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.”