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updated: 11/1/2012 8:40 AM

Towers of doom trap homebound New Yorkers as sandy cuts power

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  • Early morning traffic in Brooklyn moves slowly beneath the Manhattan skyline, Thursday.

      Early morning traffic in Brooklyn moves slowly beneath the Manhattan skyline, Thursday.
    Associated Press

 
Bloomberg News

For Rosa Reyes, 75, going from her 18th-floor New York apartment to the street is no longer an option after Sandy's hurricane-force winds cut power, and with it, elevator service, days ago.

"I can't go down no stairs because I'm disabled," Reyes said, leaning on a wooden cane and pointing to her knee. Her food is holding up, and neighbors have brought jugs of water. So she's all right, for now at least.

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Reyes isn't alone. An untold number of the city's shut-ins, from 39th Street to Manhattan's southern tip, are trapped in the towers that help define the city's skyline, after the superstorm knocked out power Oct. 29. Officials say it may take days or weeks to restore the electricity that drives elevators and powers the pumps that bring water up to fill sinks and toilets.

"Even a few flights of stairs for some of these people who rely on canes, walkers and wheelchairs -- they're virtual prisoners in their homes," said Beth Shapiro, executive director of Citymeals-on-Wheels. The charity organization delivers meals to homebound older residents.

A prolonged blackout could become a matter of "life and limb" for her patients, said Eloise Goldberg, a vice president for acute care services with the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. The independent nonprofit health-care provider, the largest in the U.S., sees about 140,000 patients a year and has 15,300 employees in the New York area, its website says.

Needed Moves

"We need to get those people out of those buildings to a location that's safer," Goldberg said. The group's nurses have been climbing stairs to reach patients and ensure they have the medicines and other supplies needed to wait out the blackout.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency will be sending 1 million meals and 1 million gallons of water to help seniors stuck in high-rise buildings, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said at a briefing late yesterday. Deliveries will start today, he said.

"We're getting scattered reports of senior citizens, some people in public housing, who are running out food and who are in high-rise buildings," Cuomo said. "In some cases, the elevator is not operational and they're literally running out food."

New York's fire department, which also runs the Emergency Medical Service's ambulances, has not been ordered to help move homebound senior citizens and other shut-ins out of tall buildings, according to Frank Dwyer, a spokesman.

"We respond as emergencies are called in," Dwyer said.

Power-Dependent

When the power goes out, water pressure can fade quickly in many high-rise buildings, as the electric pumps used to refill rooftop water tanks stop. City regulations only require buildings such as hospitals and nursing homes to have emergency generators to keep things running, said Tony Sclafani, a Buildings Department spokesman.

Even back-up power supplies can fail, however, as occurred at the New York University Langone Medical Center in lower Manhattan as Sandy swept over the city. The blackout forced the staff at the 705-bed hospital to carry patients down stairs to the street where they could be taken to other facilities.

Equipping a high-rise with a generator would generally mean finding space outside to put it, said Joanna Rose, a spokeswoman for Related Companies, which owns a number of luxury residential towers in the city. Unvented exhaust fumes can be deadly.

Unprepared Cityfolk

People in New York may not have the same sense of vulnerability as residents in parts of the U.S. that may be more prone to disruptions in everyday conveniences, said Kimberly Shoaf, who studies the effects of disasters on public health at the University of California, Los Angeles. That means New Yorkers may not be as prepared, she said.

"Large cities often think they're impervious," Shoaf said. "Last year's hurricane was a real wake up call. They haven't had a lot of time to make changes."

Hurricane Irene last year caused blackouts affecting more than 6.6 million U.S. homes and businesses, yet it only "lightly affected" Manhattan, Consolidated Edison Inc., the city's electricity provider, said at the time.

Power was slowly being restored in the affected parts of the city yesterday. Consolidated Edison switched on 2,000 customers near the World Trade Center, according to John Miksad, senior vice president for electric operations. He said it would take another two or three days to get knocked out underground lines back in service. About 552,000 customers remained in the dark at 8 p.m. yesterday.

Village People

In the meantime, shut-ins mostly wait and rely on friends and neighbors.

Maria Wilson, 65 and retired, relies on an electric wheelchair and has been stranded in her 11th-floor apartment at 401 Second Avenue since the blackout began.

"Neighbors are wonderful," said Wilson, a former surgical nurse. Building occupants and Ray Younger, a 68-year-old concierge, bring bottles of water from the lobby as they check in on her and other less-mobile neighbors.

Still, Wilson knows that in an emergency situation, she'll have to to rely on emergency workers. "If I really need to get out, the firefighters will carry me," she said.

At 505 LaGuardia Place in the city's Greenwich Village section, the building superintendent, who would only identify himself as Edison, said firefighters brought an elderly resident down 15 floors Oct. 30. Edison said the man had suffered a heart attack -- from climbing the stairs.

"It's a death trap," said Tim McDarrah, 50, a building resident. He said he'd told his mother to remain with friends she's visiting in North Carolina rather than come back to her home, some 300 feet up from the street.

"Thirty floors without an elevator, a light bulb, or a drop of running water is no place for an 80-year-old woman to spend a week," McDarrah said. "God forbid there's a fire."

--With assistance from Freeman Klopott in Albany , Stephanie Armour in Washington and Ryan Sutton and Elizabeth Lopatto in New York. Editors: Ted Bunker, Paul Tighe

To contact the reporter on this story: Peter S. Green in New York at psgreenbloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelmanbloomberg.net

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