NYCHA Turns Off Elevators at Public Housing as Some Residents Refuse to Leave

By Jeff Mays | August 27, 2011 2:51pm | Updated on August 27, 2011 9:52pm

HARLEM β€” The New York City Housing Authority started shutting off elevators, boilers and other services to its buildings in the Hurricane Irene Zone A evacuation area more than an hour before the city's 5 p.m. evacuation deadline.

β€œIt is a mandatory evacuation. Your buildings are shutting down. Your elevators are shutting down. Your boilers are shutting down and it will be much too dangerous to stay,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg urged at the Office of Emergency Management headquarters late Saturday afternoon.

The news of the elevator shutdown, which officials confirmed began at 3:30 p.m. and continued through the evening, made the decision to stay or go more difficult for some public housing residents, and raised the ire of others who said officials were using the shutdown as a tactic to force them to move.

"There's a lot of people staying, 'They're shutting down the elevator for nothing.' It's not right," said Angelo Selar, 56, who has trouble walking, but said he was going to ride out the storm in his apartment for as long as two days.

"This is a little too much," he said. "By Monday, everything should be alright."

Many residents refused to leave, even hours before the monster storm was set to hit the area.  In some cases, just half of residents in some buildings had heeded the call to move.

Several NYCHA buildings are within Zone A, which is at risk for flooding if any hurricane hits.

In Harlem, the mandatory evacuation zone stretches from East 93rd Street to East 100th Street, from First Avenue to the East River, and includes the Isaacs Houses, a complex with three 24-story buildings with 635 apartments and an estimated 1,335 residents and Holmes Towers, two 25-story buildings with 943 residents.

In the East Harlem evacuation zone, a Fung Wah bus used to transport people to the evacuation center had only taken 10 people by 4 p.m. Many left on their own, but others said they were going to ride out the storm.

Ernestine Johnson, 52, a resident at Holmes Houses on First Avenue and 92nd Street, said she wanted to stay in her sixth floor apartment to check on an elderly neighbor and the neighbor's disabled daughter who decided not to leave.

"I walk two and a half miles a day so six floors is not a big deal if I need to get out," she said. "I've cooked some food and want to make sure my neighbor is okay."

Co-op concierge Paul Steakin, 45, who lives on the 19th floor and also planned to stay put, said he felt that the elevator shut-off should have been pushed back later in the evening, after the evacuation deadline.

"They should have shut it down later," he said. "The storm is not supposed to arrive until later," he said, noting that he's going to have walk down all 19 stories to walk his dog Saturday night.

"He was paper trained but now he won't go in the house," Steakin said of his dog. "I just got out of the hospital and I feel a little woozy."

A spokeswoman for the Mayor's Office defended the elevator shut-down timing, arguing that people had been adequately warned to evacuate immediately and shouldn't have waited so long to leave.

The mayor issued the evacuation order on Friday afternoon and had been warning people in Zone A to leave since Thursday.

On East 103rd Street and Madison Avenue, some slipped into a bus that took residents to the evacuation center while others said they were going to ride out the storm.

Francine Harvin stood outside of the housing complex at 94th Street and First Avenue with a bag of luggage, ready to board a bus.

"I don't like leaving my house but I'm concerned that they are going to turn off the elevators," she said. "It's the flooding that scares me."

Jetta Lane, 24, stood outside of her building at Isaacs Houses unsure of what to do.

"I've never been through anything like this before," she said. "Some people are saying they are going to ride it out. We live on the 23rd floor and I'm worried about what will happen if we have no water for two days."

Other residents like Tony and Val Padilla, packed their bags and walked to a relative's house at 99th and Madison with their 7-year-old son Marquis. They were not willing to take chances.

"The question is what price do you put on your life," said Tony Padilla, 46, a martial arts instructor.

"We live on the 24th floor with seniors and kids so it's better to be safe than sorry," said Val Padilla, 34.

Some were caught off-guard by the timing of the elevator shutdown, which city officials scheduled to begin an hour and a half before the official 5 p.m. evacuation time.

At the Jacob Riis Houses, a 13 building complex with almost 3,000 residents at East 8th and East 13th Streets between Avenue D and the F.D.R. Drive, Henrick Figueroa, 67, chatted with his friends on a park bench outside one of the buildings. They are all planning to stay even though one only has one leg and lives on the 12 floor.

They all seem unfazed, saying they planned to take the elevator back up to their apartments before it was shut off.

"Con Ed can turn the electricity off at anytime," said Figueroa.

Housing authority staff had told him of the dangers of staying but he was unconcerned.

"I used to run a lot, so this doesn't bother me," he said, about having no elevators.

But some NYCHA residents were angry. They felt NYCHA was overreacting and frightening people by shutting down the elevators.

Rose Bergrin, 56, a tenant leader at Isaacs Houses who is the Manhattan South District Chair of the Citywide Council of Presidents, has lived at Isaacs Houses 29 years. Despite occasional flooding, the elevators have never failed, she said.

"They are taking this way over the limit. They are overreacting and making people here anxious," she said, arguing that, even though the elevators at the Isaacs Houses didn't shut down until after 6 p.m., the timing was too soon.

"It would have been more thoughtful to shut it down at midnight. Maybe some people didn't decide to leave until 7 p.m. or maybe some people are coming home from work," said Bergrin.

She also said she didn't think NYCHA's plan made sense, especially when other high rise buildings just a block away were not shutting elevators.

Staff at the Chesapeake. luxury rentals at 94th Street and First Avenue just across the street from Isaacs Houses and at 340 East 94th St., both said there were no plans to shut off the elevator.

"Unless we lose power we are not shutting off the elevator," said a worker at 340 East 94th St.

Bergrin said she moved two relatives who use wheelchairs from the complex after she heard about the elevator shutdown but she plans to ride out the storm in her apartment even though her daughter wants her to leave.

"They are making people nervous, and people that wanted to stay are now making a mass exodus," she said.

She said the mayor was overreacting.

"Mayor Bloomberg is still trying to dig himself out from the blizzard," Bergrin said.

A NYCHA worker at the Riis Houses, who declined to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the press, said it had been difficult to get people to evacuate. Standing next to a Fung Wah bus being used to transport people to the shelter, he held a list with residents name and contact information. An "E" was next to the name of those who had left.

"We do have a lot of people who are staying. We are trying to convince them to leave," he said.

Last night and today he had knocked on doors in 10 buildings around the complex and estimates 50 percent of residents have evacuated to shelters or other accommodations.

"It is mostly the elderly who have been difficult to move. They say they have here too long and been through too much. They don't think it is going to be too bad. They don't want to be cooped up in the shelter," he said.

Some NYCHA residents in the East Harlem evacuation zone were given until 5 p.m. before the elevators shut down, giving some residents who decided to stay extra time for last minute preparations.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, whose council district includes sections in the evacuation zone, urged them to reconsider.

"There are buses there to take you to shelters. There are still spaces in the shelter. If you are in Zone A," she said, "we need you to evacuate immediately for your own safety and municipal workers' safety."