posted 2012-11-14 17:00:48

Brookdale student seeks refuge at Hunter College: A Personal Account

By Eugene Ostrovskiy

The sixth floor of Brookdale campus without power on Saturday afternoon as students were allowed 15 minutes to recover their belongings. Photograph by John Bolger

This message repeated many times during the day over the Brookdale PA system. I wasn't sure what was more annoying; how its loudness prevented me from calling my parents or that residents were given such short notice. I finally called my parents and told them that I would be staying at Hunter College’s emergency shelter. Since the dorms are located one block from the East River, I was happy about my decision to leave Brookdale. Our expectations of the storm were low due to Hurricane Irene, but Sandy turned out to be a tragic storm. When I arrived at Hunter College Sunday afternoon, I was unaware that I would be staying in the auditorium until Wednesday morning, trapped due to Hurricane Sandy’s wrath.

When my laundry was finally dry, I ate as much as I could and took the 6 train to Hunter. Just like last year, Brookdale residents stayed in the auditorium. We were given cots, blankets, basic hygiene supplies, boxed water and food rations. Everyone was bored, not knowing each other or what to expect. The only people who stayed at Hunter were those with no other place to go.

There were 21 other residents from Brookdale in the auditorium, and according to Hunter College President Jennifer Raab, “250 people sought temporary refuge at different times during this emergency.”

When everyone wasn't on Facebook or otherwise procrastinating, people in the auditorium suggested watching movies to pass the time, but according to Public Safety we weren’t allowed to watch anything past 11 p.m. because of the noise. The boredom was temporarily broken when it turned out that one of the people in the auditorium wasn't actually a resident, but a young homeless person who had no place to go during the storm. Public Safety was at first willing to move him to the shelter since nothing was stolen, but he was found with multiple identification cards so they took him away as a precaution. This served as a small wake up call to the inhabitants of Hunter's auditorium. 

The next distraction came when the storm started hitting. Everyone was on Facebook, Reddit and various news websites for progress and updates about the storm. Streets started flooding and trees started falling. I called my parents multiple times since my dorm was in a Zone A flood area. They were fine for the moment and so were my close friends, almost all of whom live in Zone A. But even before the storm reached its peak, reports and pictures of heavy flooding were all over the internet. One guy on Reddit became famous for running outside during the storm in a horse mask, at least it livened the mood.

The next day the damage was much worse than what anyone expected. Zone A was flooded, many areas were out of power, and some were even on fire.

The damage did not spare anything; the subway system became a river, a Con Edison transformer exploded in lower Manhattan, and Coney Island Hospital was on fire. Suddenly it wasn't funny anymore. Across the Northeast coast the death toll was rising and people were freezing, waiting in the dark for help. I was sick of the boredom, the anxiety and the dry taste of the army rations, but simultaneously thankful that I didn't have bigger problems. 

Fortunately the Hunter shelter never lost power, internet, heating or plumbing during the storm – unlike many other places in the city. I tried to at least help my friends by sharing what I knew about the storm, damage and housing; but my anxiety would not go away.

The emergency shelter at Hunter West's B4-level gymnasium. Submitted anonymously.

Finally the morning came and Eija Ayravainen, vice president for student affairs & dean of students, was taking care of us during our stay and updating us about Hurricane Sandy. School would be cancelled for at least a few days, but Ayravainen wanted to know who had other places to stay. As I considered another place to stay, I along with three other students decided to leave the shelter in search of adventure and better food. Anyone staying at Hunter College had to return by 10 p.m., the set curfew in place.

The MTA restored basic bus service and we took the M15 bus south. Once we passed 39th street, we started to see the effects of the storm. Everything was pitch black, illuminated only by the unnatural light of the passing cars. Almost all shops were closed, except for perhaps a dozen total throughout the city that were operating on candlelight.

We climbed off the bus when it was a few blocks away and walked to the dorms, taking pictures of familiar places in the neighborhood in the aftermath of the storm. Everything was dark and closed. Fortunately New Yorkers demonstrated a great deal of restraint and self-sufficiency in the lack of car accidents without functioning streetlights. Upon making the turn onto that block, we saw that it was black. Pitch black. The only thing east of the Brookdale dorm was FDR drive, hit hard by the storm. Without any cars there, the whole street was pitch black and underwater. Even the dark and cloudy sky was less dark than the street our dorms were on. The light from our smart phones was the only thing illuminating the eerie closed gate to our dorm, a gate that is never closed. After taking a picture, we moved onto other creepy and unusual scenes in lower Manhattan that we have never seen before.

From the dorms we headed south on First Avenue to check the status of 14th street. As elsewhere the shops were closed and the power was down. By now we were hungry and very few shops were open. Only a select few buildings were lucky enough to have generators for power. One of them was the NYU dorm where we were lucky enough to see a food cart. "Finally!" we thought, expecting to finally get something to eat. When we crossed the street we noticed that the cart was charging nine to ten dollars for Halal food. The steep price  did nothing to deter the large crowd of NYU students waiting in line. The monopoly was broken by a hot dog cart a few blocks away that had nothing left but four-dollar hot dogs.

We gazed up 3rd Avenue into a dark canyon of buildings. Only the Empire State building was there to illuminate the city's skyline. Traveling back north, with cars lighting the way forward we eventually found a Chinese restaurant that was open. The low level of candlelight and partially obscure location prevented the forming of large crowds, but it didn't improve the menu options or the price.

After eating, we were driven by a friend, who after completing errands, dropped us off at Hunter. We told the others our story and tried to enjoy what may have been our last night in the auditorium. Eventually Ayravainen came back to check up on us. No one really had another place to go since power outages were rampant throughout the city. Arrangements were made for the Brookdale residents to stay at the Educational Housing Services building on 97th and 3rd. I remembered hearing about this place before, that it was like Brookdale but more expensive and better. We left early in the afternoon and arrived to find a complimentary breakfast of bagels and muffins waiting for us, as well as large rooms for groups of 2 or 3 people.

Although our new residence is comfortable and complete with power, water, and heat; this doesn't solve the problem for displaced residences at Brookdale and the damage Sandy did to the building. Students who needed to pick up essential items were given 15 minutes and the building was strictly guarded by many Public Safety officers, since the basement is still flooded and power has not returned.

 Many people throughout the boroughs of NYC are currently struggling without power, Internet, food or even shelter. The best I can do is hope and be thankful for my current living conditions. Throughout the last few days I have done my best to update friends and family on the situation as well as answer their questions about school closings, housing and other issues. There is still more to be done, and volunteers are desperately needed throughout the city to help those in need. This storm should serve as a wake up call to many.