Most in Battery Park City sought safer ground

By Aline Reynolds

In the emergency preparations for Hurricane Irene, Lower Manhattan was seen as one of the city’s low-lying areas at greatest risk for a major hit and flooding.

Ominous weather predictions last Friday prompted Mayor Bloomberg to order mandatory evacuations of all residents in Zone A, including Battery Park City and other areas most likely to experience flooding. Most in B.P.C. heeded the mayor’s warning and left before the storm arrived.

“If the storm were to head directly east and get away from us, nothing could make us happier. But you can’t prepare for the best case, you have to prepare for the worst case,” Bloomberg said outside the 60th Precinct on Coney Island Saturday morning, one day after the evacuation order. “Our concern is saving lives, and making sure that the only thing that comes out of this is inconvenience and maybe a little bit of property damage.”

The hurricane, however, weakened to a tropical storm once it hit the city, where it resulted in only one reported fatality. The Hudson River’s water level had risen 9.5 feet above average along the Battery Park City waterfront at 8:42 a.m. Sunday, but receded to normal later that morning. The East River also topped its banks temporarily, but caused no major flooding. Con Edison shut down 10 miles of steam lines in Lower Manhattan, but didn’t shut down power.

“Let’s face it,” said Con Edison spokesperson Chris Olert, “year-round, we get heavy rains. Irene was more than heavy rains, but didn’t cause the damage or flooding conditions that would require us to interrupt service.”

Anticipating the worst, many Downtown residents heeded Bloomberg’s warnings and evacuated. Several hundred other residents stayed overnight at nearby schools that were converted into makeshift shelters, including Seward Park High School, I.S. 131 and P.S. 42. State Senator Daniel Squadron, Councilmember Margaret Chin and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver went door-to-door to residents’ homes, alerting them of the evacuation order, encouraging them to leave and arranging their transportation. The Downtown Alliance business improvement district rerouted its Downtown Connection buses to shuttle people to and from the evacuation centers. Still other residents stayed in hotels outside Zone A.

Lance Von Zepkan, a wheelchair-bound resident of the St. Margaret’s House senior residence, at 49 Fulton St., was frightened to stay at home. Friday, he took a car to a shelter at John Jay College on the West Side, where he said he had a very positive experience. He was given a double mattress due to his disability and received dinner. Doctors were also on call in case he or others needed medical services.

“I had never been evacuated before like this,” he said. “On the whole, I was treated exceptionally well — to the degree that I’d compare it to luxury hotel service.”

Diane Stein, a resident of Independence Plaza North in Tribeca, sought refuge at a shelter in Washington Irving High School in Gramercy.

“I was feeling stressed out, ’cause I planned to stay at home, but I started to take the mandatory evacuation seriously,” said Stein. “I didn’t want to be a drain for first responders if something happened to me.”

A member of the Tribeca CERT (Community Emergency Response Team), Stein lent a helping hand, setting up water stations and converting some of the school’s classrooms into sleeping areas.

I.P.N. resident Beverly Barone decided to hunker down at home.

“It seemed too complicated to get me out of here and get to a shelter,” said Barone, who uses a wheelchair. “I decided to stay, and I must say I’m glad I did. It was perfectly pleasant. I listened to the TV and nothing happened.”

While many New Yorkers, including those who did evacuate, were grateful the city was taking extra precaution, Jean Grillo, chief of the Tribeca CERT, said residents weren’t properly instructed.

“They were being told to evacuate, but they weren’t told where to evacuate to,” she said.

So Grillo and her teammates posted a map of the evacuation zones and a list of many of the shelters in Lower Manhattan.

Improvements need to be made, Squadron echoed, so that evacuations are more streamlined in the event of another emergency — particularly in overcoming language and transportation barriers.

“The mayor and local volunteers who took a leadership role deserve great credit for being responsive and aggressive in the hours leading up to the storm,” Squadron said. “But we also saw the plan has weaknesses that must be addressed in case we ever have an issue like this again.”

Councilmember Chin’s staffers knocked on residents’ doors throughout Chinatown and the Lower East Side to help translate the mandatory evacuation notice to non-English-speaking residents.

“These kind of events are scary and difficult for vulnerable members of our community,” Chin said. “Many of the members of St. Margaret’s House have lived there for many years; with a little reassurance and guidance, we were able to get all 316 residents evacuated.”

Speaker Silver said he was pleased with the evacuation process.

“I am proud of the way our community once again pulled together during these very difficult circumstances,” he said in a statement. “Lower Manhattan residents, many of whom bore the brunt of the storm, were cooperative and brave, helping one another as the worst of the weather moved through. Thankfully, we were spared the worst of the storm’s possible effects, but it is always better to be prepared.”

Many evacuees felt fortunate not to have been injured by falling debris or shattered windows.

“I’m so grateful things weren’t worse and that nobody got hurt,” said Aixa Torres, Smith Houses Tenants Association president, who stayed at her brother’s apartment in Vladeck Houses over the weekend.

Out of 1,920 Smith Houses families, only about 250 stayed behind. On Wednesday, the local elected officials honored Torres and the Housing Authority for her evacuation efforts at Smith Houses.

Southbridge Towers resident Joe Morrone said he felt especially lucky to be alive this week. Morrone decided to walk his dogs shortly after midnight Sunday, when a large tree limb fell and broke through the rear window of a car parked a few steps away from him.

“I just felt there was a lot of hype, and heard the storm was lessening in strength,” said Morrone. “But it was total stupidity for me to walk out there. I couldn’t believe how lucky I was.”

The mayor, Morrone said, made “the right decision” in evacuating the city’s low-lying areas.

“It may not have been the easiest thing to move away from one’s apartment, but it’s the right thing to do,” he said. “If it had turned bad, we would have had a completely different story today.”

Downtown Hospital, which was outside of Zone A, took in eight evacuees and safeguarded the facility from potential flooding. Medical managers cancelled all vacations to come into work and supervise the hospital’s instant command center.

“We’re sheltering in place and getting ready for this storm,” John Bray, director of Emergency Medical Services at Downtown Hospital, said Friday.

On Sunday, Bray reported things went just as planned.