For Angela Williams, the routine was the same each day. She would leave her apartment, shuffle through a dark hallway and down a concrete stairwell, and stand in line for freeze-dried military rations handed out by Red Cross workers. The wait could last an hour. Williams, 45, would drop food off at her mother’s place a few buildings over, then push through her rheumatoid arthritis to hike the six flights back up to her apartment. There she would sit in darkness, trying not to go insane.
“It’s like we’re living in an abandoned building,” says Williams. “No hot water, no heat, no nothing.”
Even in ordinary times, life in the Redfern Houses wasn’t easy. The complex stands in the northeastern section of Far Rockaway, Queens, not far from the runways of JFK Airport. Inside nine faded-brick towers are 1,780 people in 604 apartments. Residents pay an average rent of $472 a month to the New York City Housing Authority. The architecture screams “projects”; so do the rusted trim and scuffed linoleum lobby floors. A security system includes 141 high-tech cameras designed to be triggered by the sound of gunshots, installed by the city after a three-day wave of shootings in 2008 left two people dead and five injured. And yet, many residents have made Redfern their home, working hard to keep their apartments immaculate inside regardless of the projects’ dingy exterior.
Then came Sandy. A little after dusk on Oct. 29, the storm piled water from Motts Basin over Beach Channel Drive and submerged the low-slung wrought iron fence surrounding the towers. Around 8 p.m., the lights went off. Elevators throughout the six and seven-story buildings were halted; heat went out, and appliances shut down. “You looked out the window and it was so dark, you didn’t know it was water until you seen it moving,” says David Stephens, who lives on the fourth floor. As quickly as it came, the water receded, leaving the wet grounds covered in darkness.
For many in Sandy’s path, the storm itself was terrifying. On Staten Island, houses collapsed, crushing people underneath; in Breezy Point, families fled blocks of homes in flames. But in Redfern, the real struggle began the next day, when it became clear that power wouldn’t return for weeks. For people who felt forgotten to begin with, warehoused in a housing project at the farthest corner of the city, it became easy to think that they are last in line for repairs. Engineers from the Army and Air Force have been pumping sand and saltwater out of the buildings’ basements, only to come back the next morning to waterlogged utility rooms they must pump out again.
The lack of power forced Sheree Pinder’s four children to sleep huddled in the living room under piles of blankets with black mold on the ceiling because the two bedrooms were so cold they could see their breath freeze. Rebecca Glynn, a hospital secretary, returned to work, but every night a bus ferried her home to the blackout zone, which she describes as a daily trip “back into hell.”
Still, most in Redfern count their blessings; the buildings suffered no structural damage. Late Sunday night, 14 days after the storm, electrical companies had finally hooked up every building to a generator, which means lights in the hallways, but still no heat in people’s apartments. “You have your moments. Maybe three days ago I came out of the building and just started crying,” Williams says. “I never disrespected the homeless, but I look at them in a totally different light. We’re in the same predicament.”
Finlay MacKay is a regular contributor to TIME.