Sandy One Year Later: Knickerbocker Village Lags in Recovery; Progress Elsewhere

The following story first appeared in the October 2013 edition of The Lo-Down’s print magazine.

Knickerbocker Village.

Knickerbocker Village.

Nearly a year after Hurricane Sandy devastated Knickerbocker Village, the historic affordable housing complex just two short blocks from the East River, Steven Wong can’t shake the memories from those 17 days his family sat in the dark and cold. On at least five occasions following the Oct. 29 natural disaster, Wong carried his frail grandfather on his back from an 11th-floor apartment down the pitch-dark staircase for dialysis treatments.

“He was extremely agitated,” Wong said of 89-year-old Sui Chan, who’s bedridden and receives daily care from a nursing aide. “But what was he going to do? He lived there 40 years and had no place to go.”

As the first anniversary of the superstorm fast approaches, the residents of Knickerbocker Village would be comforted to know their homes are better protected for the next hurricane. Unfortunately, however, they are still waiting for federal disaster assistance to arrive. Promised rent rebates have not materialized. And if an emergency plan for future disasters has been created, tenants haven’t been told about it in any detail. In short, many residents living in the 1,590 apartments located between Market and Catherine streets feel more vulnerable than ever before.

The scene on South Street after Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Virginia Jones.

The scene on South Street after Hurricane Sandy. Photo by Virginia Jones.

For most people on the Lower East Side, the effects of Hurricane Sandy were not long-lasting. Businesses suffered lost revenues and a small number of residents were displaced from their homes indefinitely. But compared with places like Staten Island and the Rockaways, the LES bounced back quickly. After the floodwaters receded and the lights came back on, though, a new reality sunk in throughout the neighborhood. We couldn’t escape the fact that Sandy was not a fluke, that future storms are sure to be even more damaging and that we remained woefully unprepared. In the past 11 months, community organizations, government officials and property owners have been grappling with how to protect the city, including the low-lying areas in our community.

From Knickerbocker Village, to the public housing projects near the waterfront to the large cooperative buildings a few blocks from the river on Grand Street, levels of disaster preparedness vary greatly.  Overall, it’s clear that some positive steps have been taken; it’s equally clear that much more is required.

In June, Mayor Michael Bloomberg unveiled a $20 billion plan to protect the city from rising sea levels and extreme weather. According to a 438-page report that contained 250 recommendations, the plan includes erecting both temporary and permanent barriers along the East River and “storm-proofing” older buildings. In the spring, New York received approval to spend nearly $1.8 billion in federal aid, the first installment of a massive recovery package. The funds eventually will be made available to large housing complexes, such as Knickerbocker Village, in the form of community block grants. But as victims of previous natural disasters have discovered, waiting for money from Washington can be a frustrating and protracted ordeal.

Knickerbocker Village immediately after Sandy hit.

Knickerbocker Village immediately after Sandy hit.

More than a week after electrical power was restored throughout the Lower East Side last November, word began to get out that Knickerbocker Village was still in the dark. While few tenants knew it at the time, the hurricane had destroyed the Depression-era development’s mechanical systems. There was a complete breakdown in communications and no support for residents, including about two dozen homebound seniors, until local nonprofit organizations and elected officials began mobilizing relief efforts, going door to door with food, water and medical supplies. As anger continued to build, Knickerbocker Village’s management finally came face to face with tenants Nov. 14 in a public meeting organized by State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. James Simmons, an executive with AREA Property Partners, promised that full power would be restored within 24 hours and he vowed, “we will ensure that not a penny of rent is paid on days in which you did not have essential services.” Finally, Simmons said Knickerbocker Village was committed to planning for the future. “I don’t believe it’s the last time the East River crosses Cherry Street,” he warned.

In most apartments, power was, in fact, restored the next day, and heat and hot water followed. The immediate crisis ended and, like many of their neighbors elsewhere on the LES, residents returned to work and resumed their daily routines. But in the weeks and months that followed, as another hurricane season loomed, it became obvious that long-term solutions at the complex, in the city’s 100-year floodplain, were not materializing.

During the summer, there were scattered power outages, elevators continued to malfunction and management said it was unable to offer rent reimbursements until Knickerbocker Village’s insurance carrier approved a multi-million-dollar claim. A petition signed by more than 1,500 residents was delivered to Gov. Andrew Cuomo Sept. 4 in which residents pleaded with the governor, who has oversight authority of the affordable complex, to order the owners to implement a disaster plan. In an appeal to the New York State Office of Homes & Community Renewal, which has direct supervision of Knickerbocker Village, they wrote, “both the property and its occupants are even more exposed to a catastrophic event then they were a year ago. We appeal to you to provide the necessary resources and direction to management… so that our emergency requirements are accomplished on an immediate basis.”

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State officials told the tenants that New York City is responsible for distributing any funds Knickerbocker Village might receive. The mayor did not reply to a letter from local elected officials in which they urged immediate action. Last month, a spokesperson for the city’s housing agency told The Lo-Down that aid for the development is a priority, but added, “there is a process that is necessary in order to meet the federal requirements of the funding which can take several months, including environmental requirements, floodplain notices and tenant notice requirements.” During the first week of September, management posted a notice in public areas indicating that “initial steps had been taken” to “prevent damage from future storms.” Flood gates for “various locations on Cherry Street” were being manufactured and retaining walls were to be built, the memo stated. But Bob Wilson, a longtime tenant leader, was dismayed, telling fellow residents at a meeting last month, the state’s “foot-dragging” is “despicable.” Wilson said, “in essence they’re telling us to drop dead.”

In a recent interview, City Council member Margaret Chin, who spent a lot of time at Knickerbocker Village in the aftermath of the storm, said she’s pushing legislation that would set up a registry for the elderly and other vulnerable populations. She’s also is advancing a proposal requiring property owners to publish evacuation plans. In her travels through the district, she said, it’s become obvious some buildings have done a lot to prepare for the next storm; others have made little progress.

At the Alfred E. Smith Houses, a public housing development, Tenant Association President Aixa Torres was preparing last month to distribute emergency kits, containing items such as bottled water and flashlights, to residents. At the Smith Houses, Sandy’s waters forced sewage to back up in 21 ground-level apartments. Residents have been relocated, as the apartments must be completely renovated. Torres, who’s not shy about criticizing the housing authority when she thinks it’s deserved, praised NYCHA for its performance during and after the storm. “There was a sense of unity and the staff at Smith has been great,” she said.

After Sandy, another large housing development, the Seward Park Cooperative, lagged behind other co-op buildings on Grand Street in restoring heat and hot water because it relied on steam service from Con Edison. This month, two new boilers are coming online, meaning the 1,700 apartments there will no longer be at the mercy of an outside utility. General Manager Frank Durant said more emergency generators have been purchased and systems are being put in place to provide emergency lighting. A resident survey was conducted in January to help the co-op identify in which apartments vulnerable residents live. A comprehensive emergency plan is also in the works, he said.

Mayor Bloomberg provided a briefing at Seward Park High School before the storm hit.

Mayor Bloomberg provided a briefing at Seward Park High School before the storm hit.

Chin said one of her top priorities is identifying new emergency shelters. During the height of the storm and immediate aftermath, all 800 beds at Lower Manhattan’s existing shelter, Seward Park High School, were occupied. Generators there failed, creating a difficult situation for seniors and families with young children. “Seward Park High School is not sufficient,” Chin said. “We have to start looking for other sites.” Churches and other small community facilities should be looked at to augment the city’s existing shelter system, she said.

In March, a large number of neighborhood organizations came together to form the Lower East Side Long-Term Recovery Group. The participants have been meeting regularly to coordinate disaster readiness plans. Melissa Aase, University Settlement’s executive director, sits on the group’s executive committee. The organization, she told The Lo-Down recently, is working on a wide range of initiatives, including the development of community “reception centers” and volunteer coordination networks. They’re working on establishing communications systems that will be functional during future storms and coordinating with grocery stores to make sure adequate supplies of food are available. As a result of the organization’s efforts, Aase said, “I think we are better prepared. We have better communications and many more specific connections [among LES social service agencies] and other community-oriented groups.”

Gigi Li, chairperson of Community Board 3, believes the Long-Term Recovery Group is doing good work, but she would like to see the city focus in a more comprehensive way on Lower Manhattan’s most vulnerable communities. CB3 as a whole does not think much of Bloomberg’s proposal for Seaport City, a new community envisioned on the East River with luxury housing and a multi-billion-dollar levee system.

“Seaport City should not be the focus,” Li said. “I don’t think public housing has been looked at seriously enough post-Sandy. I don’t think Knickerbocker Village has been looked at seriously.”

The residents at Knickerbocker obviously agree with this assessment wholeheartedly. Tenant leader Bob Wilson said he has no doubt that recovery funds will eventually arrive but in the meantime, he told fellow residents last month, “You are at substantial risk. This is a risky place to live.”