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11.21.2012
Public Housing After Sandy
New York City Housing Authority scrambles to respond to hurricane damage.
Eleven days after Hurricane Sandy, the Red Hook Houses were still without power.
Shelley Bernstein / Flickr

New York City Housing Authority announced Monday evening that the power is back on in all of the 402 buildings that were affected by Hurricane Sandy, but after weeks without heat, water, and electricity, residents were frustrated and asking why it took the city so long to restore services.

At a contentious meeting on Monday night with the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) representatives, residents from the Red Hook Houses expressed concern about their safety and the general stability of the buildings after Hurricane Sandy.

“We have assessed all the buildings and we did not find any structural damage in the buildings so they will not be condemned,” said Cecil House, NYCHA general manager.

Some residents, however, say this isn’t true. June Clarkson, a resident who has lived Red Hook House East for 51 years, said that on the outside of her building it appears that bricks are coming loose, and inside her apartment she believes something like “asbestos is bubbling” from the ceiling.

 
Hurricane Sandy filled the basement of the Red Hook Houses with sediment and debris (left). As floodwaters are pumped out, a muddy high-water mark remains on the walls (right).
Courtesy NYCHA
 

House told the Red Hook community that one of NYCHA’s top priorities is to visit apartments with sustained water damage and send contractors in to inspect for mold. Ellen Davidson and Lucy Newman, staff attorneys at Legal Aid, met with NYCHA officials this morning and say while the plan is for staff and contractors to go door-to-door to every apartment on the first floor of public housing developments throughout the city, they are skeptical that this will happen.

“NYCHA said they were going door-to-door before and we have heard different stories. We’ll see if that happens,” said Davidson. “Some of what they say sounds like it might be useful on its face, but they have been making a whole lot of promises especially to those who are home-bound and elderly, and we have run into many tenants who say that door-to-door visits never happened.”

Mold is just one of the many issues that residents are worried about. The buildings’ garbage compactors were damaged by the storm, and without maintenance help, trash piled up and just sat in the buildings for days. Newman and Davidson also heard of sewage backing-up in the bathtubs in housing developments in the Lower Eastside.

Power outages were caused primarily by “15-ft to 20-ft surges of salt water that powered through cinder blocks,” said Sheila Stainback, a communication officer at NYCHA. The storm surge flooded the basements where all the boilers and electrical systems are located.

NYCHA workers clear debris from the Red Hook Houses after Hurricane Sandy.
Courtesy NYCHA
 

“There has been talk of re-locating heating and electrical systems in buildings that are on the coast,” said Reginald H. Bowman, the Chair of Citywide Council of Presidents (CCOP) that represents all NYCHA residents.

Most of the buildings are running on generators and temporary boilers right now, which makes NYCHA’s claim that “essential services have been restored to nearly 80,000 residents” a bit of an exaggeration or perhaps wishful thinking.

“It is not exactly accurate. There are lines of apartments that do not have electricity,” said Davidson. “And they are running on generators so even though they do have electricity, it is intermittent.”

House forewarned residents that as the Housing Authority starts the process of replacing temporary repairs with permanent systems, there might be service interruptions. But the question of whether NYCHA adequately prepared for the storm looms over these community meetings unanswered. Stainback said that since Hurricane Irene didn’t cause any flooding, they didn’t anticipate the magnitude of the storm and chose not to bring in extra generators in advance.

“The Housing Authority was prepared to evacuate people from the coastal areas. The equipment, in addition to the fact it is expensive, would have been counter productive,” said Bowman.

Governor Cuomo has asked congress for $30 billion in federal aid to help New York recover from the hurricane. If that request is granted, how much of that money will be allocated to re-building public housing is unknown.

Representatives from NYCHA held two meetings Tuesday evening with communities in Coney Island and the Rockaways to provide information for tenants about service updates and rent abatements.

NYCHA, overwhelmed by the recovery efforts, has yet to discuss preventive measures, but it is something that will have to be addressed in the near future.

“Do you have a comprehensive plan for the next storm?” Asked one tenant of the Red Hook Houses. “Because there will be another one.”

Nicole Anderson