Stories

Coney Island copes

Residents go on door-to-door hunt for shut-in senior citizens

The people of Coney Island are mad.

The manager of this building should be publicly hung, I heard 58-year-old Mikhail Boguslavsky tell a volunteer yesterday, on the seventh floor of his water-less, elevator-less housing complex.

“You can get the mayor and tell him he forgot about us,” said a woman one floor down.

“The only people that came around was the cops, to lock people up,” said Kirk Thomas, 25, outside another private housing complex.

By Thursday, the waterlogged wounds to this seaside neighborhood are beginning to fester.

Outside the private Sea-Rise housing complex, 28-year-old Jawanza Fraser told me he thought that the response to the storm — or lack of it — seemed like a conspiracy, that the owners of his parents’ high-rise complex were paying the government money to stay away.

“It’s a setup — that’s what it feels like,” he said.

Over the course of seven hours in Coney Island on Thursday, senior citizens were marooned in 23-story high-rises with broken elevators, with no power to charge their cell phones. Dozens of totaled cars littered the neighborhood, amid flooded apartments and houses. And residents of both public and private housing projects described their fear of going outside at night, where looters and criminals prowled darkened streets.

“Over here, we can’t trust anybody,” said Steven Ruiz, 38. “In Staten Island, everybody’s helping each other. Here, they take what you have.”

To be clear, Coney Island was far from abandoned by the authorities. Dozens of police officers, sanitation workers, first responders, NYCHA workers, and legislative staffers were working hard to bring this area back to normal.

A second thing: all of Coney Island was in Zone A, the city’s mandatory evacuation area. Anyone who remained there during Sandy was defying an order from Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

But it’s not that simple: many of the residents of this area are senior citizens, or of public housing projects, and some didn’t have the means to get to another location. Others didn’t understand the severity of the pre-Sandy warnings, or were wary of them.

“They’re Russian. They don’t trust the government,” Yan Timanovsky, 32, said of his parents, who live on the ninth floor of one of the Amalgamated Warbasse co-op towers near Neptune Avenue. And, he added, “they don’t listen to non-Russian TV and radio, so they’re not as aware.”

Others had no alternatives to city run shelters, which many people considered no option at all.

“What I want to sleep among a thousand people for?” asked Kamesha McClain, 21, from the first floor of the Gravesend Houses, a public housing complex at the west end of Coney Island, where a police officer had just handed her a flyer advertising the availability of city-run shelters. “People got germs!”

At the Amalgamated Warbasse Houses, a five-building middle-income complex, some 2,500 apartments had lost water and power in the storm.

John Lisyanskiy, a City Council staffer, knew that there were hundreds of residents who had defied the mayor’s orders and ridden out the hurricane, and were now stuck in their buildings without light or electricity — with the only way up or down via a pitch-black stairwell.

He had organized a group through Facebook to enter the private complex and canvass the buildings, starting at the top floor and descending to the bottom, to assess the needs of residents, especially the many elderly who live there.

“I’ll be the first one to admit it — it’s trespassing,” Lisyanskiy told them.

But, he added later: “There is a certain feeling people were trapped.”

Three volunteers ventured into the darkened lobby of 2775 West 5th Street, where they searched for the stairwell.

“You guys need torch lights!” said a woman mopping the floor. “It’s pitch black!”

Indeed, it was. The stairwell door slammed and the volunteers began trudging up nearly two dozen flights to the top. The steps were illuminated only by the faint beams of the flashlights held by the volunteers: 36-year-old Alex Teplish, 38-year-old Lily Anastasiadis, and Anastasiadis’s 8-year-old daughter Lily.

They walked all the way to the top, then descended back down to the tenth floor after running into another pair of volunteers who’d mixed up Lisyanskiy’s orders.

One by one, they started knocking on doors — nine on each floor — informing people that they were volunteers checking to see who needed food, water, or a doctor. A little coaxing in Russian was usually enough to convince people to crack open their doors, sending light splashing out into the pitch-dark hallway.

Three quarters of the apartments were empty. Others housed people with minor concerns —when bus service would be back, whether the post office was open. On the eighth floor, the crew found its first dire case: an elderly couple came to the door, and after some rapid-fire Russian, Teplish lent his cell phone to the man, who looked deeply worried.

It turned out that the man was caring for a 105-year-old woman, and with no electricity, his cell phone was dead.

“He’s going to try to venture out, but the stairwell’s totally dark,” Anastasiadis said.

Two floors down, we were met in the hallway by two older women and a haggard-looking older man with a Band-aid above his right eye. He had fallen down the unlit stairs while trying to take his dog for a walk.

“He needs medical, and he needs water…he went to Coney Island Hospital, but it was closed — it had been evacuated,” Teplish explained. “They have a dog and a cat, and the dog is dying.”

Some three-quarters of the conversations Teplish and Anastasiadis had with residents were in Russian. Yet evacuation notices found scattered around the complex were written only in English, which Anastasiadis called “a shame.”

As she and Teplish descended, they heard the same questions and complaints, over and over. When would power be restored? When will we get water so we can flush their toilets? Who do I call if I need to evacuate? The volunteers didn’t know.

“They heard people were getting attention in other parts of the tri-state area. But here, nobody knows what’s going on,” Teplish said.

All told, Lisyanskiy’s crew of some 40 volunteers documented 400 residents across all the different buildings in “immediate need.”

“It’s something that’s bad, but could get worse,” he said. “A lot of people are saying, ‘We have supplies to last one more day.’”

By 6 p.m., one positive sign arrived, as City Councilman Domenic Recchia, in concert with other elected officials, organized food distribution from the ground floor of one of the Warbasse buildings. But there was also bad news: a memo from management that said it could take seven to 10 days to restore power, since the complex uses its own generation system that had sustained heavy damage during the storm.

“It is unsafe to remain at Warbasse!” screamed the memo in capital letters. “All residents are encouraged to leave Warbasse immediately and stay with family outside the evacuation zone, or proceed to the nearest shelters.”

Two messages left for the building’s management with its answering service were not returned.

On Friday, Ashleigh Owens, a spokeswoman for Recchia, said around 10 senior citizens had been evacuated from Warbasse over the last 24 hours.

She said that the district had been getting an outpouring of support, but that conditions in Coney Island were so chaotic that it was difficult to assess whether more was still needed. The ongoing gas shortage was also making delivery of supplies more difficult.

“It’s a matter of coordinating all of the effort into one place, and at this point in the day, I can’t even give you an honest estimate of whether we’re going to need more donations or still need more volunteers because it’s still kind of a crazy mess,” she said. “Progress has been made — in general, we’re grateful and thankful.”

 

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9 Comments

  1. I salute you, bless you and support your efforts. These are my mothers friends and neighbors. For the record, many are not Russian and, like my mother, were the original tenants from 1964 — working class and middle class Jewish families, mostly first generation Americans who have made this their home for close to 50 years. The YOUNGEST of that group is in their 70′s now. Many are in their 80s and 90s. For those without nearby families they had nowhere to evacuate to. Not at that age. And no cars to get there. Hospitals and nursing homes are full or evacuated. I thank all of you and thank you for publishing this. Also please go to facebook.com/cleaningSheepshead for info on volunteer efforts.

  2. What part of “evacuate” didn’t these people understand? I’ve read stories about people who have friends/relatives nearby but who won’t leave even with assistance from volunteers because they think someone is going to loot their apartments. Guess what? Your life is more important; if you’re stupid enough to refuse to leave, then deal with the consequences and stop crying that you’re being ignored.

    • Your comment is rude and uncalled for. Many of these residents didn’t expect such a disaster, especially with the pointless scare of Hurricane Irene. Lots of the residents are elderly and ill, and cannot go down so many flights of stairs – volunteers did not provide any assistance with descending stairs. Instead of reading stories and writing stupid comments, why don’t visit and see what a chaotic state these buildings and its people are in.

    • we evacuated during Irene, nothing happened. we stayed this time…. would not hav been such a cluster F if management hadnt gone MIA a day before the storm hit. IF no other way could be fouund WNYC radio would have broadcast updates for Auletti. he didnt even try.

  3. I have been a resident of Warbasse for many years, and during all of these years there have been problems with our Power Plant, brickwork, and elevators despite the millions of dollars that have been spent on “fixing” the issues. The incompetence of Silverman, who is President of the Board of Directors, and the Management and Maintenance was clearly evident during this natural disaster. We need to call a special Shareholder’s Meeting and replace the President of the Board and the members of Management and Maintenance, who all didn’t help the residents that were suffering without food, water, power, and a way for the elderly to walk downstairs. The President, Mr. Silverman, was in hiding throughout this miserable week. The maintenance who showed up incompetent, inept, and had an attitude when approached by residents. Things need to change, and need to change fast.

  4. I applaud to all volunteers, who helped all the elderly people. They sacrificed their personnel needs, families, gas, and time to go out of their way to help strangers.

  5. 11.13.12
    O’k, now when we’re all barely survived we’re have to pay full rent? What about the credit?
    Can anyone have info about it? Thanks.

  6. Warbasse has been contending with two particular sets of circumstances that made restoration of electrical power especially challenging and time consuming. First, when the Warbasse buildings were constructed in the 1960s, critical electrical equipment, including the transformers for each building, were installed in sub-basements. This engineering decision may have made sense at the time, but now in retrospect it is clear than no one anticipated a corrosive salt water flood of the magnitude that we just experienced. Second, approximately eight years ago, a decision was taken to disconnect Warbasse from Consolidated Edison. This decision of the co-op board at the time may have resulted in saving money on electrical energy costs for Warbasse residents, but it put our apartment complex at a disadvantage, compared to other apartment complexes that remained customers of Con Ed, in not being able to access the extensive resources available to Con Ed – resources that Warbasse could never afford on its own. These two strategic issues will have to be addressed by management and the board at a later date.