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Good Samaritans Pitch in to Help Tenants Stranded in Darkened Buildings

By Serena Solomon | October 31, 2012 8:11pm | Updated on November 1, 2012 8:59am

EAST VILLAGE — From relatives to friends to perfect strangers, New Yorkers pitched in to help those trapped in their apartments and struggling with blackout conditions in Lower Manhattan days after Hurricane Sandy struck the city.

Anna Donn said she would have been stranded without the help of neighbors and fellow church members who lugged supplies up 11 flights of stairs to her Haven Plaza apartment on East 13th Street near Avenue C.

"I don't even want to think about it," said Donn, 68, who uses a wheelchair and a cane to move around and suffers from diabetes and arthritis. "We cannot get out of here no matter what."

Donn said she did not heed the the mandatory evacuation order issued by Mayor Michael Bloomberg Sunday for residents in flood-prone Zone A, which includes Haven Plaza, because of their combined health problems and the impracticality of being in a shelter.

Sweeping power outages across lower Manhattan — which left many in public housing below 34th Street without working elevators or running water — are not expected to be fixed until about Saturday at the earliest.

Edi Alvarez, a Chelsea resident, spent Wednesday morning hauling water up dark flights of stairs to his grandmother's apartment in the Riis Houses along the East River, which saw unprecedented storm surges Monday night.

Alvarez said his grandmother went to a shelter for Irene last year, but chose to stay in her own home for Sandy because it was so uncomfortable.

He said he also helped others in the building who he knows were also struggling to cope with little to no support.

"They are hanging in there, but it is starting to get bad," Alvarez said. "The stuff in the fridge will be going bad, and it's going to start to get hairy."

One of the tenants Alvarez helped was 85-year-old Aurea Agingzoni, who lives on the fourth floor of a Riis tower between the FDR Drive and Avenue D.

"I don't have anyone to help me," said Agingzoni, in Spanish, as a neighbor translated. "I don't have any family nearby."

Wheelchair-bound resident Felix Baez, 55, said he's been relying on a neighbor to bring him water to his fifth-floor apartment. He spent the last few days moving only between his apartment and a common area window on the same floor.

"It has been terrible," said Baez, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a work accident in 1979, referring to Hurricane Irene last year. "The third one I am definitely going to leave."

Like Donn, he has yet to hear from NYCHA workers and trusts in the limited knowledge of other residents, who say they, too, are yet to hear any official word from authorities, including when the electricity will come back on.

A NYCHA spokeswoman said the agency attempted to evacuate special needs tenants before the storm.

"We knocked on the door and contacted every special needs elderly residents from Saturday through Monday for evacuation, and more than once," spokeswoman Sheila Stainback said.   "If you know of any such stranded individual, please let us know."

Stainback said residents of the blacked out developments — many of whom suffered phone outages — should call the city's helpline if vulnerable neighbors need help."

It's actually recommended that they dial 3-1-1 about any concern if they are certain a neighbor was not evacuated," Stainback said in an email.

"There are a lot of dreadful stories," said disability advocate Edith Prentiss, who lives in Washington Heights and said her phone has been buzzing with calls from people stranded in their homes.

"I'm sure this is a factor in the general population: people who just did not prepare very well. It may be that the first hurricane that they had to deal with was Irene, and they didn't know what they had to do."

Nick Dupree, 30, said he has been touched by the outpouring of help from friends and strangers who keep his life-sustaining ventilator and feeding tube running by refreshing his rechargeable batteries every three hours.

Because they have no ventilation in the apartment, Ospina said, they cannot run a generator for electricity and instead rely on batteries to power Dupree's medical equipment. 

Dupree and Ospina decided not to evacuate — and has been asked by paramedics several times —  because they were afraid to move to a shelter amid a crisis.

"Our goal has been to avoid hospitals," Ospina said. "It would be very detrimental to transport him.
He really shouldn't be switched off his own equipment."

Volunteers, many of whom are friends of friends or who learned of Dupree's predicament via word-of-mouth, took turns climbing 12 flights of stairs and swapping out Dupree's batteries with fresh ones being charged at a fire house across the street.

Others stopped by to drop of pizza, produce, or Chinese food in Sandy's wake.

"I wanted to help if I could," said 28-year-old Mariam Bazeed, of Brooklyn, who never met the couple before hearing about their struggle through an e-mail. "So I emailed to get details. At first, I just came to grab batteries, then I brought water and other supplies."

Leslie Freeman, Ospina's friend who lives in Coney Island, said that between 20 to 30 people had expressed interest on the internet, either volunteering to drive caretakers or bring supplies or donate money via portlight.org

Even with volunteers, however, Dupree's situation remains tenuous.

A firefighter at nearby Engine 7, who declined to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the press, said that the station might be locked — and battery charging unavailable to volunteers — if they get sent out on a run.

"We might be out for five or six hours," he said. "There would be no batteries."

The Captain "wasn't trying to be mean," in suggesting the couple evacuate, but was simply concerned about their safety, he said.

Even if the Engine didn't get dispatched, he said, the generator isn't completely fail safe.

"It can go out," he warned.

Other stranded residents worried there could be isolated residents without the help of any family and friends.

Barbara Johnson, 69, whose two knee replacements prevent her from using stairwells in the Riis Houses, said she thought she could handle the stairs.

"There could be people worse of than me," said Johnson.

Erik Quinones arrived just in time to stop his 71-year-old mother from attempting to carry six or so gallons of water up 11 flights of stairs to her Riis Houses apartment.

"She is an elderly woman, and she deserves to be taken care of," he said.

Quinones blasted the lack of communication and action from NYCHA following the storm.

"It takes something like this to show how unorganized they are," he said.

As for Quinones' mother, Anna Almestica, she was doing fine until Wednesday, when she ran out of water.

"I didn't think it was going to be this bad," she said.