The Undocumented Immigrants Who Rebuilt New York After Sandy

As Superstorm Sandy’s floodwaters receded from the New York metropolitan area, much of the hardest, dirtiest, and most dangerous work fell to immigrant day laborers. Their stories, in their own words, as told to BuzzFeed News’ David Noriega.

David Noriega / BuzzFeed

After the destruction and death and confusion, what 2012’s Superstorm Sandy left behind was work. The storm littered roadways with the trunks and branches of trees. It flooded hundreds of thousands of basements, rotting walls and corroding wires and exposing insulation. And it ripped houses clear off their foundations and deposited them in other people’s yards alongside marooned boats. The storm damaged or destroyed more than 650,000 homes in New York and New Jersey alone, and caused some $50 billion in damage in the U.S.

Someone had to clean it all and — slowly — rebuild it.

At least 4,000 day laborers worked on Sandy recovery in the New York metro area, according to an estimate provided to BuzzFeed News by Baruch College sociologist Héctor Cordero-Guzmán and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. Cordero-Guzmán estimated, based on the usual characteristics of the day laborer population, that some 75% of those workers were undocumented.

It’s been two years since the disaster, and BuzzFeed News spoke with nearly two dozen immigrant day laborers who worked to clean up the New York metropolitan area.

Most of these workers hail from Mexico or elsewhere in Latin America, and the large majority are undocumented. Some requested that we change their names and hide their faces for fear of deportation or retaliation from contractors; names that have been changed or truncated are marked with an asterisk. All interviews were conducted in Spanish.

David Noriega / BuzzFeed

Miguel Ángel Piñeda, 33

Staten Island, New York

“Maybe two or three days after the storm, when the water started to go down, everything was chaos. There was no gasoline, people had lost their jobs. The first person who called me was a doctor I had done work for before.”

The doctor hired Piñeda and a group of other men to empty his basement and clear rubble from his property.

“They didn’t give us gloves or masks or anything.” One day, believing a worker had tried to steal scrap metal from the house, the doctor threatened Piñeda and his colleagues: “I’ll take out my gun and kill all of you.”

Piñeda had experience as an electrician, and about a week later he got work with an electrical contractor restoring power to homes in the area. Piñeda said the contractor ordered him to do illegal work: repairing and replacing meters, a task restricted to electrical utility workers. Piñeda said he opened the meters by cutting through Con Edison’s locks with a power grinder.

(A Con Edison spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the utility is not aware of such illegal work being done after the storm, but said it may have been performed by “a rogue contractor skirting the city’s regulation.”)

In most cases, Piñeda said the cables delivering electricity to the homes were still live.

“People were desperate because they didn’t have power. The kind of work I’d usually do in three days I had to do in a few hours … One time, I was replacing a meter panel, and I felt a piece of plastic break — the piece that keeps the power line from touching the metal of the panel. Since I had been doing this work for a few days and I knew the cables were live, all I’d been thinking was, When is something going to happen? So when I felt the plastic break, in the moment before the cable touched the metal, I reacted — I jumped off my ladder. And then I heard an explosion, and all I saw was this ball of fire …

“When I opened my eyes I couldn’t see anything. I saw light, and nothing else, like when you stare at the sun. Two or three minutes went by before I could see again … I ran to my car and looked in the mirror and my eyebrows were all brown. The tips were scorched. My eyelashes were half burnt off … Nothing worse, thank god.

“I’m not from here, from this country, but I’ve lived half my life in Staten Island, and when I saw that disaster, well, the truth is that it hurt … There wasn’t racism then, not like now or like before. There was a lapse of time when Americans didn’t see us as immigrants, but as other people here dealing with the same things.”

David Noriega / BuzzFeed

Alberto Ávila, 26

Keyport, New Jersey

Like many day laborers, Ávila first did volunteer work after Sandy before he looked for any paid jobs. He and a group of workers from CASA Freehold, a worker center and immigrant advocacy group, helped rebuild a church in Union Beach, New Jersey, ripping up rotten floorboards and laying new ones.

Later, Ávila worked for pay cleaning out a flooded video arcade in Keyport, on the Jersey Shore. “We had to drag out all the machines, really heavy machines. There was humidity, mold, mud, everything … I wound up getting sick for almost a month, just from three days of work. I don’t know if I breathed something in or if it was just the cold and the humidity. I had a fever for three or four days, but I felt the symptoms for a month. I still went to work, but I could barely breathe …

“I’m from Mexico. From Michoacán. I’ve been here since I was 14, working ever since. I became a man at that age. Not going to school, hiding from the police … I’m sick of this country, bro, working like an animal since I was 14.”

And yet, after the storm: “I felt sad for people, more than anything. And I felt like helping. Even though they might not think about you very much, you think about them, when you see that they fought their whole lives for something — a business or a home. Then you see them with nothing.”

David Noriega / BuzzFeed

Reyna*, 47

Staten Island, New York

“My usual job is cleaning houses, so when the storm happened I was left without work. The houses didn’t have electricity, and who knows where the owners were — I would call them but they wouldn’t answer … Some time later I got a call from a woman, one of my clients, to come help her clean up the basement of her house …

“The basement was filthy. She gave me gloves, but they were the really thin kind, and they kept breaking. My fingers started turning white and the skin started peeling off around the fingertips. All she gave me was a mop, a broom, and some trash bags. I had to carry out all the furniture and clean the mud off the floor. She paid me the usual: $10 an hour … They never treated me badly. They’re good people, they treat me with respect. I was grateful for the work.”

After helping clean four flooded houses, Reyna began feeling sick. “I think I got some kind of infection. When I tried to breathe, I would feel a lot of pain in my chest and in my back. My throat hurt, my eyes itched … I couldn’t breathe. I just couldn’t.

“For two months I would get these attacks, like asthma attacks. I don’t have medical insurance. I didn’t go to the hospital because the emergency room is too expensive, I would have gotten a very big bill and I wouldn’t have been able to pay it. I never go to the doctor because they ask for too many papers, and I don’t have Social Security or anything like that. I used home remedies, breathed in water vapor…”

Weeks later, Reyna recovered. “I think people here sometimes don’t appreciate what they have. This is a beautiful country. Where I come from there is very little water. Here there is a lot of water. Sometimes people who have everything don’t realize it. Some of them — not all of them.”

David Noriega / BuzzFeed

Enrique Gutiérrez, 24

Long Beach and Oceanside, Long Island

“At first we were worried that people would die. But once we realized there wasn’t that much human damage, mostly damage to houses, even though we knew so much was destroyed, then we thought mostly about the work.

“In all the basements and first floors, everything was filled with water, so everything had to be dragged outside. And the walls that the water reached were wet, they were rotten, they smelled bad. Because you had water that was there for a month. And all the dirty water that was in the sewers rose up.

“So we had to do the work with all the risks, with bosses who wouldn’t give us safety equipment. That’s how we had to do it.

“I had a boss after Sandy who didn’t pay me overtime. He would take me to work and say, ‘OK, I’m going to give you $120 at 4 o’clock, and at 4 o’clock you can leave.’ So I would go and work, and 4 o’clock comes and goes, and nothing. It’s that overtime that they don’t pay you, even if they keep you working very late. So you work more hours for less money. That’s their thing, always: more work for less money.”

David Noriega / BuzzFeed

Eduardo*, 38

Colts Neck, New Jersey

“I didn’t think the storm was going to hit so hard. The next day I got a call from one of my bosses telling me to show up to work at 7:30. We’d been hired for 80 hours to clear fallen trees and branches around some city offices … then the snowstorm came” — the nor’easter that brought sleet and snow to an already storm-ravaged New York on Nov. 7, 2012.

“So we went back to the same place. I think the snowstorm destroyed more trees even than Sandy. And I remember that my colleague told me he didn’t want to use the cherry picker to cut the higher branches, because he was afraid of heights. I had experience cutting trees, but never using a cherry picker. I like to learn how to use all sorts of machinery, so I said yes. The days went by, and I started getting good at it.

“I don’t know if it was the boredom from doing the same thing every day, or the sound of the chainsaw, but I wasn’t paying attention … The branch was pinned against the cherry picker, so when I sawed through it, the part that was still attached to the tree snapped up and hit me in the face, between my nose and my mouth.

“They gave us helmets, but nothing to protect our faces. And I remember I couldn’t even pronounce a single word when I went to tell the foreman I’d been hit. I couldn’t even tell him what happened, because my mouth was so swollen.

“I went to the hospital with my boss’s brother. I told them at the hospital that this was a work accident, but the brother didn’t want to give them the information for the company’s insurance. He said the bills should go to me directly, then I would take the bills to the boss. He said that’s how the company operated…

“So then I got a bill for $1,000. I took the bill to my boss, and he said don’t worry about it. Some time went by and I got the same bill again. So I asked him what happened, and he said that I had to wait until it went to debt collection so that he could negotiate a lower price … My wife convinced me to talk to the lawyer who’s handling my immigration case. The lawyer said no way can you let it go to collection.

“So I went to the boss and told him that I needed him to pay, or at least tell me if wasn’t going to. I said, ‘We’ve worked together before. We have a good relationship. I don’t want to sue you.’ And that’s when he finally took care of it.”

David Noriega / BuzzFeed

José Cuba, 53

Coney Island, Brooklyn

Three city-owned hospitals were flooded by Sandy. Signal Restoration Services, the private contractor hired to repair them, was found by the New York attorney general to have underpaid its workers and was ordered to pay $500,000 in back wages.

José Cuba was one of those workers.

“I was on the corner of 69th and Roosevelt [in Jackson Heights, Queens], where the day laborers usually get together, and an Ecuadorian guy I know showed up with three vans and filled them with workers. As the day went on he kept bringing more and more people to the hospital … We worked every day, Monday to Sunday, from 7 in the morning until 9 at night.

“Eventually they brought in big lights to illuminate the hospital, but the first few days it was dark. And the first few days they didn’t give us any safety equipment. You showed up to work with the clothes you were wearing, that’s it …

“Our job was to clean up the hospital. We took out everything. Televisions, computers, X-ray machines, gurneys. We went from room to room, little bit little — waiting rooms, operating rooms, the morgue … Then we demolished everything that was damaged.

“The first few weeks they paid us $12 an hour with no overtime. But then Local 79 [the Construction and General Building Laborers Union] found out and told us they weren’t paying us enough. They paid us in cash, once a week. They said they would pay us at the end of every week, but it was, you know, the day after, or two days after, or the week after … It’s not that I’m a conformist. But for someone who’s illegal, who doesn’t have papers — you have to take what you can get.”

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Game changer: Obama touts Thin Mints as best Girl Scout cookie!/markknoller/status/224938396143980545

Whew! The most pressing debate of our time has finally bubbled to the surface.

BREAKING: Obama says he is "partial" to thin mints.

— Mike Memoli (@mikememoli) July 16, 2012

That’s right; President Obama is on Team Thin Mints. We are only surprised that he didn’t tell Girl Scouts that they didn’t hoof it all over town to sell their cookies and raise money; someone else did that for them.

Still, is this a game changer?

Thin Mints are, in fact, the best Girl Scout cookie. I'm now voting for Obama.

— Christine (@cmdeb) July 16, 2012

President Obama's favorite Girl Scout Cookie flavor? Thin Mints. FOUR MORE YEARS!

— Hokie Wartooth (@Hokie_Wartooth) July 16, 2012

But, wait! Not everyone is a fan of the Thin Mints, even though “Thin Mints” is now trending on Twitter.

obama is wrong, samoas are better. now im voting for romney. #youlie RT @mikememoli BREAKING: Obama says he is "partial" to thin mints.

— Oliver Willis (@owillis) July 16, 2012

Oh, my! When you’ve lost Media Matter’s Oliver Willis …

Proof that the President and I are just on different sides. #teamsamoa RT @politico: Obama’s favorite Girl Scout Cookie

— CapitolHillStyle (@CapHillStyle) July 16, 2012

Even worse, thin mints are decidedly NOT the best kind of girl scout cookie and I can't trust someone who thinks that.

— Kate Bachelder (@katebachwsj) July 16, 2012

#YES RT @TerryMoran: MAJOR GAFFE. Obama declares his favorite Girl Scout cookie is Thin Mints. The correct answer, of course, is Samoas.

— Bliss (@_blissdavis) July 16, 2012

Obama did not think about this Thin Mints statement at all. Totally alienating the Thicksnacks delegation.

— Bäé & Nephew (@Carnegro) July 16, 2012

Anyone not choosing Tagalongs has v. questionable judgment RT @pemalevy: Mystery solved: Obama's favorite Girl Scout cookie is the mint one.

— David A. Graham (@GrahamDavidA) July 16, 2012

Explicit pander.

— Josh Greenman (@joshgreenman) July 16, 2012

Others see Thin Mints as a code-word “dog whistle,” natch.

Samoas are gross and thin mints are the white man's cookie. Tagalongs are where it's at.

— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) July 16, 2012

And “real journalists” are feeling the shame, for once.

This is the third blog post I've written about cookies in the last 10 days. #journalism.

— Byron Tau (@ByronTau) July 16, 2012

Twitter user extraordinaire, Nathan Wurtzel, comes up with a whole new Girl Scout cookie for the Tax-lover in chief.

I thought Obama's favorite Girl Scout cookie would be Samoataxdollars.

— Nathan Wurtzel (@NathanWurtzel) July 16, 2012

That’s a win right there. Another suggestion: Disappoint-Mints.

This cookie thing has more successfully distracted attention from Bain/taxes than anything Romney has tried. Nice job, Obama.

— Jamison Foser (@jamisonfoser) July 16, 2012

See? Game changer!

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Company that donated fire truck to West, Texas, wanted no mention of generosity!/mcgregorgirl1/status/326403642917797889

The town of West, Texas lost three fire trucks in last week’s fertilizer plant explosion that killed 14 people, including 9 first responders. As the community recovers from the devastating explosion, Waco Police Sgt. William Patrick Swanton says the West Volunteer Fire Department received a generous gift: a much-needed pumper truck.

Pat Siddons of Siddons-Martin Emergency Group told Swanton he didn’t want the act of kindness mentioned, but Swanton “told him I was having none of that.”

Good Morning All, Sgt. Swanton here… I would like to tell you all about the continued and amazing support our…

— WacoPolice (@WacoPolice) April 22, 2013

More from Swanton’s post on the Waco Police Department Facebook page:

I wanted to share with you what I have learned this morning as just one example we Texans are capable of. I understand there is much of this going on but I am glad to call this man my friend for what he and his business have done.

Pat Siddons and I used to work on an ambulance together and that is where I became familiar with his graciousness in dealing with people. Pat was raised in our area and still has family here but has moved on to run a fire emergency vehicle company know as Siddons-Martin Emergency Group.

I verified with him today that his company has donated the below truck to our neighboring community of West to assist them in keeping their town safe. He wanted no mention of this act but I told him I was having none of that and people needed to know what we as Texans do.

One Facebook user commented:

I spoke to Pat also this morning. He said the same thing. He wanted to remain annomoyus. Well my friend the cats out of the bag, and it won’t go back in easy! Proud to call you my friend.


‘Keep the faith’: Waco PD finds ‘special message’ in photo of West, Texas, wreckage

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Snort! Major Garrett: ‘The White House warned me not to write shirty’!/MajorCBS/status/307166388416569344

That was beautiful, Major Garrett. Sniffle.

As Twitchy readers know, CBS’ Major Garrett caused a bit of a tizzy recently with a cuss-filled tweet. However, the “shirty business” part of the eventually deleted tweet sparked a ton of giggles. That continued today.

@majorcbs Zero Dark Shirty

— John Podhoretz (@jpodhoretz) February 28, 2013


Twitter users are giving Major Garrett the early win for tweet of the day.

Well played, Major. Well played. RT @majorcbs For the record, the WH warned me not to write shirty.

— Scott Shields (@sdshields) February 28, 2013

A big time journalist with a sense of humor, woo hoo! RT @majorcbs For the record, the WH warned me not to write shirty.

— Matthew Zeitlin (@MattZeitlin) February 28, 2013

MAJOR WINS THE DAY!! => ‏@majorcbsFor the record, the WH warned me not to write shirty.

— Jennifer DeVries (@jdrewdevries) February 28, 2013

Best thing I’ve seen today. RT @majorcbs: For the record, the WH warned me not to write shirty.

— Lori Fink (@montanalori) February 28, 2013

Keep the tweets coming, Major. It’s shirty business, but somebody has to do it!

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But Thats None Of My Business

But Thats None Of My Business

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Their Dogs Needed A Warm House For Winter, So This Family Put Something Epic Together

Winter is coming.

Even if you’re not a Game of Thrones fan, you’ll understand the reference: it just means that winter is literally coming. It’s getting colder outside, the leaves have fallen…and our four-legged friends hate going outside to go potty.


To help out their three dogs, Highway 20 Productions decided to build a brand-new dog house with enough room for them all. They didn’t throw together your average pooch barn, though. They installed heat lamps, insulation, a porch, multiple doors, and named it the Dog Mahal.

Even I would love to live in here.

Now, doing their business outside is as simple as going to the yard of their giant doggy mansion…and then warming up inside of it once they’ve finished. Lucky pups.

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This Former Vegas Leopard Playing With His New Toy Is The Most Adorable Thing

In 2007, Zorro the leopard was turned over to Forever Wild Exotic Animal Sanctuary after a lifetime of performing on Vegas stages. Like most animals in Zorro’s unfortunate position, he was declawed as a cub, most likely without anesthesia and not by a real veterinarian.

If you don’t know the truth about the procedure that’s regularly done on both big and domestic cats…it’s not just like a nail trim. The entire first bone gets completely cut off, and it can cause pain for the rest of their lives. Sometimes, the claw will still grow through the skin, making walking extremely painful, let alone playing, running, and jumping.

Luckily for Zorro, he doesn’t experience any pain.

And as you can see, he’s not unlike house cats…he loves cardboard boxes!

Just like little Fluffy over here…

(via The Dodo)

Thank goodness Zorro doesn’t have any problems with his paws, and that his previous owner found the good in his heart to surrender his performance partner to the sanctuary. Unfortunately, not all animals in the cruel business are so lucky, and many more live a life of pain, performing tricks they’re forced to do over and over again. You can donate to Forever Wild Exotic Animal Sanctuary to help animals like Zorro who have suffered.

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When it comes to humans, it’s usually best to just mind your own business.

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Anthony Bourdain’s sick of California’s Dem Party nannies!/NoReservations/status/200934532843712513

Though he himself is a liberal, author, world traveler, and chef Bourdain has never held back from calling out Nanny Staters when it comes to culinary affairs. The ongoing foie gras debate is no exception.

Bourdain cited this op-ed by Mark Pastore, the owner of San Francisco’s Incanto restaurant:

I am one of the chefs and restaurateurs whom [John Burton, California Dem Party Chairman] threatened last month. We respect his right to disagree with us over whether or not California should become the only place in the world to ban the sale of fattened duck liver, or foie gras. We condemn, however, Burton’s ongoing use of violent rhetoric. Here’s why:

Many of us first became involved with this issue in 2003, when animal-rights activists vandalized the home and business of chef Laurent Manrique, his wife and 2-year-old child, and then issued a threat against him. The FBI categorizes these as acts of domestic terrorism. Such acts should be met with unequivocal opposition, not by imitation.

About a year later, then-state Sen. Burton put forward a law to ban the sale of all products from foie gras ducks, including not only foie gras itself but also meat, bones for pet food and feathers for down jackets. The law passed, with limited public review, in part because the state’s only foie gras farmer was subjected to physical threats, vandalism and costly litigation from animal rights advocates.

Since then, emboldened extremists continue to use threats and violent acts as a means of achieving political ends.

Researchers at California universities have been vandalized, stalked and threatened by animal rights activists. Arsonists recently caused more than $2 million in damage at Harris Ranch. Many chefs who have stood up respectfully to defend our customers’ right to choose what they eat have been subject to vandalism and repeated threats of physical violence.

Use of threatening language to inspire fear violates California’s “criminal threats” law. When the threats are issued from a leadership position, such as chairman of the California Democratic Party, it sends a signal far and wide that inciting violence and causing fear are acceptable tactics in public discourse.

For Bourdain, it’s bad enough that the government wants its grubby hands in our kitchens. But the harassment and intimidation of his friends and colleagues really amps up his outrage:

Was laying off the California foie thing as a lost cause, but now these assholes are threatening my friends' families again.

— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) May 11, 2012

Animal rights? And then you send telephoto shots of people's children to them? Threaten their families?

— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) May 11, 2012

@crchapman sadly, it's my own party who cause the biggest problems for chefs.

— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) May 11, 2012

Every time a chef is threatened, someone should skin a panda.

— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) May 11, 2012

@tavallai it's easy to phone with anonymous threats. Smash and grab vandalism. Letters etc. no risk for them

— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) May 11, 2012

Look at anti-foie tactics: anonymous threats. Arson. Vandalism. Extortion. Should use RICO statutes on these people.

— Anthony Bourdain (@Bourdain) May 11, 2012

Good for him. California has enough problems (crappy economy, anyone?). Maybe the state Democratic Party should focus on those instead of occupying Californians’ dinner plates.

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Obama under the gun: ‘Jim, you may wanna move on to another topic’!/Will_Antonin/status/253667113338814464

Near the end of the first Denver debate segment on the economy and jobs, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney took a commanding stance — hammering the president over high electric rates, higher food and health care costs, and burdensome small business taxes.

President Obama, who rarely looked directly at his opponent and instead repeatedly turned to PBS moderator Jim Lehrer, began one of his last parries with Romney by stating:

“Jim, you may wanna move on to another topic.”

Twitter reaction was fast, furious, and fiery:

Ouch. That hurt the President. "Jim, you may wanna move on to another topic." Bad move, bro.

— James Crowder (@jamesdean2009) October 4, 2012

"Jim you may want to move onto another topic." -Obama <– he knows Romney is owning him. #Debate2012

— #RepublicanGirlProbs (@RepubGrlProbs) October 4, 2012

Obama: "Jim you may want to move on to another topic" (In other words, PLEASE Jim, move on, he's making me look like an idiot!"

— Dennis Ingolfsland (@D_Ingolfsland) October 4, 2012

Obama: Jim, move on to another topic. I'm getting killed here. #debates

— Peter Wolfgang (@Peter_Wolfgang) October 4, 2012

Jim move on to another topic so I don't get my b*** spanked anymore… Obama is getting schooled

— Clay (@Claydawg75) October 4, 2012

Obama says: "Jim you may want to move on to another topic." Obama means: "Please Jim, move on. This is painful."

— Reed Wilson (@sreedwilson) October 4, 2012

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