New York City Hurricane Veterans Reflect on Sandy

PHOTO: tree

The highest point in Manhattan also happens to be one of the best places to find people with firsthand knowledge of flooding and hurricanes.

Head uptown to Washington Heights, the heart of Dominican immigrant America, and you'll find plenty of transplants from the Caribbean familiar with monsters like Sandy.

A day after the storm battered and inundated New York City, a stretch of Broadway running through the neighborhood still looked mostly untouched, discounting some uprooted trees and broken branches.

Of course, that's nothing compared to the destruction one might see in the Dominican Republic, according to 26-year-old Joel Nuñez. He's a pharmacist who was born and raised in the Heights but has family in the DR:

"It's really bad over there when a hurricane hits," he said. "Plantation, agriculture, everything goes down the drain."

Five people died when Sandy passed through the Dominican Republic last week, and the island nation has faced even deadlier storms in the last ten years. In 2004, Hurricane Jeanne took 18 lives and caused more than $270 million worth of damage -- 1.7 percent of the country's gross domestic product at the time.

Compared to neighboring Haiti, where Jeanne killed more than 3,000 people, those hurricane fatalities might not seem high. But the architecture and threat of mudslides make the Dominican Republic more vulnerable to deaths than a place like New York.

In addition, a lack of economic resources slows the recovery process, according to 61-year-old Víctor de León, the owner of Victor Bicycle Repair on Broadway near 174th Street.

"It's not the same way as the United States, because maybe in 24 hours or 48 hours, it's going to be everything normal again," he said. "Maybe it takes months or years to fix completely the destruction in my country."

Repairing the damage from Sandy will take far longer than a few days, but officials have said some of the city's core services -- buses, roads and power -- could be restored this week.

By contrast, when Sandy hit the Dominican Republic, it leveled more than 3,500 homes and took out several bridges, leaving 130 communities isolated. And Sandy was only a Category 1 storm, relatively weak compared to some other recent ones.

When it comes to preparations, Dominicans in this neighborhood say that the government in their home country tries to alert the public in advance, but many cannot afford to buy provisions or don't make it to shelters.

Eddie Gómez, a 42 year old who lives in the Bronx, said that sometimes when officials in the Dominican Republic give an order to evacuate, people don't listen. He noticed the same problem here.

"If the authorities tell you that a hurricane is coming, if you live near water, you need to leave there," he said in Spanish. "That's the main thing, that people protect themselves."

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