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When Bad Times Get Worse: Storms Show How the Other Half Lives

The stories are horrifying. Without electricity, the poorest New Yorkers are unable to pay for food with food stamps. Public housing residents muddle through the night sans power, elevators and water. For those lucky enough to have a car, well, it might double as a bed.

Here was the situation at Ninth Street and Avenue D:

All morning, people lined up at open fire hydrants to fill pails and jugs with water. They walked across the street to buy bread from a man who they said had doubled the price, to $2. They went in search of cigarettes, an ATM that worked and their benefits checks.

Each trip began and ended with a walk up and down those darkened stairs.

“Nobody comes to help us,” Brice said, walking down slowly, finding his way with the glow of a cellphone. “The cops don’t come in here. No one’s bringing us flashlights. No one’s bringing water. No one’s doing anything.”

Down he went, the 11th floor turning into the 10th and then the ninth. “There could be dead people inside these apartments,” he said. “We wouldn’t know.”

This is how New York's poor lives in the wake of a disaster such as Hurricane Sandy. The City's immense, cumulative wealth does not trickle down during such crises -- or, for that matter, during the good times -- and, as we clean up the debris and bury the bodies left behind, it's apparent that for many of our country's inhabitants, the United States is such times not so far removed from countries with considerably smaller GDPs. In other words, all poverty is local.

It almost goes without saying our country fails its most vulnerable citizens during, and after, a natural disaster. We're conditioned, to some extent, not to expect anything else. It's suggestive, I think, to look at the response to Katrina versus that to Sandy. After the former, it was not uncommon for pundits to blithely make the case against rebuilding the city, home to more than a million people prior to the hurricane. In fact, said the Speaker of the House, "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed."

So far, no one has argued that Staten Island must be abandoned, even though it's condition has been equated to a war zone. I'm sure race is a factor here -- no one could mistake the outer borough for the Chocolate City -- but economics trump all. There's a world of difference between the per capita incomes of New Orleans ($17,000) and Staten Island ($24,000) -- and yet another world separating Staten Island from Manhattan and, to some extent, Brooklyn.

Day to day, there's a certain bifurcation between the rich and poor but during extreme circumstances they collide. Which is why the recovery from Sandy is, as the New York Times puts it today, "fractured." It's fractured everywhere you look: state to state, borough to borough, neighborhood to neighborhood. My own, Brooklyn Heights, was nearly untouched; we didn't so much as lose electricity. But Red Hook, which is within walking distance but is much closer to the water's edge, is suffering. We are damn lucky.

All of which is to say: I hope the proximity of this disaster to the election induces a reconsideration by the president (whoever that may be) of how the haves, in the government and the private sector, treat the have-nots. We're seeing it now in a very ugly way, and it should be a incumbent upon both Obama and Romney -- neither of whom to has shown much promise in this area -- to do something about it.