By Mireya Navarro
October 29, 2013
Coney Island has with nine public housing developments.
A year after the storm, the food line is one of many reminders of the persistent vulnerability of New York City’s public housing and the hundreds of thousands of people who live in the projects.
There are the unrepaired leaks and the recurring mold in apartments, and in the ground-floor units that remain empty and uninhabitable. There is the unreliable heat from portable boilers, and the sinkholes that keep some playgrounds closed.
And there is the ocean, a block away for some residents, and the terror the Atlantic now inspires along a waterfront lined with public housing.
“I don’t sleep good at night since then because I think my apartment is going to be flooded again,” said Irma Pagan, 68, a resident of 47 years at O’Dwyer Gardens, a project across the street from the Coney Island boardwalk.
Ms. Pagan said that when she returned to her first-floor apartment two days after evacuating for the hurricane, “I came in here and I fainted on the floor — I never expected the destruction.”
Now, she said, “I don’t want to see the water; sometimes I don’t even want to talk about what happened.”
For many people living in public housing, the hardships unleashed by Hurricane Sandy left them perilously reliant on the New York City Housing Authority, even as the agency found it was unprepared for the storm and for the flooded boiler rooms and wrecked electrical systems that marked the aftermath. The city’s largest landlord and the country’s biggest local housing agency, Nycha, as it known, was inundated, and a year later it is still recovering.
Dozens of older and frail residents were trapped on high floors for weeks without power or medication. Portable generators and other emergency equipment were not readily available to replace lost light and heat. And the Housing Authority did not know where to find many of its most vulnerable tenants among the scores who failed to evacuate.
Coney Island — with nine public housing developments, high numbers of poor and infirm people, and an unobstructed view of the Atlantic — was hit hard. At O’Dwyer, a housing project with six high-rises and more than 1,000 residents, the power was not restored for over two weeks. Heat and hot water took even longer.
Complaints from public housing tenants against what they consider an unresponsive city bureaucracy are not new, but old maintenance problems have grown worse, and even the most resilient residents speak of a heightened sense of neglect — all at a time the Housing Authority is counting on their involvement to better prepare for the next disaster.
Housing officials are asking residents who are infirm or disabled to provide their medical information so the agency can share it with other city agencies to coordinate search rescue efforts; at least 900 have signed up so far, officials said. Residents are also being asked to volunteer as floor captains who would knock on doors and distribute food during an emergency and to prepare bags with cash and other essentials to be ready for evacuations.
But some tenant leaders say it is an uphill battle when so many are still coping with storm damage. At a recent preparedness meeting called by housing officials at O’Dwyer Gardens, fewer than 20 tenants showed up.
“Maybe because things are not done, they lost faith,” Ilma Joyner, president of the O’Dwyer Resident Association, said. “Before Sandy people’s faith was low, and a year later it’s worse because people feel they’re not being taken care of.”
Housing officials said their buildings did better than many private buildings and that their biggest challenge was the large number of residents who did not heed evacuation orders.
Over the last year, officials say they have taken steps to better prepare for those who “shelter in place,” such as tracking apartments with residents with medical and mobility issues, and forging partnerships to coordinate with the community groups that were first to reach stranded residents.
Officials said they were also working on long-term protections like raising or waterproofing heating and electrical equipment in the affected developments. But most of this is in the planning stages and awaiting money from insurance carriers and federal agencies.
Cecil House, the Housing Authority’s general manager, said in an interview that he expected basic repairs and what he called the “first level of resilience,” such as waterproofing boiler rooms with floodgates or enclosures, to be fully funded. The money for more advanced precautions, like making brick buildings more resistant to windblown water, is still in question.
Irma Pagan arranged for the repairs in her apartment rather than wait for the New York City Housing Authority.
Mr. House said the agency had received $120 million in federal grant money — and another $100 million in insurance — of the about $1.8 billion required to do the necessary work. More than 400 buildings were affected by the storm. Protections for boilers and generators are not expected until next year for some buildings and 2015 for others, officials said.
Housing officials also said they had surveyed housing projects in three primary flood zones to assess vulnerabilities and had contracted with companies to provide portable generators and boilers to restore power, heat and hot water more quickly after a storm. They said they had trained staff members and developed plans to improve their emergency response.
“We’re trying to make our response more flexible,” Mr. House said. “We want to put our buildings in a position to be able to continue providing public housing to the city for years and years to come.”
Anna Ortega-Williams, director of Training and Evaluation at the Red Hook Initiative, among the community groups in Brooklyn active in recovery work, said she had attended at least four meetings with the housing agency since the storm. “It seems to be more interested in collaboration,” she said.
But while the storm pushed tenants and the authority to work together, Hurricane Sandy exacerbated anger over longstanding problems. The agency said basic hurricane-related repairs had been completed, but residents and community groups said that leaks and mold had grown worse in many cases and that the authority had not been any quicker in addressing repairs since the storm.
Groups like Community Voices Heard are calling for a separate housing assistance program like the one available to private landlords and homeowners so that public housing residents can gain direct access to funds to address storm-related repairs faster.
At Gravesend Houses, José Maldonado 41, keeps a bottle of bleach by his bed like a weapon against a mold problem that he said the Housing Authority had failed to fix. Residents say the agency’s workers scrape and plaster over the mold, but it keeps coming back because of leaks in the walls and ceilings.
“I’m a single father and I don’t want to have my son get sick,” he said, adding, “I’m not going to wait for Nycha.”
Residents like Ms. Pagan at O’Dwyer Gardens have undertaken repairs with their own money and in her case $2,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Her apartment now features brand-new furniture and kitchen backsplash paid for with the help of her two grown children, who were raised there.
“My mother, who is a senior citizen and has been a loyal tenant for over 40 years, was not offered any help,” the daughter, Yvette Pagan, 45, a hospital care investigator, said by email. “I spent six months fixing her apartment every day after work and on weekends. I bleached and then painted all the ceilings and walls and repaired everything.”
In the aftermath of the hurricane, there is at least one encouraging sign: A Housing Authority survey of 2,000 households conducted last summer showed that more than three-quarters of respondents said they would evacuate next time if ordered to do so.
Among them is Harry James Faulkner, 60, a retired painter who has lived in the Gravesend Houses for more than 40 years and who stayed behind to keep an eye on his apartment while sending his family off with relatives. He said police officers made him leave just as Hurricane Sandy bore down.
Knowing now how damaging a storm could be, he said, he would not think twice about leaving with his wife, daughter and granddaughter for higher ground. He said he witnessed the “horrible” damage to friends’ apartments. (More than 100 units are still vacant across the city’s affected projects, housing authority officials said.)
These days he feels the absence of those neighbors.
“You know I’m going to miss them,” Mr. Faulkner said as he handed brown bags with sandwiches, apples and carrots to residents lined up outside the Gravesend tenants association office. “I knew their grandmother, their mother. I’ve known these people for a long time.”