The Time In Between: Displacement After Hurricane Sandy

July 15, 2013

Sandy Storyline, a participatory documentary project, shares the first of a series of pieces for Creative Time Reports exploring the “in-between homes” where people lived after the storm, telling the story of an elderly Queens resident displaced to a psychiatric center for months.

Belle Harbor Manor resident Alex Woods, age 57, charts the string of events that brought him to an infamous psychiatric institution in a remote part of Queens in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

“I feel as if we are serving time,” said Alex Woods, age 57, describing his ordeal after Hurricane Sandy. Woods and 160 other residents of the Queens beachfront adult-care facility Belle Harbor Manor were evacuated on Tuesday, October 30, the morning after the storm hit. They spent the next three and a half months staying in temporary shelters.

Hurricane Sandy battered the Rockaways peninsula, including Belle Harbor, a Queens neighborhood nestled between Rockaway Beach and Jacob Riis Park. Like the majority of adult-home residents across New York City, the residents of Belle Harbor Manor weren’t evacuated in advance, even though the facility was located in a floodplain designated “Zone A,” where evacuation was mandatory. As Woods was led through freezing knee-high water by New York City firefighters, he had no idea that some of the experiences he had ahead of him might be even more treacherous than the storm he had just survived.

For Sandy Storyline, a growing participatory documentary about the hurricane and its impact, we are working with Woods and other residents from Belle Harbor Manor to help them share their stories. Their experience exemplifies both the successes and failures of temporary housing after Hurricane Sandy.

In New York City, the issue of post-Sandy temporary housing was and remains particularly explosive because the region already has a systemic housing crisis—one that Sandy served to illuminate. More than 50,000 New Yorkers sleep in shelters or on the streets on any given night, and this is without the disruption of a historic storm that forced tens of thousands from their homes across the five boroughs, New Jersey and Long Island.

But the issue of providing temporary housing is, ultimately, a growing national and international challenge sparked by increasingly erratic weather that is threatening coastal cities like New York, storm-torn states like Oklahoma and fire-prone plains like those in Colorado. According to a report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC), the leading international body monitoring internal displacement, extreme weather fueled by climate change was the main cause of human displacement in 2012. Last year, more than 32 million people were forced—either temporarily or permanently—from their homes due to extreme weather, including the estimated 776,000 people across 24 states who were displaced by Hurricane Sandy.

There are many lessons to be drawn from the experiences of residents and volunteers affected by Sandy. After being evacuated, the first place that residents of Belle Harbor Manor were taken was the Park Slope Armory, which served as an emergency evacuation center. A vast YMCA gymnasium in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood, the Armory was crowded with hundreds of other people who had been evacuated from adult homes across the region. Space was cramped and privacy nonexistent, with rows of stiff army cots lining the floor. Yet, the Armory was one of the places that residents remember as being comparatively good. There was an abundance of donations for the many people who left their homes without much more than what they were wearing. Food was better than some had access to at home. There were also many volunteers and round-the-clock cultural wellness programming, organized by the nonprofit cultural organizing group Arts & Democracy Project and artists and cultural and community groups from the neighborhood and across the city, which eased the discomfort of displacement.

Ilyana Kadushin, a local musician, recounted the experience of volunteering with her husband at the Park Slope Armory in a written story that she contributed to Sandy Storyline:

We planned a set of our original music, and the first song that came to mind was one of our songs called “Joy of Life.” It perfectly captures a state of gratitude for being alive and for each moment of our life.

James played it on guitar, and we both sang and harmonized together. We also gave the group some shakers and percussion instruments, to provide some extra energy to the song.

After we performed this song, one of the women in the group, Latisha, who was blind and had been living in this shelter for almost two weeks, stood up and said that our song made her want to give a speech to everyone listening.

“We have all been through a lot these past weeks, it’s been hard, but we have to find the joy, find the joy in every day.”

This moment will go down as one of my favorites as a musician and as a human.

When the Armory shelter closed after three weeks, the Belle Harbor Manor residents were relocated to the Kings Hotel in East New York, Brooklyn, where they joined residents displaced from another adult home. There, the grimy, cramped space started to take its toll. Resident Jarad Keller-Bey said it was like getting into a prison cell at night. They slept on narrow cots with three to four people to a room. There was only one elevator, making it difficult for residents with wheelchairs and walkers to get up and down. The well-cooked, catered food was a highlight, residents said, but that was the only one.

Used to taking walks along the beach in the Rockaways, many residents said they didn’t feel safe in the area around the hotel, which added to the confinement. Donald Nelson, an artist and resident of Belle Harbor Manor, painted this view looking outside from the window of his hotel room.

A painting by Belle Harbor Manor resident Donald Nelson

The View From My Window, 2012, painted by artist Donald Nelson while he was temporarily housed at the King’s Hotel in East New York, Brooklyn. Photographed by Michael Premo.

After several weeks, the group moved again–this time to the place that was to prove the most challenging of their journey. They arrived at the Milestone Residence, a halfway house on the grounds of the sprawling and partially abandoned Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. Living in a transitional psychiatric institution in an isolated area of Queens was not what Belle Harbor Manor residents expected.

“Where we were was pretty harrowing,” explained Woods, who is vice president of the Belle Harbor Manor Resident Council. “Milestone is part of an outpatient clinic for people who were coming out of Creedmoor, and we were housed with those people.”

One of Woods’s first memories at Milestone was getting his picture taken. He admits that photographing residents is probably the only way that the staff was able to administer so many new people coming into the facility at once, but he says that the experience of getting his mug shot taken, like so many other experiences he has had there, is representative of how the shelters have made him feel after the storm: “Sometimes angry, sometimes under the weather, sometimes like I just don’t want to be around people. I just want to stay to myself. You feel stuck. You feel betrayed.”

Woods said that he wasn’t alone: several other residents experienced deteriorations in their mental health as a result of their stay at Milestone. As the winter stretched on, the residents coped with the sporadic lack of heat and hot water, middle-of-the-night fire alarms, and long meal lines. There was little assistance from staff on improving conditions because Milestone was slated for closure. At the same time, Belle Harbor Manor came under fire for continuing to withdraw rent payments from the residents’ social security checks, even though residents hadn’t even been able to return to their home facility for months. Both the Coalition of Institutionalized Aged and Disabled and MFY Legal Services supported residents during this time to try to advocate on their behalf.

Finally, after three and a half months of displacement, Woods and the rest of his community returned to Belle Harbor Manor, but the path back home hasn’t been easy. Residents found that their rooms had been open during the reconstruction and belongings were missing. Even though they were finally home, the spring and early summer continued to feel unsettled. He and others are now reflecting on how local governments can relocate and care for people affected by extreme weather.

“I’d like to see plans ahead of time and evacuation to a decent place so we don’t have to go through what we went through,” said Woods. “It was my contention that this didn’t have to happen.”

Keller-Bay agreed: “It was a give-and-take in all the scenarios I’ve been through, because God blessed everybody that went through that storm. But I pray that we don’t have to go through that again.”

By Laura Gottesdiener, Rachel Falcone and Michael Premo, co-producers of Sandy Storyline. Additional video footage by Ryan De Franco and Laura Egan.

This article is the first of a series exploring “In-Between Homes”—the places where people across New York City and New Jersey lived in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. To add your voice to this growing storyline, please contribute your story.

Special thanks to the residents of Belle Harbor Manor, Arts & Democracy Project and the many people volunteering to support a just and sustainable recovery. Have a story? Contribute it here.