When the New York City Housing Authority shut off the elevators in her building two days before Hurricane Sandy, Cecelia was trapped on the seventh floor. Some residents were warned that the elevators would be shut off, but Cecelia didn’t find out in time. Cecelia and her boyfriend Darius live in Red Hook Houses, the largest projects in Brooklyn with 2873 units and 6,500 residents.
Cecelia has multiple sclerosis. On a good day, she can walk without a cane. On a bad day, she needs her wheelchair. I met Darius and Cecelia on a good day, eleven days after the storm, after they had a chance to recuperate for a few days at a friend’s house. They’re a charming couple; young, articulate, instantly likeable. Darius is a social worker and Reiki practitioner. Cecelia is a writer.
Cecelia could walk when I met her. Her symptoms had been worse before the storm. “How am I gonna move fast enough to evacuate before the buses stop running?” she asked. “Every time you go to the bus, there’s already a wheelchair person on it. I can’t possibly evacuate if the buses stop running at 7 p.m. and you gave me a notice at 5 p.m.”
No transportation whatsoever was provided to the residents of Red Hook Houses. There were two shelters in the area, but one wasn’t handicap accessible and the other had an outbreak of stomach flu and had to be evacuated.
Then the power went out. With no windows, the stairwells and hallways were pitch-black, even during the day. Four days after the storm, I met two older women with severe respiratory ailments. Unable to evacuate, they were waiting for batteries to run their nebulizers, wheezing and trying not to exert themselves.
Another resident, a blind woman with mobility issues who lives alone, had no way to get down from the eleventh floor. When I met her, she was praying that power would be restored so she could get to the airport. She was supposed to fly to Florida for a surgical procedure which might partially restore her sight.
The Red Cross was supposed to provide food and water to residents, but they claimed that they were too understaffed to go inside the buildings. The National Guard set up an aide center in Coffey Park next to Red Hook Houses, but they weren’t bringing anything up the stairs either.
FEMA, the National Guard and Red Cross were unwilling or unable to actually go into the projects, so Occupy stepped up.
“They came in heavy on their bike brigades,” says Cecelia, “You could see like fifty bikes chained to the project gates.” According to Darius, Occupy was great in the first days following the storm, bringing “flashlights, candles, batteries, paper towers and toilet tissues, and constantly asking for volunteers, talking to people in the hallways, knocking on doors and reaching out to people.”
“The food they were delivering was the military rations, those boxed meals that heat themselves. It was Occupy delivering that,” says Darius, “The National Guard was using volunteers from Occupy!”
The police station, literally inside the same building, was humming with generator electricity less than two days after the storm. “The police station at the bottom of our building has power, water and heat. It’s located in the first floor of our building. It is baffling. Completely baffling,” says Cecelia. Two weeks later, the rest of Red Hook Houses was still without power, heat or running water.
As the temperature dropped outside and the first blizzard of the season approached, many residents risked carbon monoxide poisoning by heating their apartments with their ovens.
Residents banded together to help the elderly and disabled, but there was only so much they could do without help from trained medical personnel. Several women on Cecelia’s and Darius’s floor were trapped for two weeks. One woman’s child went to stay with family who still had power.
“She hasn’t seen her child in thirteen days,” says Cecelia. “She has back problems like me, she’s on disability, and she’s anemic. She’s had a thousand blankets around her the whole time, and she’s been sick for like three days now, because she’s sweatin’ under all those blankets.”
Without running water and only a limited supply of bottled water being given by aid organizations, people couldn’t spare water to flush their toilets.
Resourceful residents opened up the standpipes of the building’s sprinkler system to get water. “Someone took a wrench, opened it, and we just had a bucket system,” explained one resident. “Three guys were there with a bucket, and once that was filled, poured it in a bigger bucket, and two women were there filling up the little jugs of water and we then disseminated that to the floor.”
The water wasn’t fit to drink even after boiling, but it could be used to flush the toilets – until the sewage system backed up. That’s when Cecilia had had enough. After eight days without water, heat or electricity, her MS was flaring up. The snowstorm was approaching. FEMA offered “warming shelters,” but they weren’t open 24 hours, they were miles away on Coney Island, and absolutely no transportation was provided.
“Why aren’t the buses free?” said Cecelia. “All the ATMs in the area are off line. We cannot access money. You have to walk 23 minutes to get to any ATM that’s pumping out cash.”
No one from FEMA or the Red Cross did anything to get disabled residents out of the building. Cecelia is slim with a slight build, so Darius was able to carry her. “He gave me a piggy back ride down all seven flights,” she said.
Because of her condition, Cecelia can’t be on subway for more than twenty-five minutes. Luckily, they were able to get a ride to a friend’s place in Brooklyn Heights. After a few days there, they returned home. It was twelve days after Sandy. The lights were back on in the hallways and stairwells, but the apartments were still without power or water and the elevators weren’t running.
The basement was still flooded. Residents complained that only one small pump was being used for the entire building – even though other buildings in the neighborhood had several pumps running, even though the Army Corp of Engineers was able to drain flooded subway tunnels in a matter of days.
I spoke with a housing authority employee working to drain the basement. He said that they weren’t using a bigger pump, nor were they pumping 24-hours a day, because they were concerned that someone might steal the pump. Water continued to pour in as the surrounding groundwater drained.
Cecelia celebrated her 25th birthday nearly two weeks after the storm, by candlelight. As of Wednesday, November 14, the basement is still partly flooded. Electricity is back, but NYCHA refuses to say when heat will be restored.