A cat explores the rubble of a home damaged by Superstorm Sandy in October in the New Dorp area of Staten Island, 1 February 2013. A volunteer aid center has been told to leave a park, but many victims living in temporary housing say they still need its help. Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times

By Tina Susman
6 May 2013

NEW YORK (Los Angeles Times) – It has been six months since Donna Graziano packed a barbecue into her car, drove 15 miles from her Brooklyn home to Staten Island, and began cooking for residents of a neighborhood ravaged by Superstorm Sandy. Her one-woman effort in a seaside park expanded into an aid hub that has drawn donations of food, generators, clothes, diapers and household goods, and has become the go-to center for locals seeking advice on everything from emergency aid to mold removal.

Now, the city's parks department says it is time for Graziano's Cedar Grove Community Hub to dismantle its five tents so that the park and nearby beach can welcome summer visitors and begin a major dune reinforcement project. It has given her until Wednesday to find another place to run her freelance aid agency.

Locals who still rely on the hub say they won't leave without a fight, a quandary that highlights the lagging recovery of areas hit hardest by Sandy and the competing interests at play as officials move toward normalcy even as some storm victims struggle with needs unmet.

"The focus should be on fixing up our community, not cleaning up a beach," said Tracy Freeo, a regular visitor to Cedar Grove, which is about a quarter-mile from the ocean in the New Dorp neighborhood of Staten Island.

"They gave up their lives to help us get ours back," she said of the volunteers who have joined Graziano since Sandy hit last October and who staff the Cedar Grove hub 24/7. "Whether it was a roll of toilet paper or just a conversation, they gave comfort."

As Freeo spoke, Graziano did what she usually does from morning until night, when she drives back home to Brooklyn and to her 4-year-old daughter. She sat at a table inside the main tent fielding storm victims' calls and urging them to attend a rally protesting the city's plan to close her down.

When two women entered the tent in search of diapers, she directed them to a volunteer, who led them to another tent stacked with household goods. Behind her, a young man dished up hot meals to passers-by, many from nearby houses still without kitchens.

On the street outside, homes condemned by city inspectors sat with boarded up windows and splintered porches, the grim repetition interrupted by others in various states of repair.

Graziano, a tiny, gravel-voiced woman of 41 with flaming red hair, acknowledges that some might call her an enabler, running a comfort station for people who would rather enjoy free food and conversation than face post-Sandy life in a neighborhood that isn't what it used to be. Graziano says she would happily go back to her old life in Brooklyn, working as a wedding planner and caring for her daughter, if she thought the neighborhood she adopted could take care of itself.

"But six months later, we're still feeding people," she said, slapping her hand down on one of the hot plates of the buffet in the main tent.

"At six months, this should be gone," Graziano said. "But what do you tell someone who has no insurance, has to pay rent while their house is fixed, and is still having to pay a mortgage: 'Hey, I can't help you anymore'?" [more]

Superstorm Sandy aid center on Staten Island fights order to leave

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