Faces of Brooklyn's Public Housing Residents After Sandy

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After days of living in darkness and bitter cold, apartment-dwellers in Red Hook are slowly regaining power.

Ulyses Bermudez just had his first bath in a week and a half. "It was so fantastic, it took me two hours and 22 minutes to warm up that water. But when I went in there, I was at heaven, I was at peace. I mean, I scrubbed myself down, I felt so fresh, I felt like I was born again. It felt so good."

Bermudez lives at 80 Dwight Street, one of the 30 public housing buildings that make up the Red Hook West homes. Hurricane Sandy caused high tides to spread out over the Red Hook neighborhood, which sits right off the ocean in South Brooklyn. It flooded the basement of Bermudez's building, disabling everything but the gas. Bermudez recently got his water back on, but it's cold. He and most of the other 100 or so neighbors who refused to leave the building for storm shelters have not been able to do basic things, like shower, for going on two weeks.

"But when I got up from that water, that water was pitch black. You can imagine, if I'm telling you this, what other people are going through that haven't taken a bath in such a long time."

A handwritten sign on the door of 80 Dwight Street gives the name and phone number of State Senator Velmanette Montgomery, who serves this community. Below her contact information are the words, "We Are Not Animals." Ulyses Bermudez has picked up this rallying cry for his building. "I think the animals are doing better than we are."

Inside Bermudez's apartment a candle flickers in the kitchen. Otherwise the place is completely dark. He walks around with a headlamp to orient himself. Apartment 1D is basically the only home he's ever known. He's 57 years old, and so is his building. He says his mother, who died two years ago, was the third tenant accepted into the building. "Nobody else has ever had this apartment. Nobody."

At around 9 p.m., Bermudez is winding down, getting ready to listen to news on his battery-powered radio. He says he's heard some coverage of Red Hook, and he's hoping the media can help pressure politicians into more action. "They should have been here a few days after the storm. They're coming now, after all this time, come on..."

Up on the 12th floor, 34 year-old Jessica Cruz is boiling water on the stove as a way to create heat in her unit. In the first days after Hurricane Sandy, she and her family huddled around the flames on the stove itself, as gas was the only resource available. Then, as the water came back on, they started boiling it to create some additional warmth. Fifty-seven year-old Jose Cruz, Jessica's father, says he's stopped counting on Mayor Bloomberg's predictions of when his family will get heat back. "The whole week they've been telling us tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow. It never happens."

Jose Cruz does not have a lot to distract him from the misery of living in a cold building at the moment. His employer, a local Red Hook restaurant called Fort Defiance, was washed out in the storm as well. He's not sure if and when he'll be back on the job.

Jessica Cruz says the cold has been the worst part of her family's post-hurricane life. "It's colder inside than outside," she says. For the past two weeks Cruz, her father, her husband Effi Llera, and their four children -- 5 year-old twins Bridgette and Isaiah, 10 year old Xavier, and 16 year old Effi Jr. -- have done their best to keep their lives going. When the power is out, that takes a lot of effort. With no elevator, Jessica Cruz says she has to plan how many trips are worth taking up and down the 12 flights of stairs that only recently became lit again. "Yesterday we had to take the laundry down. I had three big bags. My father threw them down the stairs."

Cruz's oldest two boys are back in school now. Cruz says because of the cold inside, she spends most of the day outside with her younger kids. The whole family also congregates at her mother in-law's apartment, a public housing unit in Red Hook that didn't lose power in the storm. They all head home around 8:30 at night to get ready for bed. To make sure the kids are warm enough at night, Jessica has the four of them huddle up on one big mattress on the floor.

Jessica's husband, Effi, shows a cell phone photo of the night of the storm. He and his son stood outside and watched as the tide came in further and further, until it flooded their building. When the power went out around 8:30, they knew things were going to be worse than they had imagined. Llera, 34, has spent his entire life in Red Hook's public housing universe. He seems calm about what many in his building are calling an injustice, "There's no need to be angry, by being angry ain't going to get the power back. You just got to deal with it."

In the living room, Jessica Cruz laughs as she points at the wall. "It's sweating." Moisture is running from the ceiling down along the wall in long drips. There's fear that this will lead to mold.

Sandy isn't the only natural disaster that has compromised the Cruz residence. Jose Cruz points to a pair of missing floor tiles and a crack running through the concrete. The family says the September 2011 earthquake which hit New York City caused that damage. The backside of 80 Dwight Street has a long crack running through the brick tower. Residents say the crack also appeared after the earthquake.

The latest attempt to resuscitate 80 Dwight Street is an enormous tractor-trailer moved into the parking lot. Inside its cab is a mobile boiler unit that should start pumping heat into the building starting this week. A long tube extends into the first floor, making this public housing building look even more like a hospital patient on life support. Vital signs are showing, as lights have started to finally flicker off and on, but the long-term prognosis for this home to hundreds of Brooklynites is anybody's guess.

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Jesse Hardman is a video, radio, and print reporter based in Brooklyn.

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