Torres and Smith Houses honored for evacuation efforts

On Wed., Aug. 31, Smith Houses Tenant Association President Aixa Torres (in white) and her volunteer team received an award for their evacuation efforts during Hurricane Irene. N.Y.S. Sen. Daniel Squadron, N.Y.S. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, N.Y.C.H.A. Chairman John Rhea (back row, right) and City Council Member Margaret Chin presented the award. Downtown Express photo by Aline Reynolds

BY ALINE REYNOLDS | As Hurricane Irene approached the Tri-State area last weekend, Tenant Association members at Smith Houses diligently knocked on neighbors’ doors and advised them to leave.

As a result, T.A. President Aixa Torres and an approximately 50-member volunteer group managed to evacuate almost 90 percent of the public housing development’s 1,920 residents — cause for a special honorary ceremony held by local elected officials on Wed., Aug. 31.

The politicians granted the volunteers individual certificates for their good deeds and sang their praises.

“The fact that this wasn’t a tragedy at Smith Houses isn’t only because the weather had turned and it got lucky. This wasn’t a tragedy at Smith Houses because you did the work to ensure it wasn’t a tragedy,” said N.Y.S. Sen. Daniel Squadron. “Congratulations for a job done extraordinarily well.”

“While we’re all grateful that Hurricane Irene didn’t come with the severity that was predicted…what we did see was the spirit of compassion, the spirit of the community, and the spirit of generosity that we’ve come to expect from our fellow neighbors in Lower Manhattan,” said Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.

Squadron and Silver gave Torres and her team a State proclamation honoring their achievement of having the highest Irene-related evacuation rate of all New York City Housing Authority developments.

In alerting tenants to the evacuation order on Friday, recruiting volunteers and translators and coordinating the residents’ transportation to nearby shelters, Torres’ volunteer group set a precedent for citywide public housing developments in future emergencies, according to N.Y.C.H.A. Chairman John Rhea. “We’ve blazed a trail for what it is to reach out and to make sure our fellow neighbors are safe,” he told the volunteers.

“We told the [evacuees], there might be danger, you have to take care of yourself and your family. Getting that information out was so critical early on,” said City Council Member Margaret Chin, who presented a proclamation to the volunteers.

Torres eagerly accepted the award and said she sensed the urgency of N.Y.C.H.A. Representative Robert Knapp’s call Thursday evening before the storm, telling her to convene an emergency meeting the following day.

“For the first time, the responsibility of life and death really hit me,” said Torres after the ceremony.

On Saturday afternoon, the T.A. president assigned volunteers to several evacuation rounds in each of the development’s 12 buildings.

As for the recognition, Torres said, “I’m feeling overwhelmed, and I’m definitely feeling really humbled.”

Mariainez Quinones, chair of the T.A.’s grievance committee, helped assemble residents for the emergency meeting before evacuating her elderly mother and seeking shelter with relatives in Nassau County, Long Island. “Everybody was very worried… we’re not used to things like this in this community,” said Quinones.

Raising awareness among her Smith Houses neighbors, she added, is something that comes “naturally.” “I’m surprised they’d give me recognition for something I’d automatically have done,” said Quinones.

“Everybody was calm and cool, and cooperated real well,” said Robert Walker, who came all the way from Englewood, N.J. to help evacuate Smith Houses residents on Saturday and clean up the development’s grounds on Sunday.

Being recognized for his efforts, Walker said, “This feels really good.”

“I’d do it anytime,” the smiling volunteer said. “I care about my Smith people.”