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Originally published Monday, November 12, 2012 at 10:35 AM

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'Disaster tourists' head to storm-ravaged New York neighborhoods

The curious come to see impacts of Superstorm Sandy's destruction on Staten Island.

The Associated Press

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I do my gawking by looking at photos. Less messy. Less likely to be assaulted by an... MORE
"By the same token, I would do it, too. That says it all. There's always a sl... MORE

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NEW YORK — Garbage trucks, hulking military vehicles and mud-caked cars move slowly through a Staten Island waterfront neighborhood still reeling from Superstorm Sandy's storm surge. Then comes an outlier: a spotless SUV with three passengers peering out windows at a mangled home choked with sea grass.

Residents recognize the occupants right away. They're disaster tourists, people drawn to the scene of a tragedy to glimpse the pictures they've seen on television come to life.

Two weeks after the superstorm socked the region, cleanup continues in New York and New Jersey, which bore the brunt of the destruction. At its peak, the storm knocked out power to 8.5 million in 10 states, and some during a later nor'easter.

But the storm didn't just bring darkness and despair; it also brought the gawkers.

"It's a little annoying," said Chris Nasella, who paused as he finished cleaning up a home reduced to a shell on the first floor. "By the same token, I would do it, too. I don't think anyone wouldn't want to look at boats that are picked up and left on the streets. As long as you don't get a kick out of it, it's an amazing thing."

There weren't many tourists in Nasella's neighborhood on Saturday. Cleanup crews had done some extensive work. The neighborhood is only accessible through streets clogged with idled cars in gas lines and traffic made deliberate by still-powerless traffic signals.

But they left an impression.

"The gawking was amazing last week," said Joanne McClenin, whose home was filled with water five feet high on the night Sandy came ashore. "It was kind of offensive as a homeowner, because I felt violated."

On Staten Island's streets, many of the volunteers who carried garbage cans and shovels, or pushed grocery carts filled with supplied carried mobile phones with them and, like Chelsea Chan, paused to take pictures of the damage. Chan said she was taking the pictures for her father who was in another part of New York City and unable to see the damage for himself.

Seaver Avenue on Staten Island was sloppy with mud, sand and curbside mounds of couches, personal photos, mattresses and sodden sheetrock. Mickey Merrell's front porch was askew, and the storm surge nearly knocked a neighbor's house into hers. Across the street a house was washed off its foundation. It was a scene of human misery — and one of New York City's new attractions, just like the construction crane that collapsed and dangled precariously high above midtown Manhattan on Oct. 29.

"Sometimes it's like we're at the zoo," Merrell said. "So many people come and stop and stare at this place."

Michelle Van Tassel, a Staten Island resident who has friends who lost everything, said she tried to deliver supplies but couldn't get through because there were so many people on the street who had no business being there.

"There were a tremendous amount of people who came into the borough to take pictures, to look at the devastation themselves, and it seemed like more of a tourist attraction down there than it actually felt like people who were trying to help," she said, her voice breaking.

Peter Lisi, a renter who is fighting a landlord trying to evict him from his damaged home, said he doesn't mind the gawkers, "as long as they're not making fun." Some of them are drawn in to what's happening and help, he said.

Domenick and Kim Barone said they could tell the tourists apart from the volunteers because the gawkers' clothes and shoes are clean, and they're often snapping pictures.

"Obviously they have nothing else to do," Kim Barone said. "If this is their source of entertainment, to wallow in other people's despair, I don't have the time. I'm trying just to clean out and save what I can save. I don't really have the time to worry about them."

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