Battery Park City braves Irene


Toward sunset on Friday, Aug. 26, the Hudson River was unusually high and turbulent. It smelled different than usual -- salty, like the ocean. Hurricane Irene was moving up the East Coast and was expected to reach New York City late the next day. (Photo: Terese Loeb Kreuzer)

BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | As Hurricane Irene crept up the East Coast on the morning of Friday, Aug. 26, the outlook for sea-level Battery Park City seemed dire. A warning notice came via an intranet system to thousands of tenants in nine Battery Park City buildings: “Milford Management has just met with the Battery Park City Authority. Battery Park City is currently under voluntary evacuation and the likelihood of it escalating to a mandatory evacuation by midday tomorrow is a strong probability; mass transit will be discontinued Citywide once winds hit 39 MPH. Please cooperate by relocating for the weekend and leaving as soon as possible, taking your pets with you.”

By 3 o’clock that afternoon, the mandatory evacuation had been confirmed. All of the 14,000 residents of Battery Park City plus the thousands of office workers and people who worked in the community’s stores were to be out of Battery Park City by 5 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 27. “MTA is shutting down trains by noon tomorrow,” a second message said. “We expect high winds that are capable of breaking windows and likely loss of electricity and flooding.”

Some tenants at Gateway Plaza, Battery Park City’s largest housing complex, with 1,700 apartments, taped their windows. The management announced that by 5:30 p.m. the next day, the elevators would be turned off. The Museum of Jewish Heritage at 36 Battery Place closed at noon on Friday and staff spent the next few hours moving artifacts from the first floor, sandbagging the doors, packing up the gift shop and resource center, wrapping the piano in plastic and covering the library in plastic.

Toward evening on Friday, the Hudson River seemed turbulent and high. It smelled different than usual: salty, said one person on the esplanade, musty, said another. The sky was streaked with blue-violet clouds tinged with pink and salmon. The sun set in a fiery red ball, glowing like an ember in a furnace.

Already, many people had departed. By the afternoon of the next day, most people were gone and stores on South End Avenue had taped up their windows.

“All supers stayed with their buildings,” said Lorraine Doyle, district manager for Milford Management. “We provided bedding for each building and stocked them with food and water for the staff that remained. We were ready.”

At 1 Rector Park, one of the nine Battery Park City buildings managed by Milford, the super, Patrick O’Donovan, stayed behind with two staff members. “We moved all the valuables upstairs,” he said. Then he and the staff cooked a dinner of chicken pasta and garlic bread and ate in the lobby. Michael O’Reilly, the super from 250 South End Ave., joined them for dinner. “There wasn’t much more we could do but sit there and wait,” O’Donovan said.

O’Donovan stayed up until 3 a.m. and then got up again around three hours later to patrol the building. “There was no wind,” he said, “just heavy, heavy rain. I went on the roof of the building. I could see 1 World Trade Center, but I couldn’t see the part that wasn’t done except as a silhouette, fading into the sky.”

Doyle stayed at Milford’s office at 99 Battery Place. She, too, was awake at 3 a.m. and noted the heavy rain and the absence of high winds. “It was odd,” she said “It was so quiet. I thought maybe this was the eye of the storm.”

At 377 Rector Place, another Milford building, super Kenny Shane kept peering out a fourth-floor window every half hour from 6:30 a.m. on. “I couldn’t see much because of the rain,” he said. “The river was high but it didn’t come over the seawall. I was waiting for the high tide at 8 a.m. That was going to be the determining factor as to whether we were going to get flooded. On Thursday, the estimate was for eight-foot to 12-foot swells. That’s why the evacuation was prudent at that time.”

Most people in Battery Park City left, but not everyone. Shane said that in the building where he works there are 229 apartments. Tenants in eight apartments stayed behind. “We called every apartment,” he said. “We had one apartment [where the tenant was] playing possum [and wouldn’t answer]. I was furious because it’s my responsibility for the people left behind. We could have had a breach in the seawall, we could have had electrical short circuits, a fire.”

By Sunday morning, the wind had died down and the rain had almost stopped, according to a Battery Park City resident who didn’t evacuate. “Honestly, there was a big disconnect between what we were hearing/watching on TV and seeing with our own eyes. Amazingly, there was always someone jogging by. Last night, during the worst of the rain I saw a guy racing his bicycle down South End Avenue.”

He admitted that Battery Park City had been “lucky.” He said that he had watched TV reports of damage to other areas of New York. “This could have been a lot worse for downtown,” he said.

In an email on Sunday morning, Michael Fortenbaugh, commodore of the North Cove Marina, said that the storm had been “uneventful at North Cove. Several yachts took shelter here before the storm because North Cove is an excellent ‘hurricane hole.’ The skyscrapers protect the marina from the northeast winds. So when it’s blowing 50 knots on the East River side of Manhattan from the northeast, it’s sheltered at North Cove and relatively calm. Throughout this storm, we barely experienced any winds — just a lot of rain. Now that the storm has passed, the wind will come around from the west. Again, with the skyscrapers as a backdrop, a lot of the wind goes up over the marina. We had the issue of high water going up over the quay. But we did not get a major storm surge. The tide was on par with a strong winter northeaster storm. All in all, we were prepared for much more serious conditions but the storm spared us and is and was very uneventful.”

Susan Bridges, who has lived in Battery Park City since 1988, said that she and her family left on Friday afternoon for New Hampshire accompanied by two dogs and a cat. They encountered rain but not much wind — “not nearly as bad as noreasters during the winter.” But, she added, “If we had a warning again like the one we got, I would leave. The weather station people all said they didn’t know why the hurricane didn’t re-form into a category three after it hit Nag’s Head. They said we were really lucky it didn’t, but they don’t know why. They’re going to spend the next couple of years trying to figure out why so they can be more accurate in their intensity estimates.”

“It was right to leave. It was right to heed the warning,” said Rosalie Joseph, who went to her niece’s apartment in East Harlem, returning to Battery Park City on Sunday afternoon even before the elevators were turned on again at Gateway Plaza where she lives.

Susan Sona, another resident, disagreed. “I went to the Gershwin Hotel on 27th Street,” she said. “I’m sorry I went. There was no need to. I was uprooted again. I’m tired of uprooting from this neighborhood. First, 9/11. Then the blackout. [We got a lot of] false information. I work in the neighborhood. It was just overdone. We didn’t need to close the subways. I had to take cabs everywhere and now I don’t know if FEMA’s going to pay for it.”

“I can’t fault them for being concerned about the potential damage this could have caused,” said B.P.C. resident Jay Fine. “But the next time there is a serious storm, they’re not going to get people to leave.”