Atlantic City's poor endure storm quietly, humbly
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) — Atlantic City's poorest residents had next to nothing going into the storm, and they came out of it with even less.
In the shadow of multibillion-dollar casinos that now boast of having come through Superstorm Sandy just fine, urging gamblers to return with their wallets, many of the seaside gambling resort's least fortunate endure hardship with quiet resignation — even gratitude for the help they're getting.
Some lost heat, hot water or electricity for days, weeks. They lost many of their meager possessions, their food, and most of their clothes. But instead of complaining about what they don't have, many say they feel blessed for what remains.
Lonzie Tolbert's basement took on 6 feet of water, ruining his furnace. He has no heat, so he burns small pieces of wood and scraps of paper in a fireplace to try to keep warm. He has no hot water, so he tries to heat some in a kettle near the fireplace.
"You do the best you can with what you have," said the 84-year-old Tolbert, sunning himself on a 66-degree afternoon outside his home three blocks from Revel, a $2.4 billion casino resort. "I can't complain and I'm not hollerin'."
Life was tough for many Atlantic City residents even before the storm hit Oct. 29. One in four Atlantic City residents lives in poverty, according to Census figures, a rate that has remained unchanged since 1970. That's well above the national rate.
When an emergency shelter at the Atlantic City Convention Center closed over the weekend, 100 people were still there and had to be moved to hotels, the Atlantic City Rescue Mission, or to the homes of friends. And about 20 percent of the apartments at Stanley Holmes Village, a 443-unit low-income public housing project, remain uninhabitable since the storm.
"These are people who have already had tremendous struggles in the first place," said the Rev. Collins Days Sr., pastor of Second Baptist Church, which helped distribute supplies over the weekend.
"Tough times and being without is nothing new to them. But we realize it could have been a whole lot worse, and we are not as bad off as our neighbors to the north," he said. "There's a lot of help out there, and they are grateful to it and to God."
Tolbert counts himself among the thankful.
"As long as you have your life, and we do," he said. "At least nobody lost their lives; people could easily have drowned."
Farther north on the Jersey shore, they did; at least four deaths attributable to the storm involved people who drowned in their homes.
Waiting in line for a hot creamed chicken meal in a plastic foam tray from a Red Cross truck a block away from Revel, Charles Barnes counted himself lucky.
"We are truly blessed," said Barnes, whose home was badly damaged in the storm when winds tore a hole in the roof. He said he still had no electricity two weeks after the storm hit; he has been rooting through debris piles since the storm looking for scrap metal to haul to a junkyard for a few dollars.
"You have to help yourself sometimes," Barnes said. "We're all in this together, and we need to help each other."
Several people in line at the Red Cross food truck said they were collecting meals not for themselves, but to carry to elderly and sick people in nearby high-rise apartments who are unable to fend for themselves.
Arlene Ciambrano, a senior citizen, was coughing and sweating profusely as she waited patiently for a meal tray from the truck. She has had no heat since the storm and came down with a cold and a fever that she fears have grown into something worse since then.
"I've been in a mess for two weeks," she said. "That green stuff, what do you call it? Mold! Mold is all over the place. But I have no place else to go."
She said the Red Cross truck was her only source of food in recent days, adding she was grateful for it.
Josephine Parker was lavish in her praise for the Red Cross volunteers. She had no heat or electricity for several days after the storm and lost all the food in her refrigerator.
"Bless you! May God and all the angels bless you," she told Ellen Foreman, a Red Cross volunteer from Panama City, Fla., driving one of many out-of-state disaster response vehicles that were helping to feed Atlantic City's hungry two weeks after Sandy roared through.
"They gave us blankets and food," Parker said. "I can't say how much I appreciate that."
The casinos have ponied up several hundred thousand dollars for storm victims, which include many of their own workers. Four of the casinos took a group of storm victims to a Philadelphia 76ers game a few days ago.
And although the casinos' business is badly hurting since the storm — some said business fell by 50 percent in the first week after they reopened — the resorts are looking to the future with an ad campaign emphasizing that Sandy did not hurt the casinos or the Boardwalk next to them.
On Wednesday, work began on the $35 million Margaritaville entertainment complex at Resorts Casino Hotel, something the casino's president called a vote of confidence in Atlantic City's future.
Eddie Santiago's future is less clear. He was hauling debris from the alley next to a friend's damaged apartment that was literally in Revel's shadow and asked a passer-by about a rumor that out-of-state companies were sending recruiting trucks into Atlantic City to help find laborers.
"I could use some work," he said. "There's a lot of damage here. I've been here 43 years and I've never seen anything like this. We're still having a hard time. But it could have been worse. I thought I was going to die, and I'm still here."
Sheleah Gibbs said she was grateful for a relief distribution over the weekend at Bader Field, the former airport site where a broad spectrum of supplies was handed out to storm victims.
"They gave out blankets, cleaning kits, Pampers, baby milk," she said. "There was chocolate chip cookies, potato chips, water, book bags, toys for kids, shovels, trash bags. They were even talking about giving out Christmas trees, though I never saw any of those. They had so much supplies, it was amazing."
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC.