HARLEM — John Scott, 64, a retired bus operator, saw the water streaming over the wall separating the garage at Esplanade Gardens from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority rail yards and the Harlem River Monday night and knew his car would be totaled if he didn't move it.
Wading through he knee deep water during Hurricane Sandy to get to his car with a security guard, Scott looked up and saw two cars, headlights on, floating away.
"They were floating like they were in a river," said Scott. "We went to the cars to make sure no one was trapped inside."
Luckily, no one was. But Scott was one of the few residents whose car was parked on the ground floor of the three-story garage that was able to move it in time.
Most of Harlem escaped the dangerous winds and floods from Hurricane Sandy unscathed. Citywide, the storm left more than 600,000 people without power and at least 10 people dead. Lower Manhattan saw a record 14 foot storm surge.
But at Esplanade Gardens, 125 cars at the co-op apartment complex at 147th Street and Lenox Avenue may have been totaled by Hurricane Sandy's fury.
"When I came out last night the water was just flooding over the wall," said Richard Moultrie, 59, a caseworker who lost his 6 month old 2012 Chevy Equinox.
"I felt crushed. You work hard to buy a new car and then you see it beneath the water," he said.
The garage of the complex, long a middle class enclave in Harlem, was filled with BMW's, and cars that looked like that they could have just rolled off of the showroom floor if they weren't filled with water and debris. One BMW had a giant tree branch in the front seat.
"Esplanade is a mess," said State Sen. Bill Perkins who toured the complex yesterday afternoon.
Some cars were picked up and moved and sat at angles, as opposed to being within the neat yellow striped lines. Airbags, windows and trunks were open.
"All of these cars are finished," said Julius Alexander, 76, a retired biomedical engineer who has lived at the complex, which has more than 6,000 residents in six buildings, for 45 years.
"Management should have called people to move their cars. There was a window of opportunity," said his son, Julius Alexander, Jr., 45, a theater worker.
Craig Hartley, the maintenance supervisor at Esplanade Gardens said the Harlem River breached two bulkheads at the complex and flooded the garage are despite pumps from at the Lenox Terminal rail yard working furiously.
"It was a flash flood. One minute everything was fine and the next thing we know the area was being flooded," Hartley said.
"In the past, there were high winds and we know water comes over the bulkhead as it did with Hurricane Irene. There was some expectation of flood but not to the point of covering the whole lot."
Juan Arango, a city worker whose six-year-old Hyundai Sonata was flooded, said he looked out of his window at 7 and "everything was OK." An hour later, water was covering the tops of some cars.
"I knew my car was gone," said Arango, who added that he doesn't have full coverage.
Valerie White's car took water up to the floor of the car but was still working.
"I came down last night and I thought I was good," White said. "I didn't know the storm was this bad."
Hartley said management was working with its own insurance company and with car owners to resolve the situation.
"We thank God that no one was hurt," Hartley said. "Now, we are trying to bring some level of normalcy."
For Adrienne Blackett-Sparks, a 60-year-old retired postal worker recovering from a stroke, not having her Hyundai Accent to get around will make returning to normalcy difficult.
"Esplanade should have been more prepared for what happened," said Blackett-Sparks. "I'm glad to be alive and happy I have insurance. I can't worry that much about anything else."