Hurricane Sandy outdid even the most aggressive projections of its impact on New York. In my district on the East Side of Manhattan, and some of the West 50s, we had severe flooding throughout Zones A and B, power and heat outages that lasted for over a week, and—as if that weren’t bad enough—a crane that hung precariously in Midtown, forcing residents from their homes.
The situation presented an important opportunity for local government to respond. The flooding left thousands of my constituents stranded in their apartments and in need of assistance, particularly in Peter Cooper Village, Stuyvesant Town and Waterside Plaza, home to nearly 30,000 right next to the East River. Residents—who include me and my family—lacked electricity, heat and hot water, and just as dangerously, any telephone service.
Without the ability to call in our out, seniors and residents with limited mobility were cut off from the outside world, with family members who were worried about them.
In response, we set up our volunteer operation starting on Thursday morning, and worked hand in hand with both properties’ management with the goal of knocking on every door in both communities every day until power began to be restored. We put out a call for volunteers; we secured donations of food, blankets, batteries and water with the help of Speaker Quinn’s staff; we set up a volunteer center (and City Council mobile office) in the Stuyvesant Town Community Center and in the Management Office of Waterside Plaza; and we got to work.
It was inspiring to see how many New Yorkers turned out to help, with hundreds of volunteers from New York Cares, religious groups, local tenants associations and many others, including my colleagues in government. We dispatched them door to door, checking on our neighbors, assessing their needs, and then sending volunteers back out immediately with the relevant supplies, to the extent we had them. This continued over several consecutive days, until the power and heat started coming back.
One of the most pressing needs was that of seniors who worried that their prescriptions were running out, and needed immediate refills. In response, we called for local nurses and doctors to arrange health visits for seniors who were trapped—and we had volunteers make runs to fill their prescriptions, and bring them up the dark staircases in the buildings.
We even had a couple of very nice surprises. We had generous donations of food from the Setai Hotel, Riverpark restaurant, which also offered hot coffee in Stuyvesant Oval, and a delivery of hot soup from celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito, which he had made himself. And we had countless volunteers who pooled their own funds and made emergency runs for supplies, including prescription refills and batteries. A particularly entrepreneurial group of volunteers at Waterside borrowed a shopping cart from a local store and wheeled 300 bottles of water across the FDR for residents at Waterside.
The most incongruous image that sticks out in my mind was 40 members of the Air Force National Guard showing up late on Thursday in the Stuyvesant Town Community Center, in full military fatigues and an army truck, passing boxes of “meals ready to eat” down an assembly line into the center. When they were done, we marched with them with flashlights through the dark and desolate Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper up to meet their truck in Waterside Plaza, where they did the same thing.
Another image was one that most New Yorkers won’t soon forget: a crane hanging dangerously above Midtown in 90 mph winds, also in my council district. While the City acted swiftly to evacuate hundreds of residents, many left their homes in a hurry, leaving medication, clothing and pets behind. We worked to help these residents gain safe, temporary access to their apartments to retrieve the items they needed. I’m happy to report that as of Monday night, the crane was secured and all residents in the West 50s who had been evacuated were allowed to return home.
While the communities in my district are slowly getting back to life as usual, there are still large parts of the city that are not so lucky. If you are able to get out to Staten Island or the hard-hit areas in Brooklyn and Queens, I strongly encourage you to lend a hand there.
Dan Garodnick is the City Council Member for District 4 on the Upper East Side.