Sick, frail struggle most in superstorm's aftermath

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NEW YORK -- Some of society's most vulnerable people -- the elderly, the disabled and the chronically ill -- have been pushed to the brink in the powerless, flood-ravaged neighborhoods struggling to recover from Superstorm Sandy.

The storm didn't just knock out electricity and destroy property when it came ashore in places like the Far Rockaway section of Queens -- a borough of New York City. It disrupted the fragile support networks that allowed the neighborhood's frailest residents to get by.

Here, the catastrophe has closed pharmacies, kept home care aids from getting to elderly clients and made getting around in a wheelchair impossible. The city has recorded at least two deaths of older men in darkened buildings.

For some living in the disaster zone, it has all been too much.

When a team of medics and national guardsmen turned up at Sheila Goldberg's apartment tower in Far Rockaway on Friday to check on the well-being of residents, floor by floor, the 75-year-old burst into tears and begged for help caring for her 85-year-old husband.

"This is a blessing. I'm at my wit's end," she sobbed.

Her husband, Irwin, has a pacemaker, wears a colostomy bag, and needs her help to do almost everything. When the power was on, Mrs. Goldberg said, "I could take care of him by myself and survive." But for days, the building had no heat or electricity. There were no open stores to buy food. Until the end of the week, there was no water or elevators either, meaning residents like the Goldbergs, on the 25th floor, had to cart water up the steps themselves just to flush the toilet. A bad stench permeates much of the building.

"I'm running out of my blood pressure medication. We're both going to drop dead in this apartment," Sheila Goldberg said. The medical team said it would make arrangements to transfer Irwin Goldberg to a medical facility, at least temporarily.

City and federal officials, and a growing army of volunteers, are trying hard to make sure families like that don't fall into despair. Their efforts come alongside relief workers, donations, volunteers and demolition crews who flocked to New York and New Jersey in recent days to assist in the massive cleanup. The region took a few more steps to move past the storm Saturday, when power was restored for many more and gas rationing eased some of the clogged lines at stations in New York.

Paramedics from all over the country, including the ones that found the Goldbergs, fanned out across the Rockaways this weekend to check on shut-ins and anyone else who might need help.

The idea was to find people who "sheltered in place" during the storm, who might need assistance, said Nancy Clark, an assistant commissioner in the city's health department.

But even as the lights came on for many who lost power in New York and New Jersey during the superstorm and a later nor'easter, scores of residents protested Saturday outside a Long Island utility, frustrated by its slow response to outages.

Power restoration has been slower there than in other areas hit by Superstorm Sandy, sparking criticism of the Long Island Power Authority. Some of the 130,000 blacked out homes and businesses the utility serves may not have power restored until the end of Tuesday, according to LIPA.

In the rest of the region hardest hit by the storm, most service was expected to be restored by the end of the weekend, though that doesn't include tens of thousands of homes too damaged to juice up.

"We are sitting in a cold house. No one comes by," said John Mangin of Levittown, N.Y. "There should be criminal charges against the CEO and the executive board of LIPA for failure to do their jobs."

He was among about 300 people staging a rally in front of LIPA's office in Hicksville, N.Y. Not all were without power, but some who have power said they were there to protest LIPA's lack of communication.

LIPA Chief Operating Officer Michael Hervey said the utility was aware that customers haven't gotten the information they've needed from it, partly because of an outdated information technology system it's in the process of updating.

But he said workers are repairing unprecedented storm damage as fast as they can. About 6,400 linemen and 3,700 tree trimmers are at work, compared with 200 linemen on a normal day.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called for an investigation of the region's utilities, criticizing them as unprepared and badly managed. On Friday, two congressmen from Long Island called for the federal government to help LIPA restore electricity.

"It's a totally disorganized effort, and LIPA unfortunately seems to have lost control of the situation," Rep. Peter King said Saturday.

In New York City and neighboring Westchester County, utility Con Edison said about 11,400 customers remained powerless, down from a peak of more than 1 million. The number of remaining outages doesn't include about 30,000 homes in three New York City boroughs -- Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island -- that the utility says are too damaged to receive power for now.

In New Jersey, fewer than 85,000 customers were without power Saturday, most along the coast. That was down from 2.7 million at the height of the storm. Most were expected to have power by the end of the weekend.

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