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On the Sandy Anniversary, NYU Volunteers Look Back

view of Empire State building in darkness

On October 30, 2012, the day after Hurricane Sandy made landfall south of Atlantic City, many in the NYU community awoke feeling a mixture of anxiety and relief. Situated on high ground in the center of the island of Manhattan, the University’s Greenwich Village neighborhood had been spared the tremendous devastation wrought by the storm surge on coastal communities throughout the New York metropolitan area.

But the city was eerily still. Power outages the night before had plunged Manhattan into darkness below 42nd Street. The NYU Langone Medical Center had been forced to evacuate patients after its basement flooded and emergency power generators failed. The subways weren’t running. With the traffic lights out, cars proceeded slowly through intersections. Flickering candlelight illuminated the windows of restaurants and bodegas as refrigerators were emptied of perishable food.

A truly spooky Halloween passed without much fanfare, quiet and dark.

photo: volunteers checking lists

Thanks to microgrid technology, NYU was home to some of the neighborhood’s only buildings with electricity left intact. Bobst Library opened its doors to anyone in search of a warm place to sit and charge cell phones. Students in dorms without power were invited to make camp inside of the Kimmel Center, where long rows of cots lined the halls.

The situation was not as comfortable in some of the NYU-owned residential buildings, including 505 LaGuardia Place and the four towers of Washington Square Village. Lights, telephones, and elevators were out of service. Running water didn’t rise above the sixth floor. Residents on the top floors, many of whom are elderly or infirm, were faced with a treacherous descent down 20 or 30 flights of stairs, in complete darkness, in order to head out in search of food or medicine—and an even more daunting climb back up.

NYU leadership immediately began coordinating efforts to bring urgent aid to neighbors in need. Under the direction of Alicia Hurley, Vice President for Government Affairs and Community Engagement, in collaboration with Dean Eileen Sullivan-Marx and Assistant Dean Amy Knowles from the New York University College of Nursing, a small group of administrative staff took on the tasks of assessing the buildings’ vulnerable populations, conducting door-to-door outreach, collating their findings, obtaining and distributing relief supplies, and orchestrating professional outreach by medical personnel. The Visiting Nurse Service of New York responded to NYU’s call for skilled assistance, as did a large contingent of staff and students from the College of Nursing. A command center was hastily set up on the steps of Kimmel.

Josh Bisker, a member of the Office of Government and Community Affairs team, gathered student volunteers from among those sheltering at Kimmel, and began dispatching teams to climb the steps of the high-rises and check on residents, floor by floor, door by door. Guidance from the Office of Faculty Housing provided insight into which residents would be the most in need of aid.

“It was a lot of doors,” Bisker recalls. “We were in desperate need of volunteers. I walked into the halls where they were sleeping and said, ‘I need twenty amazing people to help folks trapped in those buildings,’ and students just jumped up and came with me immediately, no questions asked. It was really something.”

photo: bags packed with food

The first volunteers delivered boxed meals prepared by NYU’s dining services; the next brought blankets and water bottles, and then, in the hours and days that followed, about a hundred student and staff volunteers delivered hundreds of bags of food and relief supplies—first from a vanload purchased in Brooklyn and ferried back by the Office of Government and Community Affairs, and later from pallets of emergency rations delivered by the NYC Office of Emergency Management. All the while, NYU volunteers continued to assess individual residents’ conditions and report back to Kimmel, where a coordinator could distribute food, medical outreach, an evacuation crew, or whatever else was needed.

The makeshift system was surprisingly efficient. “When you have space for it,” Bisker says, “there is an organic organization that happens like a body springing into immune response.”

On the evening of November 2, power returned to Greenwich Village—and not a moment too soon. For some 200 residents, NYU volunteers had provided the sole point of contact with the outside world since the city had begun battening down in advance of the storm.

On the occasion of the anniversary of the hurricane, we’ve asked volunteers who stepped up in the days and weeks after Sandy to think back on their experiences helping others during that difficult time. Below, Bisker and College of Nursing students Brian Hornby, Neida Leal, and Vince Tran share some reflections.

photo: student volunteers

Answering the Call

I was new to New York at the time, so at first I thought, “I don’t know what to do.” I wasn’t as well connected as I normally would have been, having done disaster relief in the past as part of the Community Emergency Response Team in New Haven. When I got the e-mail from the College of Nursing, that was a very concrete opportunity to go get involved. It seemed like the thing to do, rather than sitting at home. I hopped on my bike in Bed-Stuy and got right over to NYU.
—Brian Hornby

I was living at 1st Avenue and 23rd Street, but I went to stay with my sister in Greenwich Village so I could volunteer. When I responded to the e-mail I thought there would only be 10 of us, but it ended up being a really large turnout. Tasks were delegated quickly. We met at 8 and by 9 we were out the door with bottles of water.
—Vince Tran

When Katrina happened, everyone was going down to New Orleans to help. But I remember thinking, “I can’t do anything.” I didn’t have a skill. When all of a sudden another hurricane happened, I’d only just started nursing school—but I was able to do a basic assessment. I had learned more than I thought I had.
—Neida Leal

When the storm hit, there were people at NYU, among them Alicia Hurley and Dean Sullivan-Marx, who realized we had both people that would need help and people that could provide some of it. They really put on their armor and went out. At first we didn’t know what needs there were, and we didn’t know exactly what resources we had, so each end had to work on itself and funnel that information back and forth.
—Josh Bisker

photo: 30th floor

Memorable Encounters

Some people are healthy and some people are not, so responses ranged from “thanks but no thanks” to “pull up a chair.” One person said, “I’m 86 years old and not taking any medications—I’m okay! In fact, I’m cooking dinner! Do you want some?” But then there was the guy who needed to get to chemo, and his wife who was going crazy trying to care for her husband who’s sick and a little cranky. She was really stressed out and I think it helped to let her step out of the room and let us talk to her husband for a while, because she hadn’t wanted to leave him.

One woman we met needed medication. There were no lights so we used flashlights to look at her pill bottles and see what she needed and in what dose. It was a blood thinner and it was dangerous for her not to have it. But her pharmacy was closed because of Sandy, so we were scrambling to try and get the medication for her. I was ready to borrow Josh’s bike and ride up to above 42nd Street to where there was power. But later on that night, the power started coming back on and after a series of phone calls we were able to get a dose for her, and just ran out to a pharmacy six blocks away and brought it back to her.

We’d knock on doors and people would say, “I haven’t spoken to anyone in three days. Thank God you’re here.” And I’d think, “I’m so grateful I can provide this solace to you, and this reconnection with the greater living world”—but also, “If that’s the case, we’re clearly doing something wrong as a city-dwelling species.”

Scariest Moments

One person I visited had left the stove on and had no idea. The flame was way up in the air. So I said, “Were you cooking?” And he said, “Oh, I cooked a few hours ago.” I said, “Your stove is still on.” And he said, “Oh, it is?”

We knocked on the door of a home on Washington Mews, and no one responded. We peered in through the mail slot and saw a power chair at the top of the stairs—which meant that someone who wasn’t very mobile lived there. We thought someone was in there but couldn’t answer. Eventually a home health aide answered, and delivered the message that we could help.

The creepy part was that all the hallways and the stairways were dark. And there was, of course, no working elevator. The rooms had natural light during the day, but that was it.

Having no water means you can’t flush a toilet, you can’t wash a thing, and you can’t drink. But bucket brigades to carry water up 30 flights of stairs are also really precarious because you’re likely to splash water on a darkened concrete stairway—and that’s a terrible, terrible risk.

Subsequent Volunteer Work

Over winter break I worked with Burners Without Borders to remove debris from Union Beach, New Jersey.

In addition to my work at NYU, outside the office, Sandy relief was practically all I did from November through the new year.

When Sandy happened I was scared at first, thinking, “I don’t know what to do.” But I ended up enjoying the opportunity, so now I volunteer with the Health Services and Disaster division of the Red Cross. When something else happens, I’ll have had more training.

From November 7 to November 25, more than 300 students, faculty, staff, and administrators volunteered more than 2,000 hours for Sandy relief efforts, serving about 20 non-profits. Through its partnerships with local organizations, NYU continued to pair willing volunteers with opportunities to lend a hand, many of which were organized through the Center for Student Activities Leadership, and Service and NYU Service Connect. Stay tuned for more stories from NYU volunteers and those they served in the storm’s aftermath.

—Eileen Reynolds

Photo captions, from top: Empire State Building, viewed from Sixth Avenue during the blackout (photo by Dan Nguyen); Josh Bisker (left) reviewing lists of vulnerable residents; tote bags packed with food to be delivered; Vince Tran (left) with fellow volunteers oustide of Washington Square Village; NYU College of Nursing faculty member Marilyn Hammer (left) with nursing students Jeff Day and Matthew Cosby after climbing 30 flights of stairs (photo by Matthew Cosby).

A Washington Square Village resident tells her side of the story.

one volunteer's account of a Thanksgiving cleanup trip to Breezy Point.

What will we do when the next big storm comes along? Click here for a list of ongoing resiliency initiatives at NYU and beyond.

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