Stories

More than shelter

At the Park Slope armory, volunteers care for hundreds of people with special needs displaced from the Rockaways by Sandy

Brooklyn’s Park Slope armory is home to hundreds of residents of seaside group and adult homes displaced by superstorm Sandy. Photo: William Farrington

Last year, the Central Manor Home for Adults in Far Rockaway renovated its basement with flat-screen televisions, new chairs and linoleum floors.

“You almost got a headache how beautiful it was,” remembers Avi Trohlich, a resident of the home since 1979.

The basement survived superstorm Sandy unscathed, but residents have no idea when they can return. Trohlich, 54, is now one of some 500 residents of Central Manor and other Rockaways adult homes living on cots at the Park Slope Armory in Brooklyn. All of them have special medical or mental health needs.

The homes were evacuated last week after superstorm Sandy. Central Manor had to move its residents after power went out; according to a night supervisor, Zena Riley, it did not a have a backup generator.

Another facility, Belle Harbor Manor, is “worse than a war zone” according to a consultant who surveyed the storm damage.

Residents were evacuated safely, with no reported injuries — but most only after the fact.

On Saturday, October 27, as Sandy approached, the city and state health departments directed the city’s low-lying assisted living and nursing homes to “shelter in-place”: increase staffing, test generators and stock at least three days worth of supplies and food to ride out the storm and possible power outages. Homes moved residents to higher floors, and the city checked to ensure systems were operational.

Citywide just 60 residents, dependent on ventilators and other equipment, were transported out of low-lying Zone A areas before the storm hit.

The response stands in contrast to the evacuation that preceded Tropical Storm Irene hit last year. Then, more than 7,000 residents from low-lying health care facilities in New York City moved inland.

City officials estimate that more than 3,000 residents eventually relocated from 21 assisted living or nursing homes in connection with Sandy.

The Rockaway peninsula is not only one of the areas of the city most savaged by the hurricane; many of its neighborhoods have a high concentration of assisted-living facilities and nursing homes serving people with psychiatric disabilities and the elderly. That means an especially vulnerable population has been particularly hard hit by Sandy and may suffer the consequences longer than most.

“It’s very difficult to sit here and tell you what they are going to do long term,” said Richard Herrick, president of the New York State Health Facilities Association, a trade group that includes operators three of the Rockaways’ 29 adult and nursing homes. “We will have to ultimately assess how much damage there has been to the physical facilities and whether they can be rehabbed or rebuilt in the future.”

The real question, he said, “is what are they going to do tomorrow, next week, next month.”

Residents from at least three homes in the Rockaways — Belle Harbor Manor, Horizons Care Center and Central Manor — evacuated to the Park Slope Armory, but in many cases caretakers and nurses were split from their patients by the hurricane and ensuing transportation breakdowns.

Shanta Mitchell, 27, is a nurse at Horizons Care Center who evacuated from her home in Far Rockaway to Long Island but had no way of getting to the armory in Park Slope to see her patients.

“My agency told me they are in need,” said Mitchell. “It’s frustrating because I’ve been a nurse [there] for five years, I have the heart for it, this is my passion. So not being able to go out and actually help the senior citizens that need the help, even though there are volunteers there.… I wonder how the residents are doing and I hope they are getting all the help they need.”

Trohlich and other shelterees are sleeping in what was originally the drill floor of the armory, which was converted to an indoor gymnasium for Park Slope YMCA members after 2004.

Now, in place of basketball courts and weight-lifting machines, 24 rows of about 20 cots each bed the refugees under emergency-issue blankets. Surrounding them, on what had been the indoor running track, are an army of nurses and emergency medical technicians, along with members of citizen emergency response teams, known as CERTs, and disaster medical assistance teams, or D-MATs.

Supplementing the emergency staff are hundreds of volunteers enlisted from surrounding neighborhoods. Working in four-, eight-, and 12-hour shifts, most of the volunteers are young people in their twenties and thirties and found out about the armory shelter through social media.

Most have never worked in an emergency context before or cared for the mentally and physically frail.

“There is a little bit of risk involved,” said Adrian Martinez, 33, a volunteer from Prospect Heights who was helping to monitor shelterees. “I’ve never done disaster relief. This felt right because I was one of the fortunate ones who didn’t lose power.”

Volunteers are playing a crucial role in providing the 24-hour care the shelterees. “It is extremely helpful with a more vulnerable shelter population,” said Bob Gochfeld, who works for CERT in Brooklyn Community Board 14.  But the scale of the operation and needs of those sheltered at the armory, he said, was incomparable to anything he had witnessed before.

On a recent 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift, volunteers assisted blind and frail shelterees, some in wheelchairs, to the bathroom. Sometimes, they mopped urine that had collected under cots. They fetched chicken soup, coffee, fresh diapers, clothing and nurses as needed. Some did crossword puzzles with the Armory’s guests or organized the makeshift library and clothing donation stations. Others rubbed the backs of residents who were too emotional and overwhelmed to emerge from underneath their blankets.

The continued dislocation from homes has been shown to increase the risk of trauma to patients. Referred to in the industry as “transfer trauma” — stress that individuals with dementia experience when changing living environments — dislocation can have serious health effects including depression and anxiety.

That’s one reason health care facilities hesitate to evacuate facilities before it’s certain a move is necessary. “The preferred option is to shelter in-place,” said Herrick.

Herrick added that sheltering-in-place in the face of a storm is a judgment call not easily made.

“You can always criticize. They won’t do it perfectly,” said Herrick. “There are a lot of brilliant people who will look at things in hindsight.”

In the meantime residents are doing the best they can in their new surroundings. Over the weekend, Trohlich enjoyed the attention and conversation of the volunteers, who gave him cigarettes to smoke outside where he held court over a ragtag assembly of fellow shelterees smoking from wheelchairs. But he was also worried.

“Some people worked so long to develop a little tiny room to be warm and safe in,” said Trohlich. “What are we going to do?”