Another government failure: NYC Public Housing Authority
So much for Mayor Bloomberg’s vaunted ability to get NYC agencies to work (if the out-of-control NYPD were not enough). Erice Lipton and Michael Moss report in the NY Times:
Three weeks after Hurricane Sandy, fresh teams of federal disaster recovery workers rushed to Coney Island to solve a troubling mystery: few people were signing up for federal financial aid. The workers trooped into the city’s public housing towers, climbing up darkened stairwells, shouting “FEMA,” knocking on doors.
What they found surprised even these veteran crews.
Dozens of frail, elderly residents and others with special needs were still stranded in their high-rise apartments — even though life in much of New York City had returned to near normal. In apartment 8F of one tower, Daniel O’Neill, a 75-year-old retired teacher who uses a wheelchair and who still lacked reliable electricity, cut in half the dosage of his $132-a-month medicine, which he needed to stabilize his swollen limbs.
“That leg looks like it could turn into gangrene,” said Eric Phillipson, a United States Army Ranger turned planner for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, promising to alert the Red Cross as he handed Mr. O’Neill a FEMA aid flier and hurried to the next apartment.
Hurricane Sandy put few agencies in the region to a more daunting test than it did the New York City Housing Authority — the nation’s biggest public landlord — as 402 of its buildings housing 77,000 residents lost electricity and elevators, with most of them also losing heat and hot water. These lifelines were cut in some of the city’s most isolated spots, like Coney Island, Red Hook and the Rockaways.
An examination by The New York Times has found that while the agency moved aggressively before the storm to encourage residents to leave, particularly those who were disabled and the needy, both it and the city government at large were woefully unprepared to help its residents deal with Hurricane Sandy’s lingering aftermath.
The city, which did not enforce its mandatory evacuation order, could not assess the medical needs of residents stuck atop darkened, freezing towers until nearly two weeks after the storm. It relied on ragtag bands of volunteers who quickly found themselves overwhelmed by the task of reaching, comforting and caring for trapped residents. And the seemingly simplest things, like towing portable lighting towers into the Red Hook public housing complex, took 11 days, all because the housing authority had not properly prepared for a major disaster.
Again and again, city officials publicly predicted that the crisis in public housing was on the verge of being resolved, contributing to a perception at City Hall that there was no need to mobilize an extensive effort to provide medical care.
“By tonight or tomorrow, every one of their buildings will have electricity and by early next week they will all have heat,” Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said on Nov. 9 — a promise that was off by more than a week. “So that’s a group that we did have to worry about but now do not have to worry about.”
For many, the situation was becoming increasingly dire as residents fell ill from carbon-monoxide-spewing stoves, waited for a knock on the door from a volunteer bearing rations of food and water, or groped down darkened stairs.
“We only had one flashlight,” said Rachel Gonzalez, 57, who fell while going down the pitch-black stairs of her Coney Island building with her husband a week after the storm on a fruitless expedition to Pathmark: it had run out of bottled water and batteries. It was only after volunteers raised alarms that the city began a military-scale response to address the increasingly apparent needs, and while just one death was reported in those buildings in the weeks after the storm — a man who fell down a wet stairwell — city officials said they expected the health effects from the prolonged recovery to linger for several months.
The Brooklyn borough president, Marty Markowitz, echoing comments by many other officials, said that city workers, emergency personnel and contractors deserved praise for their tireless efforts to help those in need. But it is also clear to him that the housing authority could have, and should have, done better.
“Nycha was underprepared,” Mr. Markowitz said. “Senior citizens and the disabled were especially impacted by the lack of essential services available in Sandy’s aftermath, as they were effectively held hostage on the upper floors of their apartment buildings.” . . .