BY Mei-Yu Liu
The knocking on the door broke the silence on the 13th floor of Baruch House, a public housing project on the lower east side. “Is anyone there?” asked Aloyse Brown.
An old woman opened the door. “Do you need a heater?” asked Brown.
“Yes.” Shivering, the old woman took the heater and a blanket from Brown. “Thank you so much,” said the woman, smiling with tears in her eyes.
Baruch House was flooded during the Hurricane Sandy, and just had its power restored on November 7. Roberto Napoleon, the president of its tenant association, said that because heat did not spread evenly to the upper floors, the residents of one side of the building are still suffering from the cold.
When he heard that the Fulton House Tenant Association across town was delivering hurricane donation supplies, he contacted the association immediately.
Located just north of Chelsea Market, Fulton House went for four days without water or power after the hurricane. Once the electricity was restored, Miguel Acevedo, the president of the tenant association, looked at the piles of donated material and came up with an idea: why not donate it to those still in need?
Acevedo has been the president of Fulton House Tenant Association for four years. The 50-year-old superintendent of Cooper Union moved into Fulton House with his parents in 1965, when the buildings were completed. He has spent his whole life in the housing project, raising eight children, including two daughters, a son and five nieces and nephews, with his wife.
During the days without power right after the hurricane, Acevedo, housing manager René Wright and the police knocked on all 944 doors of Fulton House to make sure every resident had the supplies they needed and got medical aid. “The City Council has been very helpful, and the General Theological Seminary was always here to help us,” said Acevedo. “The National Guard brought us food and blankets. We got lots of local help and individual donations from all over the states.”
The suffering they went through made the Fulton House tenants want to help others. Acevedo heard that the situation in Staten Island and Rockaway was still terrible. He talked to other tenants, got donors to agree, bought more supplies with donated money, and worked on delivering the supplies to other hurricane damaged areas.
“It’s basically from my personal network, and the extended networks,” he said. To make sure the donations went to those really in need, he did not give the material to other organizations, but chose to do the work himself, with other Fulton House residents.
“It’s mainly word-of mouth,” said Irene O’Connell, vice president of the Fulton Tenant Association. She contacted her friend Emma Llaurado, who works for Ocean Avenue Transportation Corporation as a school bus driver. Llaurado asked permission from her boss, whose answer was “Sure,” and, ”How many buses do you need?”
At first, Llaurado worried about the insufficient gas supply, but President Obama announced a priority list for gas usage, and school buses were high on the list. “Thanks to Obama,” she said, loading huge bags of blankets onto the bus on the night of November 9.
Acevedo, O’Connell and Llaurado made their first delivery to Staten Island that night, carrying 500 to 600 blankets to a distribution center. The next morning, they set out to Rockaway with two volunteers, Aloyse Brown, the wife of a seminarian, and Sarah Bates from the General Theological Seminary.
They brought about 200 blankets, 40 bags of clothes and boxes of canned food to a halfway house in Far Rockaway, where power had been restored just minutes before they arrived.
The residents included 40 rehabilitated former prisoners. “They told us it was the first food they got in these two weeks. We were the first people they saw,” said Llaurado. “While driving on the road, you could tell the sadness in people’s faces. You know they’re hurting.”
“I saw a woman who carried water in a bucket, dumped it on the lawn, and went back to the small window of the basement,” said O’Connell. “Another woman in the basement handed her another bucket of water. They don’t have pumps.”
General Theological Seminary, which has a long-term connection with Fulton House, used money for an annual football game to buy supplies and hot plates for victims instead, and gathered more volunteers to the neighborhood. “General Theological Seminary has another seminary in Virginia, and they drove here to bring us materials,” said O’Connell.
After a day distributing donations in Rockaway, Acevedo got a phone call from Roberto Napoleon, and delivered another round of supplies to Baruch House. Napoleon and Samuel Mangual, the president of Baruch House’s senior center, helped distribute the blankets and heaters to the tenants of the upper floors with O’Connell, Llarado, Brown and Bates.
Acevedo planned to deliver to Rockaway again, and to make another trip to Coney Island. “This [Hurricane Sandy] is something we never had before, so we have to help each other and get through it,” he said.
The Fulton House Tenant Association office is currently a drop-off center for transporting donations, with piles of boxes and bags crowding the office. Acevedo said that he has not slept more than four hours a day since the hurricane, but he wanted to keep helping out. “Because we are only small victims, and they are the top victims,” he said.