Seniors Suffer in Dark After Sandy

In Coney Island High Rise, Waiting for Power and Hope

By Seth Berkman

Published November 06, 2012, issue of November 16, 2012.
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Video: Nate Lavey


When Janet Greenblat heard that Hurricane Sandy was heading toward New York, she wasn’t too concerned. Since 1982, Greenblat, 68, has lived in the Amalgamated Warbasse Houses in Brooklyn, a five-building co-op that runs on electricity provided by its own power plant.

During citywide blackouts, when the rest of New York was dark, the lights stayed on at the Warbasse Houses.

Not this time.

More than a week after Sandy hit, Greenblat was sitting in her apartment in a nightgown with no heat, electricity or hot water.

“There’s some kind of an inner confidence that things are going to be OK,” Greenblat said,. “I didn’t even go crazy buying a lot of water because I knew in my mind that we had our own generator and we’re also supposed to have some kind of backup generator as well. So if one fails, it goes into the backup.

“And that didn’t happen.”

The systematic failure left residents of Warbasse’s 2,585 apartments walking around in the dark with flashlights or lighted headbands for more than a week, searching for answers.

According to the housing complex’s website, two steam turbine generators are able to produce 6,000 kilowatts per hour. Only one generator is regularly used, with the second as a backup. The power plant was also built with a diesel generator, “in case of electrical interruption.”

Warbasse resident Anya Klozner said that the elevator system was shut off at around 7 p.m. the night before the hurricane made landfall in New York. Two hours earlier, Klozner, 30, received a flyer underneath her door to evacuate the building.

Eventually, she made it down the 16 flights from her apartment and to a safer location in Queens, but many residents, including hundreds of seniors, did not evacuate—those like Greenblat who felt safeguarded by the on-site power plant, and others who wanted to leave, but were physically unable to walk down 20 or more flights of stairs.

“For them to shut everything off so quickly, I really don’t see how that would have provided an opportunity for people to get out on time,” Klozner said.

A representative of the complex’s management company, Thomas Auletti , did not return calls for comment.

On a recent day off from work, Klozner returned to Warbasse. Climbing up pitch black stairwells that smelled like urine and other foul odors, Klozner carried food and water to those who had stayed behind.

Volunteers from Hillel at Brooklyn College, UJA Federation and the Council of Jewish Emigre Community Organizations were collecting donations and providing residents with perishable supplies inside a community room in one of the Warbasse buildings.

Klozner said delivering the goods was a harrowing experience. “It’s a very eerie, scary, very isolated feeling to actually make that trek upstairs,” she said. “It’s definitely very unnerving to walk up a dark staircase and really not know who’s on the other side of the door when you open that door to go into a hallway.”

Greenblat, hearing reports of looters in Coney Island, was also fearful without power in her building for more than a week. “During the day it’s easier to handle,” she said. “When it starts getting evening time you get a little crazy.”

Opened in 1964, Warbasse Houses originally provided affordable co-ops for members of the The Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America under the state’s Mitchell-Lama housing program. The makeup of Warbasse has changed over the years, now including a mixture of seniors and working class Jews, Russians, Blacks and Hispanics. Without much information being provided aside from flyers written in English only, posted on the ground floor of the buildings, residents created an online petition and Facebook group to share information and voice their displeasure.

One poster wrote: “I am living in Warbasse for 42 Years, and never saw such a disregard for people. My uncle was on the Board of Directors for many years, and WARNED THEM NOT TO GO OFF THE CON-ED GRID.”

“Unfortunately, the management company sort of deserted the place,” Klozner said. “We really haven’t seen anyone.”

Klozner said she had heard it could be two to four weeks before power was fully restored. She would try to help as often as she could, but found strength in the resilience of other residents, including a pair of Holocaust survivors who lived on the 20th floor of one of the buildings.

“They were talking about how they survived the ghettos, and they survived the Nazis and how they never pretty much thought that they would have to live anything like that again—and thank God that they didn’t,” Klozner said. “So they were like, “No food, no water, we’ll figure it out.

“Here you have two people who have pretty much lived through horrors that we will not never experience—thank God— and they’re sort of just taking it day by day. You have to give them a lot of credit.”

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com


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