Lenora Edwards, wandering the blocks around her Liberty City home, trying to distract her from the 90-degree-plus heat, was astonished when several women brandishing plates of chicken and rice waved at her to come inside a building.
For one thing, there’d been no electricity — which meant no hot meals — within hundreds of square blocks of her house since Hurricane Irma roared past more than a week earlier.
For another, Edwards knew the building to be a mosque, Masjid Al-Ansar. “I’m a Christian,” she said. “What would they want with me?”
The answer was nothing, except to feed her lunch and invite her back the next day to pick up a bag of free groceries. For Edwards, who said she hadn’t see any city relief workers or FPL repairmen or anything at all with even a whiff of officialdom in the week since the storm, this was something near a marvel.
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“Nobody’s been around to help us at all,” Edwards said Sunday. “Just these church people. What they’re doing for the neighborhood, it’s just excellent.”
In the days since Irma slapped Florida back into a primeval past before air conditioning or roads, nearly everybody has felt, at one time or another, like recovery is a distant, shimmering mirage.
But the distance seems greatest in scruffy, working-class neighborhoods like Liberty City or Allapattah or Flagami, where on even the best of days, the picture-post-card Miami of Art Deco and Armani and midnight foam parties seems somewhere on the other side of the moon.
Rightly or wrongly, many of their residents think they’re at the end of the line when it comes to getting help.
“I don’t want to say we’re neglected,” said Nia Jackson, principal of the pre-kindergarten through eighth grade school operated by Masjid Al-Ansar. “But maybe we’re not a priority.”
The lack of outside help for her neighborhood prompted Jackson and others at the mosque to link up with the Islamic Center of North America’s worldwide disaster-relief organization.
They not only distributed thousands of pounds of food as well as organizing debris-removal operations, not just in Liberty City but other working-class neighborhoods.
Often, groups like the Masjid Al-Ansar volunteers are about the only visible sign of outside help in the low-profile residential areas they work. And the hundreds of people — only a handful of them Muslims — who lined up at the mosque on Sunday for a hot chicken meal and a bag full of things like tuna, crackers and breakfast were clearly cheered up by the experience.
“You get some cold water and a little bit of ice to take home and a plate of real food, and it makes you feel better,” said one woman. “And you feel like you can face another day.”
How much better things might be in another neighborhood — and how much that’s the product of official indifference and how much is just dumb luck — is harder to figure out.
“People feel like government hurricane help is a black box,” said State Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, whose district includes Little Havana and Flagami. “They can’t figure out who’s getting help or why.”
That’s because there’s little quantitative evidence about where aid is going. Florida Power & Light says roughly 20,000 customers in Miami-Dade and Broward were still without power at noon Tuesday, but offered no breakdown of exactly where they were. The city of Miami estimates it has about a million cubic yards of debris to remove from streets and swales but doesn’t say which neighborhoods will be cleaned up first or why.
But it’s worth noting that comparatively upscale Coral Gables has so many homes without power that it’s threatening to sue FP&L. And its streets were as debris-ridden as those of Liberty City.
Some people say that, even without any statistical evidence, it’s patently obvious that money equals political clout, which equals quicker cleanup.
“The people who have the ability to contribute to candidates for local office are going to be able to call the people who can get stuff done and complain,” said marketing executive (and, incidentally, city council candidate) Denise Galvez, who lives in Miami’s working-class Shenandoah area. “And the stuff will get done.”
But Miami City Councilman Francis Suarez says it’s not quite that simple. “I can say that, from the city’s perspective, it’s exactly the opposite,” he said. “We are hyper-focused on the more disadvantaged areas. We’ve hardly spent any time at all working on restoring power to Brickell, because the cables there are underground, and as soon as the flood waters disappeared, they went back on. It’s places like Liberty City, where trees fell on power poles and knocked them down, that the city’s been working the most on.”
Others argue that the real problem is that the impact of natural disasters is much worse in economically disadvantaged areas because they have fewer resources with which to defend themselves.
“I have friends whose power has been knocked out who own generators to turn it back on,” said Ralph Rosado, head of a Miami urban-planning consulting group, attending a donated-food cookout in Shenandoah Park on Sunday. “Or they know somebody in Palm Beach they can stay with. Or they move into the Hyatt.
“But there’s a lot of people in this neighborhood who can’t do any of those things.”
Added author Gerald Posner, who lives in a Miami Beach evacuation zone and had to hole up in Orlando during the hurricane: “There’s little doubt that poor neighborhoods take a greater hit in a storm like this. ... The small measures that people can take to ameliorate their misery impact poorer families much more than middle-class or upper-class families.
“If you live in Coral Gables, spending $40 on a battery-operated fan because your power is out may be an inconvenience. But to a family in Liberty City, it may be much more troubling. Buying the fan may mean they can’t afford enough food and water.”