are more middle class. McClain is conscious of these differences as he travels around with his camera.
MCCLAIN: I want to see what people know about what's happening out there. For example, like Belle Harbor. The last people I interviewed, it seemed that money wasn't the problem. Organizations coming in wasn't a problem. They were frustrated at the Red Cross, though.
FERTIG: McClain is six feet tall and thin, with light brown skin and high cheekbones. He's serious and respectful, especially when he approaches some volunteers in a Red Cross van.
MCCLAIN: You know, a lot of people in Rockaway are actually frustrated with the Red Cross. I mean, they're disappointed. Like, how do you think you can improve that?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: There's always room for improvement. That's all, you know, I can say. If they're disappointed, I'm really sorry, but we have volunteers coming in from all over the country.
FERTIG: McClain is a senior at Information Technology High School, a public school 16 miles away, on the other side of Queens. He told video teacher Mike Vander Putten that he wanted to make a documentary about life in the Rockaways. Vander Putten thought it was a great idea and loaned him equipment.
MIKE VANDER PUTTEN: He doesn't have any power. We got every battery we could for every camera we could so he could get out there and record as much of this to get it out there, to get the word out, because I think it's atrocious. It seems wrong.
And I know a lot of us worked really hard to get relief down there, and we feel like we've done our job and everything is going back to normal, and then you walk over there and it's just stunning to me that it isn't back to normal. You think it should be fixed. So I wanted him to get a camera in his hand, I wanted him to get out there and show what people aren't seeing.
FERTIG: The teacher's been giving McClain a lot of tips, because he's never taken a video class before.
PUTTEN: It seems like the nighttime is also the freakier part of the day. And it would be nice if you could show those buildings near you. They have power. Why don't we have power?
FERTIG: The teenager was afraid to walk around at night carrying a camera, and for good reason. His local shopping plaza was looted after the storm. And the streets got so dark during the extended blackout that city buses stopped running after sundown to avoid hitting pedestrians.
MCCLAIN: (Unintelligible) do you have my (unintelligible)?
FERTIG: McClain lives with his mother and his older sister in a small apartment. His mom has been heating the place by boiling water on a gas stove.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: No milk, no milk. Oh, my God, everybody...
FERTIG: McClain drops off the dinner boxes he got from the city workers and goes back outside. He heads toward the ocean, a few blocks away. The boardwalk's been destroyed. Some pieces lie in a vacant lot, next to a crosswalk sign for pedestrians. A car is pressed against a house on top of a pile of sand.
MCCLAIN: This is definitely something I'm going to remember for the rest of my life. I mean, me living in Rockaway, I never experienced something like this. This is a huge, you know, slap to the face.
FERTIG: McClain has been thinking a lot about equity and the role of government after a disaster. But for now, he takes out his camera to record the sunset, before going home. He wants to share all of these moments with his school and anyone else who will see the video. Three weeks after the storm, McClain and his family finally got their electricity back, but they still had no heat. For NPR News, I'm Beth Fertig, in New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.