The new grassroots organizing group People’s Relief and local residents have taken control of Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in several Coney Island public housing developments where government agencies’ performance has been inadequate or inconsistent, according to multiple resident association presidents, community members and People’s Relief volunteers. (People’s Relief works closely with Occupy Sandy and shares their resources, but is a separate, independent organization.) Officials from the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM) did not provide evidence to the contrary.
Stranded & Abandoned in Surfside Gardens
As numerous accounts have already confirmed, conditions in the public housing developments in Coney Island in the wake of hurricane Sandy were dismal and dangerous. The storm flooded the basement and first floor of the high-rise buildings, destroying the transformers and boilers that provided electricity, heat and hot water. Food remains scarce, since the storm flooded all of the supermarkets and bodegas in the area. As a result, thousands of people, including many seniors and people with disabilities, were stranded in the high-rise public housing developments for two weeks, without power, heat, hot water, or food.
It is clear from discussions with people who were on the ground that the residents who remained in some of the housing developments did not receive prompt or adequate aid from the government. Specifically, the many seniors and people with disabilities who remained in these buildings needed to be identified and assisted by people going door to door. There are some instances where no canvassing occurred for days, or at all, leaving residents and volunteers to fend for themselves.
Regina Mitchell uncovered one such situation. Mitchell directs a community program at Surfside Gardens, the same development where she grew up and her 69-year-old mother, Mildred Emerson lives. Days before the storm, Mitchell evacuated her mother to her sister’s apartment in Bensonhurst. (Mitchell herself lives in downtown Brooklyn.)
Mitchell returned to Surfside Gardens on Wednesday, October 31, two days after the storm, when she heard the development was not receiving any help from NYCHA or the New York City Police Department’s office of community affairs. “I came down to check on the other people who were left in the building because I actually grew up in Surfside… and they were telling me they weren’t being serviced at all,” she said. “Not at all. Nobody came to see them, nobody checked on them, but in all the other developments, they were being served.” This was especially alarming to Mitchell because two of Surfside Gardens’ 5 buildings are “senior citizens’ buildings,” which are, by design, exclusively inhabited by seniors.
Mitchell learned that because Surfside Gardens didn’t have a resident association president, residents were expected to go to the nearby Gravesend development. “What I did see is that most of the Surfside residents were not coming over to get services,” she said. Instead, Mitchell got in touch with Deborah Carter, Deborah Reed and Ilma Joyner, presidents of the resident associations at the Gravesend, Coney Island houses and O’Dwyer Gardens developments, respectively. The three resident association presidents sent residents from those areas to Surfside Gardens with water, food and winter clothing.
Canvassing the Surfside Gardens buildings with residents, Mitchell discovered that senior citizens in the mixed population buildings were concentrated on high floors. “When we went to floors like 4 or 5, 6, 7, there were maybe three people still there,” she recalled. “But when we were on ten and above, there were seven, eight people still there.”
Mitchell witnessed horror scenes as she and other residents discovered seniors and people with disabilities who may have been in danger of death or other serious health problems. “I saw a lot of seniors very cold, very rigid,” Mitchell said. “A lot of them just bundled with as many coats and hats on top of sweaters. It was just really sad. And most of the people we encountered was Russian and didn’t really speak the language. The best they could say to us is ‘cold, cold,’ ‘water, water’ or ‘food.’”
Mitchell also saw residents rescue an old woman on the ninth floor who could not breathe because of her asthma. Mitchell said residents “actually had to slide her down the stairs” on a cot. A family member met them “coming up” with a portable asthma machine.
That was all on Wednesday. “Thursday morning those volunteers were utterly exhausted, in terms of going up and down these stairs in five buildings, bringing up cases of water and canned foods and things like that,” Mitchell said. Mitchell was relieved when People’s Relief volunteers arrived on Thursday to resume canvassing, so the residents who helped her on Wednesday could rest.
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Although the neglect of Coney Island homes and O’Dwyer Gardens was not as severe as Surfside Gardens, in both of them, People’s Relief proved the most prompt, responsive, present and engaged relief group. This was essential because like Surfside Gardens, Coney Island homes and O’Dwyer Gardens required immediate and constant in-person canvassing to uncover home-bound seniors and people with disabilities.
Ilma Joyner is a 57 year-old electrician with a grown daughter. Since May 2011 she has served as president of the resident Association of the 6-building public housing development O’Dwyer Gardens, where she has lived for the past 27 years. She remained in the public housing development during the storm to help her residents who staid. “I don’t have to be here,” she said. “I could have staid somewhere else, I have family. I didn’t have to be in the cold. But this is my people, this is my home, this is the place I chose to live.” Joyner informed Take Action News that the cold conditions had made her sick and that she had been out of work for 15 days as a result.
Joyner sang People’s Relief’s praises unprompted, crediting them specifically for canvassing the buildings for stranded residents earlier and more often than any other group. “This group called Occupy Sandy has been out here and they’ve been a godsend to us,” Joyner said before being asked a single question. Many local residents know People’s Relief as Occupy Sandy, because Occupy Sandy continues to deliver the goods distributed in the field, and People’s Relief has only cemented their independent brand recently. “They come every day, they walk the buildings, they make sure—they knock on doors to see what people who are homebound need.”
Joyner estimated that of the more than 600 residents who lived in the development, more than 100 who remained after the storm were elderly or had “special needs,” such as being bound to a wheelchair. She informed Take Action News that many residents were in fact, hungry, thirsty and at risk medically when the People’s Relief reached them. “When they knocked on those doors, there were people who hadn’t had food, who hadn’t had water in days, and these people went up and brought them food, brought them blankets, or even escorted them downstairs if they had somewhere else to go,” she said. “They were more in tune with what was going on with the resident in that area than even myself.”
No dead bodies have yet been discovered in the O’Dwyer Gardens buildings. Joyner believes that People’s Relief may have saved lives. “When you have a senior citizen in there who has eaten and hasn’t had a drink of water in days and their toilet is stopped up or couldn’t get the medication, tell me if that’s not saving a life,” she said.
Even younger residents who remained in the development faced major safety issues. Dave Irwin, who volunteered with People’s Relief on Saturday and Sunday November 10-11, recalled helping a single mother with seven children who was using the stove to heat her home. Irwin and fellow volunteer Eric Moed initially saw the woman struggling with a cart she had filled with blankets from an aid station they had set up, and helped her carry them back to her apartment. The first-floor apartment had been severely damaged by the flood. Her children were sleeping on the floor, since the mattresses were covered in mildew, and she had the stove on to keep the apartment warm. Keeping the stove lit for extended periods of time can result in Carbon monoxide poisoning. “We started telling her the different ways you can go about” keeping the apartment warm, Irwin said. “We showed her you can boil some water and the steam helps contain heat, or improve insulation on the windows using blankets.”
As Take Action News reported on Monday, Deborah Franklin-Reed, president of the resident association of Coney Island houses, also extolled People’s Relief as the most critical relief organization active in her 5-building development. “Occupy Sandy came in and they were like a godsend to us,” she said, referring to People’s Relief which works with Occupy Sandy. “Green City Force has been here. NYCHA has been knocking on doors. They started knocking on doors prior to the hurricane. But for the most part we’ve had volunteers from Occupy Sandy. They have been assisting us.” Franklin-Reed added, “When we see them, we are at ease, because we know that they are supporting us 100%.”
For Joyner, the support provided by People’s Relief has enabled the community to begin a tenuous recovery process. “We’ll make it, and we’ll get back up there, and we’ll start all over again, trust me,” she exclaimed. “But I have to say, without Occupy Sandy, I don’t know if it would have turned out to be what it is today: Us getting back on our feet and moving forward. They were very instrumental in helping us do that.”
Occupy Bureaucracy? FEMA, OEM, & NYCHA
Community leaders and members who have remained at the developments for the past two weeks gave varying accounts of FEMA’s presence in the public housing developments. “FEMA did come by once when we were out on the corner and they did bring some things, but after that, I didn’t see FEMA any more,” Ilma Joyner said.
Steve St. Bernard, another leader of the Coney Island houses resident association characterized FEMA’s presence in similar terms. ”FEMA hasn’t come all the way down here,” St. Bernard told the Brooklyn Bureau. “They’re stationed up at Our Lady of Solace Church. So to use FEMA, the tenants have to go over there.”
Regina Mitchell saw them in many places in Coney Island, but never in or around the public housing developments where there was evidently great need. The FEMA Mobile Disaster Relief Center (MDRC) was located near the Cyclones Stadium and the famous amusement park, an area of the island that Occupy Sandy volunteer Eric Moed characterized as lightly affected.
Deborah Franklin-Reed of the Coney Island houses, said both that FEMA had been in contact with her directly about aid residents could request. “We were in communication and contact with their representatives,” she said. “We were given information about how we could get our residents down to them to apply for whatever disaster relief fund that we possibly could.”
Franklin-Reed also said FEMA had been present around the public housing developments. “FEMA has been out here,” she said. “We have seen them. They spread the word. They let us know they were out here. They have moved them from one location to the next location. As soon as that was implemented we were provided with information about where we could send our residents.”
Ken Higginbotham, a spokesman for FEMA in New York City, said that it is the job of the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and Office of Emergency Management (OEM) to identify areas where aid and rescue efforts need to be directed, and that only then do they provide financial and logistical support.
Regarding the location of FEMA’s MDRC trailer, Higginbotham said that the City government selected the location of FEMA’s MDRC in Coney Island. “The city dictates where we are able to set up this mobile DRC[Disaster Relief Center],” Higginbotham said. “We go where the city, or the City Office of Emergency Management, gets us to go to. So it’s not a decision by FEMA to go where we go.”
It is then in turn up to the individual MDRC to decide whether it should travel to any particular location, including a public housing development.
In addition, FEMA has 1,000 Community Relations Specialists (CRSs) in New York State, according to Higginbotham. Of those, he estimated 40-50 were in Coney Island. The CRSs are meant to go “door to door” to inform people of the MDRC location, how they can request aid, and “identify people with special needs.” Higginbotham could not verify that the CRSs had canvassed the public housing developments. Even if they had, it is not clear they would have been enough. The public housing developments in Coney Island are home to tens of thousands of people.
Higginbotham was aware of widespread volunteering efforts, but not aware of Occupy Sandy specifically. (When Take Action News spoke with Higginbotham on Saturday, November 10, People’s Relief was not yet identifying completely independently.) “There are people who are working all over,” he said. “I don’t know specifically of any one particular group.”
The New York City Office of Emergency Management (OEM) could not address how or why FEMA’s MDRC was located where it was, or how they were using their resources. They could not verify either what services or goods were being provided to the Coney Island public housing developments specifically. Nancy Greco, an OEM spokesperson, instead stated the numbers of homes that volunteers have canvassed for home-bound New Yorkers, and other broad figures. “The City continues to coordinate canvassing operations to check on homebound New Yorkers,” she wrote. “Volunteers have canvassed more than 15,100 apartments and reached more than 20,000 people in NYCHA properties, rental buildings and single-family homes.” The People’s Relief volunteers at the Coney Island public housing developments have not been approached by anyone from OEM, so it is not clear if they are among the volunteers the City is counting. They also do not report seeing canvassers affiliated with the City.
Greco also emphasized the City’s enormous efforts to evacuate Zone A residents. She implied that there were limits to what the City could do if people did not evacuate.
For its part, NYCHA had both the greatest responsibilities to the public housing developments and appears to have performed the most relief efforts of any government agency for their residents. Despite their frustration, no one on the ground who spoke to Take Action News thought that NYCHA was not working hard to restore power and heating. Ilma Joyner acknowledged that NYCHA was working “around the clock” with Con Ed to restore power.
In fact, Deborah Franklin-Reed, president of the resident association in Coney Island houses, had nothing critical to say about NYCHA. “I can tell you that NYCHA has never stopped caring about us,” she said. NYCHA representatives met with her to update her on the status of the power and see if there was anything they needed.
NYCHA social workers also went door to door distributing food and blankets as well. Joyner is not sure when they arrived, however, and believes that People’s Relief came a few days after the storm, and NYCHA came a week after they arrived. NYCHA “allowed us to come into the community center last week,” Joyner said. “That’s when the social workers came in with me. They might have been doing this a week before because I was on the street” distributing aid.
Joyner said that NYCHA’s social workers and relief distribution teams have been around many fewer hours than People’s Relief’s volunteers. “They’re not here over the weekend,” Joyner said. “I haven’t seen them since Friday.” Joyner spoke with Take Action News on Tuesday night.
Further, when NYCHA was present, they sometimes distributed aid supplies from Occupy Sandy that People’s Relief had delivered and sorted. “Occupy Sandy allowed them to distribute whatever we have on site,” Joyner explained. “They could care less, as long as they give it to the tenant.”
Regina Mitchell thought NYCHA lacked the planning and the manpower to fulfill its responsibilities to public housing. She specifically mentioned the fact that they never cleaned the lobbies of the buildings, which had been unsanitary. “The lobbies were filthy and didn’t get cleaned ‘til yesterday,” Mitchell told Take Action News some 15 days after the storm. “And those were volunteers cleaning the buildings.”
Part of the difficulty in assessing NYCHA’s performance comes from the fact that they worked totally independently from the presidents of the resident associations. Joyner said she was not sure when the NYCHA workers began canvassing, because People’s Relief volunteers “are the only ones I’ve been working with—directly.” NYCHA, Joyner explained, “went door to door on their own. I have no control over NYCHA employees.”
Similarly, NYCHA headquarters did not know exactly how many workers were sent to each project, or which volunteer groups were working with NYCHA. “NYC Service coordinated a lot of volunteer efforts on our part,” NYCHA spokesperson Sheila Stainback told Take Action News. “You can’t have people roaming our developments without permission.”
None of the people on the ground in or near the public housing developments had heard about or met any volunteers sent by the NYC Service. People’s Relief volunteers said they had not been in touch with City officials, so it is not likely that they are legally approved to canvass.
As a result, it is not clear that NYCHA knew where manpower was needed and when.
Perhaps we can assess NYCHA’s lack of community involvement, however, as a failure in its own right. The success of People’s Relief was predicated on communication and coordination with community residents and figures. Without their constant communication with Joyner, Franklin-Reed and other community leaders, People’s Relief would probably not have innovated an entire infrastructure to dispense aid supplies from the top of the Occupy Sandy supply chain. As Take Action News reported on Monday, People’s Relief volunteers established an aid hub at Gospel Souls Assembly church on 2828 Neptune Ave, as well as auxiliary distribution hubs in and around the housing developments, including in an office above a strip club at 1201 Surf Ave and in the Coney Island houses community room.
Another testament to People’s Relief success is their shear size. The group now manages an estimated 60 volunteers every weekday, and 200 volunteers on weekends, according to volunteer Eric Moed.
Regina Mitchell thinks the City could learn from People’s Relief’s approach. She continues to refer to People’s Relief as Occupy Sandy due to their working relationship. “Occupy Sandy in terms of what they did, they had a vision, they had a plan. I don’t think that the City planned what it was that they were gonna do,” Regina Mitchell said. “I think that Occupy Sandy pretty much coordinated with the people who were working like Deborah Reed, Ilma Joyner, Deborah Carter, Pastor Conny over at the Church…They had maps of all the developments, where they were going to disseminate it, the people, what floors they were gonna go in. They had already worked with other people to get the information in terms of who needed the services more. They had a strategy and they implemented that plan and it worked.”