Tag Archive | "Hurricane Irene"

Hurricane Sandy Barrels Northeast, Raising Caution in Bronx Waterfront

Memories of damages from last year’s Hurricane Irene frame cautious preparation for a powerful storm system barreling towards the northeast. Hurricane Sandy, known in social networking sites as ‘Frankenstorm’, is expected to hit the Eastern Seaboard as early as Sunday evening.

Residents in waterfront areas of the East Bronx are preparing for the worst: protecting windows that may shatter from debris brought by strong winds and stocking up on basic needs, NY1 reports. Mayor Michael Bloomberg and city officials urged residents in flood-prone areas to be alert and informed about evacuation zones. Severe weather is forecasted to last for several days.

 

 

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Evacuation expert fights to rescue Morrisania

Two days before Hurricane Irene slammed into New York City, evacuation expert Maria Forbes was told by city’s emergency coordinators to prepare for a possible disaster.

The next day, the Bronx mother of three raced around her neighborhood of Morrisania in the Bronx recruiting last-minute volunteers and making sure the emergency shelter at Toscanini Junior High School on Teller Street was stocked with nonperishable foods, flashlights, and batteries.

It was the emergency work that Forbes, 48, trained herself for after terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Hurricane Katrina wiped out New Orleans. But evacuation training is only part of Forbes’ long list of volunteer duties. She’s a natural rescuer. She’s been sticking her neck out to rescue others since she was a young child, even when she was in need of help herself.

In 2002, a power outage left an entire block near 169th Street in Morrisania, where Forbes lives, without lights. The community’s lack of preparedness during the blackout became a catalyst for her to seek solutions. “I became real, real hungry and real, real thirsty to find something that could address the need for emergency disaster,” said Forbes, jumping from phone call to phone call days after Irene pummeled the East Coast. Her black curls bounced as she hollered to a reluctant vendor over the phone from her tenant organizer office on 168th Street.

But initial attempts to set up a disaster response team were met with refusal from the city’s emergency management office. Forbes kept calling various organizations to ask for grants. “I called back the Office of Emergency Management again and said, ‘I really want to have this program’,” Forbes recalled. “They said no.” Eventually, the intrepid organizer won an initial $500 community grant from Citizens Committee for New York City, a non-profit organization that supports grassroots initiatives. The grant helped her assemble the first batch of 40 volunteers for the 11 weeks of training required for certification.

In the course, Forbes learned how to jump start a generator, bandage wounds, and find “go bags” with clothes, flashlights, and medicine. She learned about hygiene and mental health issues. She finally earned her certificate to become Bronx Chief for the Community Emergency Response Team in 2006.

Forbes was born on Oct. 29, 1962 in Manhattan. Her father, William Smith, had immigrated to New York from Belize 15 years earlier and worked as a merchant seaman. Her mother, Velma Thomas, was a great-granddaughter of slaves from North Carolina. The family moved to Highbridge in the Bronx before Maria was born, and she has always called the Bronx her home. She is the youngest of seven.

Forbes’ older sister, Eileen Avery, who owns a medical billing business in Queens, sees a lot of their mother in Forbes. Their mother, Thomas, was a mental health therapist and foster mother to 28 children while she organized a play street along Plimpton and 172nd Avenues, planned block parties, and managed a private housing development. Following in her mother’s footsteps, the ever-busy Forbes has done it all except she is not a foster mother.

“I’m really proud of her, she took what our mother left and ran with it,” said Avery. “She’s overcome difficult obstacles to be where she is today and she is always helping people in the community and fighting for their entitlement.”

Forbes’s schedule leaves little room for family outings. But the sisters spend Thanksgiving together every year with few visits in between. “Every time I visit, I sit her down, tell her no phone, and close the door,” said Every.

Forbes acknowledges her demanding schedule. But she’s always considered helping others — a life mission even at a young age when her life was precarious. At 13, in 1976, she gave birth to her first son, Lenny Jones, and still had the wherewithal to speak at a mayoral event about resource entitlement and the plight of young mothers. Later, Mayor Abe Beame’s aide wrote to her saying, “It was beautiful to see the poise with which you addressed the audience. We hope you will stay in touch to let us know of your future triumphs.”

The road to future triumphs was strewn with roadblocks. Forbes dropped out of 10th grade, because there was no support for mothers at the overcrowded Walton High School. She then took a paid internship at the city’s medical examiner’s office where she identified dead bodies. In 1981, after a traumatic encounter with the body of someone she knew, Forbes left her job and started going full-time to Westside High School in Manhattan. The school took her on college tours and gave her instruction on career options. Forbes, who by then was battling addiction to cocaine, couldn’t pass the GED test required to earn the equivalent of a high school diploma. She beat addiction to cocaine in 1988 with the help of a support group called Narcotics Anonymous.

By 22, she was a single mother of three.

Her election as the president of Clay Avenue Tenants Association in 1990 brought some tranquility to her life until she lost her mother in 1995. Forbes’ mother was the caretaker of her kids.

The responsibility of tending to the children’s needs fell solely on Forbes’s shoulders. In 1990, her unsteady marriage to Timothy Forbes, father of two of her sons, fell apart six months after the wedding. Then her apartment caught fire and she lost almost all of her belongings. She kept cool and took a job first as a methadone addiction counselor at the Bronx-Lebanon Hospital and later as intervention specialist at the Police Athletic League.

The struggles Forbes has had to overcome inform her advocacy. She now devotes much of her time to the emergency preparedness program. At her corner office, pamphlets and flyers about the program lie everywhere. Emergency tool kits, cleaning supplies, and boxes take up most of the space. Two generators can boost power up in case of a blackout. Once a year, she organizes an emergency disaster day event that brings various community service agencies to the neighborhood where residents sign up for programs and services.

On a recent Wednesday, as she walked down to her office, children and neighbors stopped to greet her. “Maria has been a passionate and strong advocate for this community,” said Laura Brown, a long-time tenant at one of the buildings that Forbes manages. “I can’t speak for everyone but most people here love her.”

Hurricane Irene was not as damaging as predicted but Forbes believes you can never over prepare. Since becoming chief of her community emergency response team, she’s seen two blackouts.

“It pays to be prepared,” she said. And that’s what she’s been teaching her tenants and neighbors – how to prepare for an unforeseen disaster.

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Rikers after the storm

It’s been over a month since Hurricane Irene hit New York City. Most residents have all but forgotten the scrambling for drinking water and candles, the mandatory evacuation warnings, the shut down of all public transportation, and the boarded-up windows in the prelude to what some thought would be a catastrophic storm.

But two mothers in the Bronx have not forgotten Irene. For them, the storm revealed a heartbreaking truth: in the event of a serious natural disaster the city would not protect their sons, detainees on Rikers Island.

Hurricane Irene was expected to hit New York early in the morning on Sunday, Aug. 29. Mayor Michael Bloomberg called for the unprecedented mandatory evacuation of nearly 370,000 people living in low-lying areas of the city. A total of 91 evacuation centers with 70,000 cots were set up for evacuees. Of those evacuation centers, 65 made space for evacuated pets.  Airports were shut down, including La Guardia, whose runways are a mere 250 feet from Rikers Island. Airport employees were told to go home for their own safety.

But no one made plans to evacuate Rikers. When asked about an evacuation plan for Rikers — which lies in the middle of evacuation zones, is 75 percent landfill, and at some points sits just 20 feet above sea level — Bloomberg said, “There is no reason to evacuate Rikers Island.”

The families of inmates on Rikers listened to Bloomberg’s statement in shock. “I got a call from my sister-in-law on Saturday,” said Maria Mojica of Castle Hill, whose 19-year-old son Jason Mojica is awaiting trial on charges of theft. “She said turn on the news. The mayor just said they are leaving the kids on the island.”

As Mojica watched the press conference, she began to panic. “I had all these questions,” she said. “Is he safe? Can he call? Does he know there’s a hurricane coming?” She couldn’t sleep that night and, unlike every other day since her son has been at Rikers, he didn’t call.

Lisa Ortega of Hunts Point was also anxiously watching the news when she heard the mayor say Rikers Island would not be evacuated. Her son, Kendall “KD” Davis is awaiting trial on weapon possession charges. The then 16-year-old, who spent his 17th birthday on Rikers, suffers from anxiety and was also not allowed to use the phones.

“My stomach was in knots the entire night,” Ortega said. “I knew my baby was in there suffering and unable to call me. I just wanted to hear his voice and know he was okay.”

Ortega frantically called the jail throughout the day, trying to talk to anyone who could tell her what was going on. At one point, she said she finally reached a correctional officer who simply said, “We good here,” and hung up the phone.

A month later during an hour-long jail visit, Jason Mojica would talk about what happened at Rikers that night. Inside the jail on the Saturday before the storm, inmates began to hear news of Irene.

Mojica’s first concern was his mother and siblings. The hardened teenager’s face took on an expression of boyish concern when he remembered that night. “They wouldn’t let us use the phones,” Mojica said. “I was so worried about my mom. I didn’t know if she was being evacuated, or if my little brothers and sisters were safe.”

Mojica helped to raise his siblings while his mother and father worked. He took them to school and picked them up every day. Mojica’s father was visiting Puerto Rico when Irene hit New York, making Mojica even more concerned for the safety of his family.

Kendell (KD) Davis told his mother in a phone call that at 5 p.m., correctional officers entered the part of the jail where he was being held and told him that he wouldn’t be moved and couldn’t make any phone calls.

“It was complete chaos,” Davis told his mother. “No one knew what was happening and whether their families were safe.” He also claims that officers were telling the inmates that if the storm got really bad they would evacuate the island and leave the inmates to fend for themselves.

Davis was so anxious that he couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t until he heard his mother’s voice on Monday that he was able to relax.

Mojica was out in the Sprungs, white canvas tents outside of the jail facilities, when he heard news of the storm. The Sprungs sit approximately 100 feet from the shore of the island. Mojica and the men in his tent were moved to indoor facilities where they would stay for the night. “They came Saturday afternoon and told us that we had to evacuate,” he said. “They said there was no room in the main facilities so we had to stay in condemned buildings on the other side of the island.”

He said that they were given buckets, brooms and mops to clean out the cells where they were to stay for the following 48 hours.

“The cells were awful,” Mojica said. “They were full of trash, feces and some black substance covering the floors. Some of the cells had no running water and toilets that would not flush.”

On Monday, they were allowed to go back out to the Sprungs. He was also allowed to call his mother and learned that his family was safe.

The New York State Department of Corrections denies claims that inmates were unable to use phones during the storm. According to the warden of the facility, who was on site at Rikers throughout the storm, staff members were told that all inmates be allowed to make their phone calls.

But one former inmate who was released two years ago also remembers being unable to use the phones to call his family during storms at Rikers. Richard Hairston, of Hunts Point, was in and out of Rikers from the age of 18 until the age of 27. He was being held in the Sprungs during a major rainstorm in December, 2002.

“It rained for four days,” he said. “Four days with no phones.” Hairston’s mother was frantic. He explained that it’s natural for mothers to worry about their sons on Rikers during the rain. “We are on a small island in the middle of a huge river,” he said. “The thought of heavy rainfall or storms on Rikers just gets my mom panicked. She thinks of me drowning.”

When Hairston was finally allowed to use the phone after the storm, he immediately called his mother. “I was so grateful to hear her voice,” he said. “During all my years at Rikers and prisons upstate, I missed my mom the most.”

He also said that being moved from the Sprungs during a storm is a luxury. “When it rains, we get wet inside the Sprungs,” he said. “Water drips on us during the night making us too cold to sleep.” Each day the inmates would sweep standing water from the floor of the Sprungs so that it would not flood.  But Sharman Stein, spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, maintains that the vast majority of Rikers Island is not located in a flood zone.

Prisoner rights groups such as Critical Resistance and Solitary Watch created a petition calling upon New York City to create an evacuation plan for Rikers Island in the event of a future storm. But no action has been taken. “Only one facility is located in a flood zone, but is not susceptible to loss of life.” Stein said in response to questioning about the progress of an evacuation plan for Rikers. “In that instance, the inmates and staff assigned to the first floor would be relocated to higher floors in the jail.”

New York City Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association spokesman Michael Stilly does not think an anticipatory evacuation plan for Rikers is necessary.

He says that it is extremely difficult to evacuate 13,000 inmates under maximum security, plus hundreds of officers, to another location and still maintain the peace.

“We have to prepare for incidents as they come and trust our officers,” he said. “They look after society’s most violent criminals 24 hours a day. I believe they can weather a storm.” He also added that union members are their top priority.

But Ortega demands a plan. “Our sons deserve a way off the island in the event of a major storm,” she said. “They are just kids who are still awaiting trial. In they eyes of the law they are innocent. Don’t they deserve better than this?”

 

 

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Hurricane Irene still shows her wrath at historic Bronx house, New York Times

The Villa Charlotte Bronte, the castle in Spuyten Duyvil in the Bronx, was hit hard by Hurricane Irene a month ago, and residents in five of the 17 apartments inside still can’t go home, reports the New York Times.

Engineers haven’t been able to determine the safety of the buildings’ foundation. Construction will be not only expensive, but will further exacerbate the exile that residents have already faced.

And since it’s a historic building, original documents are needed from the Department of Buildings before construction can start. Those documents are missing.

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Top Stories of the Day

Flashback: Bush at Yankee Stadium after 9/11

On October 30, 2001, the Yankees played the Diamondbacks in Game 3 of the World Series. The Boston Herald recaps how, as President George W. Bush threw out the first pitch, everyone was considered a potential terrorist – even George Steinbrenner and Joe Torre.

Bronx has 4 of NYC’s most ‘dangerous’ schools

The New York State Education Department posted a list “persistently dangerous” schools on its website last week. The New York Post reports that of the nine New York City schools on the list for 2011-12, four are in the Bronx – Aspire, Soundview Academy for Culture and Scholarship, PS 11 Highbridge, and IS 190. The Post says that Aspire Prep’s 554 students tallied 88 “violent and disruptive” incidents in 2009-10. These included sex crimes, robbery and assaults.

Bronxites help farm devastated by Irene

Two busloads of Bronx families traveled to Schoharie in upstate New York on Saturday with emergency supplies for a farm devastated by the remnants of Hurricane Irene, says an Associated Press report in the Wall Street Journal. These families from the South Bronx were just a few among the 1,000 and more that Richard Ball’s farm has been feeding since 2009.

 

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