In the wake of Superstorm Sandy, much of New York City was left in a state of both shock and devastation. Following the storm, nearly 800,000 homes in and around the City were without power and thousands more sustained heavy damage from flooding and high winds. In some of the hardest hit areas of Red Hook, Coney Island, and the Rockaways, it was understood that it would be a long road to recovery and normalcy. For many New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) residents in these neighborhoods, however, this road is proving to be longer and more difficult than anticipated. In the days and weeks after the storm, several reports have surfaced describing not only the difficult – and often dangerous – living conditions in several NYCHA complexes, but also the slow and inadequate response from the City’s Housing Authority.
As of November 8, more than a week after the storm, more than 21,000 NYCHA residents were still without heat or hot water and nearly 13,000 lacked power. Almost a week later on November 14, and only through the use of temporary measures such as generators and mobile boilers, NYCHA was finally able to publicly state that all residents had regained power. And as of November 16, 5,000 residents were still without heat and hot water. Twelve days after Sandy made landfall, half of the New Yorkers lacking heat, hot water, or power were in public housing. In many places power had been restored to the area, but the basements of many NYCHA buildings had not yet been pumped out, preventing the power from being turned on. Even worse, some buildings had the water pumped out, but were waiting for indefinite periods for electricians or maintenance staff to repair the damage to heat and electrical systems.
Lack of communication from NYCHA officials to residents about the status of repairs and recovery is also a major point of contention. Many tenants felt that they were left in the dark. With no power or utilities, and often stranded on the upper levels of these facilities, residents were left to assess the situation on their own and were forced to venture out for basic necessities in conditions they did not know to be safe. Nearly half of all NYCHA residents are either elderly or children, and thousands more are disabled, making this situation even more dire. Those who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – food stamps) to obtain food found themselves out of luck as well. SNAP beneficiaries are given Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, which work as a credit or debit card, and with all the local stores without power, the cards could not be used.
While the City and many nonprofit human services agencies worked hard to respond to the needs of those hit hardest by Sandy, NYCHA residents were not immediately connected with available resources. The lack of power, dark stairwells, and dangerous conditions made it difficult for volunteers to reach residents in need of care and basic supplies. Creating a situation in which some of the storm victims most in need received the least amount of assistance.
Undoubtedly, Sandy caused unprecedented and unexpected damage in many areas around the City, but the response by NYCHA has called into question the preparedness of an agency that aids some of the City’s most vulnerable residents. Low-income populations, concentrated in NYC HA facilities, may have specific needs and limitations, and emergency response should be cognizant of those needs. The number of elderly and those with physical or mental illness in NYCHA housing is significant. NYCHA residents are more likely to lack access to cash, alternative housing, and transportation. Emergency response must take these realities into account. The long term effects of Sandy’s damage are still being assessed, including possible health impacts, infrastructure damage, and even damage to the basic safety and structure of the buildings. The City and NYCHA have a responsibility to its public housing residents to develop an appropriate plan that is responsive to their short- and long-term needs. Future disaster preparedness planning efforts must take into account the specific needs of this population so that if and when another disaster strikes, these vulnerable populations are not left in the dark.
 New York City Housing Authority Report: NYCHA Heating and Electricity Outages by Borough, Development & Building