Sanitation Chief John McGovern Helps Clean Up His Sandy-Battered Rockaways

"This isn't something you are supposed to see in America," John McGovern, a chief of operations for the New York City Department of Sanitation, told The Daily News. "This is like a war zone."

McGovern is a 35-year resident of the Rockaways, the 11-mile Long Island peninsula where the swelling waters and whipping winds of Hurricane Sandy upended cars, tore out the boardwalk, burned down over a hundred homes, and flooded countless more. McGovern predicts that 100,000 residents have suffered water or fire damage.

McGovern is now overseeing the cleanup of his neighborhood, coordinating 500 other city sanitation workers who are putting in 12-hour shifts, reports the New York newspaper, picking up debris and collecting piles of wood and furniture.

Residents say that they haven't seen anyone from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the Red Cross pay a visit, reports Reuters. Other volunteers and sanitation workers like McGovern are providing relief in their absence. New Yorkers who had their heat and light restored had flooded into the hard-hit areas on Sunday with carloads of supplies and willing hands, overwhelming the city's relief centers, reported The New York Times.

More:NYC-area Workers Face Daunting Commute After Hurricane Sandy

"At this point these centers have more than they can really, realistically, distribute," Mayor Bloomberg said. Shelters in the Rockaways had even turned away volunteers, suggesting that they just donate money instead.

"It's like the city, the officials, have forgotten us. Only our neighbors and strangers, volunteers, have been here," Rockaways resident Gregory Piechocki told Reuters. "We don't need food or water, we need a warm place to sleep and some sign that we aren't forgotten."

The Rockaways is a low- and middle-income beach community decimated by what officials have called the worst storm in New York's history. The Long Island Power Authority, which provides power to the area, says that it will take two weeks to bring light back to this outer tract of the city.

Bloomberg has called this timescale "unacceptable," but LIPA said in a statement that more than a quarter of its 275,000 powerless customers may have dwellings too damaged to accept power anyway.

More:Hurricane Sandy And Jobs: A Few Pockets Of Opportunity

Some Rockaways residents are burning debris to keep warm as temperatures in New York plummeted in Sandy's wake. Forecasters predict a nor'easter to arrive on Wednesday or Thursday, slamming more rains and winds at fractured homes, roads and trees, and likely undoing some recovery efforts.

With power back in most of Manhattan, and a few transit lines up and running, most of New York stuttered back to its old rhythm a week after the superstorm hit. But outer, coastal areas such as Staten Island, Coney Island and the Rockaways, remained far from any kind of normality.

"It's decimated -- it's our Katrina," McGovern said of the Rockaways. "It hurts to see my area like this."

And since these areas are more low-income than Manhattan, observers say that Sandy -- like many extreme storms before her -- has brutally exposed the have- and have-not divides of America's most populous city.

Bloomberg made an unannounced trip to the Rockaways on Saturday, when a news crew spotted him, reports the New York Post, catching on a camera the furious reaction of some desperate locals. "When are we gonna get some help?" yelled one woman. "When are we gonna get some f***ing help?"

"I spoke to many people who were worried, frustrated and cold," Bloomberg said, when he arrived back at City Hall. "There's no power there and temperatures are dropping. Even those who have generators are having a hard time getting fuel."

The army of sanitation workers are providing some comfort though. "I'm glad sanitation came to help," Mike Dimotsis told the The Daily News. Sandy left Dimotsis and his 89-year-old mother's house uninhabitable. "It will take a long time, but we will be the Rockaways we used to be."

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