Many NYCHA Residents Stay Put in East Harlem Despite Evacuation Order

By Jeff Mays on October 28, 2012 9:07pm 

HARLEM — A police car parked outside the Isaacs Houses on First Avenue and 93rd Street on Sunday blasted an order through its loudspeakers that residents must evacuate, ahead of Hurricane Sandy.

Three school buses waited outside to transport people to shelters, but many residents of the houses, which are in the city's mandatory evacuation zone, said they planned to ride out the storm at home.

"We chose not to go. We'll take our chances," said Valerie Ventolora, 39, a telephone operator who lives in the Isaacs Houses, a public housing complex with three 24-story buildings, 635 apartments and more than 1,300 residents. "I've been through three blackouts, four hurricanes and an earthquake here. I'll be fine."

That's not the message Mayor Michael Bloomberg is sending to public housing residents in Zone A evacuation areas. Bloomberg said the elevators would be shut off, as well as the heat and hot water. The move will effect more than 45,000 residents citywide.

Bloomberg said the elevators are being stopped to prevent people from being trapped if the power goes out. The heat and hot water are being closed down to protect the electrical system of buildings.

Meteorologists say the storm could bring a storm surge of 6 to 11 feet along with dangerously high winds.

“If the electricity goes out, the elevator will stop and people could be trapped in them,” Bloomberg said.

But in the evacuation zone on the Upper East Side and Harlem, which stretches from East 93rd to East 100 streets along First Avenue to the East River, many public housing residents said they thought the city overreacted to Hurricane Irene last year.

They also pointed out that private high-rise developments just across the street from public housing were not going to the same lengths.

Rose Bergin, 57, a tenant leader at Isaacs Houses and the Manhattan South District Chair of the Citywide Council of Presidents, said some residents have decided to leave on their own, but many have decided to stay.

"I'm encouraging residents to leave, but I don't think a lot of people are taking this as seriously as Irene because not much happened," said Bergin who has lived in the complex for 30 years.

"I think its overacting," said Paul Steakin, 46, a concierge who lives in Isaacs Houses. "I understand the city has to take some precautions, but why are they shutting off the elevators and hot water?"

Gilda Navarrete, a bus driver for the yellow school buses that sat outside Isaacs Houses, said she had been there for three hours, but had yet to drive anyone to the shelter.

"We are just waiting to see what's going to happen," said Navarrete.

Ventolora said she understood why the city was being cautious.

"I thank them for the option, but I don't think it's necessary," she said.

The only thing that happened after Irene last year was a little water leaking in from her terrace, she said. But her brother has since sealed the area.

Karen Ramirez, 21, a homemaker, said her family was still trying to decide what to do. Ramirez and her father came out of their building to talk to NYCHA workers and police in the effort to make a decision.

Ramirez, 21, said she was torn about leaving because she is nine months pregnant and could go into labor at any time. Her sister also has a newborn.

"We stayed last year for Irene and nothing happened," Ramirez said. "I know the elevators might get shut down, but we only live on the fifth floor and we are all packed to leave if we have to."

Not everyone was taking the threat as lightly. All along First Avenue, people stopped to talk to the police car making the evacuation announcement. At the Key Food on Second Avenue and 92nd Street, the shelves were emptying as people came in to buy supplies.

Sparkle Ragland, 20, and roommate Karin Gaillard, 17, live next to Isaacs Houses at Holmes Towers, two 25-story public housing buildings with almost 1,000 residents, said they were going to ride out the storm at a friend's house in the Bronx.

Standing with a carrier that contained Ragland's cat, Romeo, and a couple of bags, the pair were trying to hail a cab on First Avenue.

"I heard the evacuation order and that did it for me," Ragland said. "Since we are right by the water, I'm not taking any chances."

Gaillard agreed.

"It's better to be safe than sorry," she said. "People who stay are playing with their lives."

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