Least Popular Character on Jersey Shore: Hurricane Sandy
Least Popular Character on Jersey Shore: Hurricane Sandy
With the dystopic, unreality show "Jersey Shore" in its waning sixth season, residents of the long Atlantic Coast in New Jersey have some rather more pressing concerns. Last week, the largest Atlantic hurricane on record crashed into the coast, plunging more than 8.2 million people into darkness, and flooding thousands of homes.
Parts of New York were temporarily submerged and permanently altered, and many New Yorkers are still reeling from the effects of the "superstorm." Although this has been devastating for many low-income residents of New York, it has had two positive outcomes. First, a horizontal relief effort, similar to Common Ground in New Orleans after Katrina, is forming out of the Occupy Movement, appropriately named Occupy Sandy. Second, the storm has brought climate change close to home, and forced some high profile officials to acknowledge its existence.
Of course, Jamaica, Haiti, and Cuba have been suffering in silence, mentioned only in passing by mainstream news sources. Cuba's Communist government has an excellent system in place for responding to natural disasters, and, according to an Oxfam report from 2002, has the lowest death rate from storms in the Caribbean. However, eleven Cuban lives were lost during and after Hurricane Sandy, as were the lives of 51 Haitians and thirteen Jamaicans.
However, there has been less discussion of the famous town in which “Frankenstorm” Sandy made landfall—Atlantic City, NJ. Known for its history during prohibition and its present as a gambling destination, Atlantic City has a reputation as a seedy, dangerous place. It is, in fact, a strong union town, which employs thousands of hotel and casino workers for good, union wages. Full of local shops and restaurants, it is an exciting place to go to get away. And, unbeknownst to many, it is the closest beach to Baltimore (only about 2.5 hours by car or bus).
A town that relies as much on tourism as Atlantic City must also rely heavily on its hospitality workers. These workers toil every day to ensure that the town continues to thrive, despite increasing competition from casinos in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. I wanted to see if Atlantic City would take care of its workers, the way that they have taken care of the city. This is the story of what I found in a twelve hour stay in Atlantic City on Wednesday, November 7.
Casinos in general, and Atlantic City, in particular, are known for decadent, theme-based architecture. Although embellishments, like this six-foot-tall marble corner piece, may be susceptible to wind damage, structurally, the casinos are extremely sound. In fact, according to an out-of-work laborer who was living at the temporary camp set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA is paying the casinos to house people who were lucky enough to have documentation of property rental or ownership.
The man I spoke with, who wished to remain anonymous, was paying rent, but not listed on the lease prior to the storm. He followed the directions that came from the governor to evacuate, telling his roommates as he left, “This ain't a horse. You can't ride this out.” They didn't listen, and stayed until more than a foot of cold water had filled the entire first-floor apartment, at which point they got into a car and left town. They have not returned, and without proof that he was living there legitimately, this man is at FEMA's mercy for the foreseeable future.
The Atlantic City Convention Center has been temporarily re-purposed by FEMA to house the hundreds of city residents who were displaced by the storm. The main front entrance was crowded with K-9 unit police, the dogs mostly in the line of police cars, stretching along the entire city block that runs the front of the building. Residents of the camp, like Ronald Clark (above) said they hadn't seen the police doing much, and did not feel there was great need for them.
Clark has lived in Atlantic City for the past four years. He works when he can, taking jobs as a cook or doing light carpentry. Last week, he was working in a restaurant in the Trump Plaza casino, but on Sunday, the day the storm hit, he was laid off. Clark was a member of UNITE HERE, the biggest union in Atlantic City. He says the union is helpful, but since the business of the town is seasonal, they have to accept seasonal contracts. His layoff was, therefore, within the terms of his contract. It still starkly demonstrates the willingness of the bosses to put profits over people.
According to Elliot B., a construction worker who has lived in Atlantic City all his life, FEMA personnel are removing people's FEMA registration bracelets if they choose to leave, forcing them to re-register upon return. He speculated that they might be receiving money for each registration, but it might also be that this was a move to discourage people from leaving. The shelter has a curfew from 7am to 7pm, and those not inside by 7pm cannot enter until 7am the next day. I met people wasting precious money at the casinos in the wee hours, because they had no where else to go, and were being pressured by management to play in exchange for the modicum of warmth and shelter.
Although both the Trump Plaza and the Trump Taj Majal (pictured above) reportedly fired some workers when the storm hit, other casinos stepped in to help members of their workforce who lost their homes.
Anant Pandya is a security guard at Bally's, one of four casinos in Atlantic City owned by Caesar's Entertainment Corporation. Although security guards are not part of the union, he felt his contract was strengthened by the presence of UNITE HERE. He also shared that the union has effectively pressured management to treat workers with some dignity.
Speaking about working conditions at Bally's after the storm, he said, "we have employees who have lost everything—home, furniture, everything—and now they are staying here, at the hotel, in the Tower. With their families. And free parking, free food. It's a good company." I later learned that Caesar's was putting up workers from all four of their casinos in that same tower at Bally's. Casino workers spoke of feeling like a family, even before the storm, and of being glad to help each other.
The major damage happening to the casinos was in the form of lost revenue. In my experience, election day tends to be fairly busy; teachers and other government workers often have the day off, and have a rare opportunity to take advantage of off-season, weekday prices. There were very few patrons the day after this election day—I counted 21 players on the floor at Resorts around 7am.
Although some patrons were there because they had booked travel long in advance and didn't want to cancel, there were also some locals, looking for signs of life. I met three young men, Nick Barea, 25, Jesse Ralyea, 22, and Brian Fernandez, 21. All three were from Tom's River, about an hour north of AC, near to Seaside Heights.
That area has been truly devastated by the storm. Ralyea described his neighbor's house, which had been spared, except for the "whole front porch: gone. Where you would walk out to drink your coffee; it's just not there anymore, and it's devastating, y'know? I've known these people all my life." He went on to say that "for every one house you see, [there's one] shattered. It's ridiculous."
The three had worked a long shift at the Shop Right in Tom's River the night before. When they got out of work at 11:30pm, they decided to drive down the coast to Atlantic City. They were eager to tell their stories to a fresh audience.
"Ever since it happened," Fenandez told me, "I feel like I haven't talked to anybody. It's like Zombie-pocalypse." When pressed about that comment, he said that people's tempers had been exceptionally short, and anger was pervasive.
As grocery store workers (two of them members of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union), they had a unique perspective on the desperation the storm caused. Barea related the story of the last two gallons of water to leave the shelf before the storm. One woman was walking away with both when another came up and appealed to her that they might each take one. The first woman refused. He told me that, since a few days before the storm, "whenever batteries and water come out, people are like savages."
One of the charms of Atlantic City is that it is a year-round town, unlike many beach resort towns, whose populations fluctuate enormously from season to season. The casino buildings served as a buffer between the city and the destructive force of the winds and the storm surge. Unlike in Seaside Heights and Tom's River, there were very few houses reduced to rubble.
The damage to the town came mostly in the form of flooding. In the picture above, you can see the the house on the left had beige siding, which has been ripped off of at least one wall. But the massive array of trash on the curb is evidence that these homes sustained serious water damage. Those homes that are owned by their occupants will mostly be fine: the owners will get money from insurance and/or FEMA, and will do careful repairs.
Unfortunately, many of the homes in Atlantic City are rental properties, owned by slum lords, who may have less incentive to do anything more than cosmetic repairs to their properties. One woman, Mariana, described her experience with the flood. She and her husband had followed the orders to evacuate. They were not allowed back to their rented apartment for three days after the storm. By that time, everything had begun to mold over. They were lucky that their home had not been broken into in that time—an insult which was added to the injury of many forced from their houses.
Mariana followed the directions given on the television to call FEMA to report damage. She and her husband are legal residents of the United States, but not citizens. They moved here from Vera Cruz almost a decade ago and have been working, paying taxes, learning English, and faithfully renewing their visas ever since. However, every time she called FEMA, their first request was for a social security number. She explained that she had the PIN associated with her visa, but not a SSN. They refused to help her. She and her husband have been staying with friends ever since. They do not want to continue to impose, but don't know what else to do.
Atlantic City is a place unlike any other. For a town with such a fly-by-night reputation, it is a stronghold of unionism.
There are many forces acting against the fortunes of this town—from the storm and the damage it has caused to the growing ease with which casinos can open in surrounding states. With the passage of Question 7 on the Maryland ballot, we are poised to have yet another opportunity to gamble away our money right here in our own back yard. But Atlantic City isn't all about gambling; it's a town with character and heart.
I left on Wednesday in a driving wind, which was blowing heavy, wet snow into the city. As it blanketed the ground, covering the misplaced sand, I knew that it would be a long road to recovery, but hoped that this town would come out on top.
Iris Kirsch is a Baltimore City Public School teacher and a worker-owner of the Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse. A native New Yorker, ze has been living in Baltimore for the past 13 years and loves it. Ze is a voracious reader, an amateur costumer, and a perennial joke-player. Some of zer articles are partially ghost-written by zer cat, Cat Jones.