For Those Living Paycheck to Paycheck, Sandy Hits Harder

PHOTO: Nana Abukudom hasnt rented a bike in five days, and doesnt think hell be able to make rent.Cristina Costantini
Nana Abukudom hasn't rented a bike in five days, and doesn't think he'll be able to make rent.

Nana Abukudom works on commission, renting out bikes to tourists in Central Park. With all city parks closed after Superstorm Sandy, he won't be able to make his October rent payment of $450 dollars, he says. Nor will he be able to wire money to his three children and wife in Accra, Ghana, as he'd hoped.

"I haven't rented a bike to anyone in five days," he said.

Abukudom, who has worked in the U.S. for nine years, was outside for hours on Thursday morning, trying to convince passersby to rent his bikes and ride them somewhere else aside from the park. "Anywhere else," he said.

There were no takers.

On a good day, Abukudom can make upwards of 100 dollars leasing bikes, but with the parks closed, demand for bikes was nearly non-existent. This afternoon, Mayor Bloomberg announced that parks would open on Saturday morning, once city workers could ensure safety.

"My biggest question is when will business get better," he said. "It's very very hard for us."

Sandy has displaced thousands, left millions without power, and caused billions in damages to homes and businesses in New York and New Jersey. But, for some, the storm presents more pressing economic concerns and few viable solutions.

Many in New York's lower and middle classes are left wondering, "How will I get to work?", "Who will watch my kids when they are off from school?" or "How will I make rent without steady income?" For the wealthy, fleeing the city, staying in a hotel, taking the week off work and leaving the kids with nannies are possible temporary solutions. For many working-class New Yorkers, however, the fix often isn't so easy.

Karadimas Ioannis, who owns two food carts on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, had to leave his home in Queens before 3 a.m. on Thursday in order to avoid temporary traffic rules that prohibit cars with less than three passengers from entering Manhattan.

It was his first day back to work, and three days without his usual income is putting a strain on his family's budget. Ioannis also has two employees from Oaxaca, Mexico, both of whom have multiple children and wives to support. The storm has also made life more difficult for them.

"Money is tight right now. We all have bills to pay," said Ioannis, who sells coffee and breakfast food to New Yorkers on their way to work. "Kids don't have school, and figuring out who will watch them -- that's another worry for us."

Both men employed by Ioannis rode their bicycles to work from Harlem, because the subways weren't yet open by the time they had to leave, he noted. Some subway lines opened today at 6 a.m., but all those to Lower Manhattan remained closed, creating traffic jams and headaches for many New Yorkers who needed to find new ways to get to work.

"We all came here very early," Ioannis said. "To avoid the mess."

Ioannis said even though money was tight, his real concern was for those who had lost loved ones in the storm. "Money comes, money goes, but life we can't replace," he said.

The wealth divide has always existed in New York City, but disasters can amplify the distance between classes. The Big Apple's wealth gap is wider than it has ever been, with disparities rivaling those of sub-Saharan Africa, The New York Times reported. Last year, the wealthiest 20 percent of Manhattan made nearly $400,000 on average, according to census data, while the poorest 20 percent made less than $10,000.

Poorer people are often the most vulnerable during extreme weather conditions, because they have fewer resources to evacuate, less access to storm-resistant shelter and less money to recuperate from the effects of the storm, according to a team of University of California professors who studied the topic in the wake of Katrina. They also found that black, Hispanic, Asian and immigrant communities were hit the hardest. And the most "socially vulnerable" county in the nation to "environmental hazards," in light of these factors? Manhattan, the researchers concluded.

For people like Nana Abukudom, the economic consequences of the storm are sharp, and unforgiving.

"Back home in Ghana, there were no jobs and no work. That's why I'm here," Abukudom said, holding a "BIKE RENTAL" sign. "Now it's very hard here too."