Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC) Associate Professor of Music Joyce Moorman couldn’t believe her eyes when she opened an e-mail from the college early on the evening of October 29, 2012.
“I was shocked when I read that the water had crossed the West Side Highway,” Moorman told Clarion. “I thought this hurricane wouldn’t amount to anything, just like all the other ones that come to the Northeast.”
But even though Sandy no longer had hurricane-force winds when it reached New York, its impact was devastating. BMCC was one of the hardest-hit CUNY campuses, but the storm’s effects were felt across the University. Faculty, staff, students and administrators have struggled, along with millions of others, to return to something resembling normal amid power outages, fuel shortages, a crippled subway system and, for some, the loss of their homes.
At least six people with close CUNY ties were among the more than 40 New Yorkers killed as a result of Sandy. They included Lauren (Lola) Abraham, a recent transfer from Lehman to LaGuardia, who was killed by a downed electrical wire, and College of Staten Island student John Filipowicz, Jr., who drowned alongside his father in the basement of their home. Jacob Vogelman, an MFA student at Brooklyn College and his friend Jessie Streich-Kest, a recent graduate of Hunter, were both killed by a falling tree while walking Streich-Kest’s dog before the height of the storm. Former York Provost Lewis Bodi was killed by a fire from a kerosene lamp in his home in Glen Cove, Long Island, in use because of the town’s extended loss of electrical power. Andrew Sammarco, husband of CSI faculty member Angela Sammarco, also drowned on the night of the storm. At least a dozen PSC members lost their homes.
Classes at most CUNY colleges resumed November 2, 2012, after a four-day hiatus. However, attendance was much lower than usual due to continuing problems with mass transit. Classes did not start up again until November 6, 2012 at BMCC and Kingsborough Community College (KCC), both hard-hit by flooding. Courses at York did not resume until November 8, 2012, due to the campus serving as an evacuation shelter for close to 1,000 residents of the Rockaways.
Hunter’s Brookdale campus at 25th Street and the FDR Drive sustained serious flood damage to laboratories, classrooms, phone lines and fire safety systems, and it remained closed at Clarion press time, with classes relocated to Hunter’s buildings uptown.
BMCC faced both water and salt damage to flooded electrical and heating systems. “When the water started to recede, our folks jumped right in. Many had slept here. We had people pushing water, pumping water, scooping water,” said BMCC Vice President Scott Anderson. “The laborers had their waders on, the custodial staff pulled out the squeegee brooms. Our college was kept alive by people you can never thank enough – the people who wear the gray collar, the blue collar, the green collar. They worked a minor miracle.”
BMCC’s classes resumed when the college’s main building still had no heat. “My thought was that they should not have opened so soon,” Moorman said, noting that temperatures dropped into the 30s at night that week. “No one could get warm.” Though heat was restored to most of the college a few days later, Moorman said some areas remained cold two weeks after the storm.
Back to Class
While flood waters packed Sandy’s biggest punch, high sustained winds also caused destruction on some CUNY campuses. At Queens College, part of the Kissena Hall roof blew off and a cooling unit and a fan were ripped away from the roof of the Fitzgerald Gymnasium.
CUNY colleges drew up different plans for making up lost hours of instruction before the scheduled end of the semester. At KCC, daytime classes will run an extra five minutes, while weekend classes will add an extra half hour to the end of classes. At Brooklyn College (BC), two lost days will be made up around finals. For the other two days, faculty members are to meet later with classes or conduct field trips. “That’s showing flexibility,” commented BC Acting Chapter Chair Alex Vitale.
At the College of Staten Island (CSI), Professor of Performing Arts George Sanchez said the college has done an outstanding job of aiding students in crisis, providing counseling services, emergency relief grants and other support. Faculty want to be attentive to students’ needs, Sanchez said, “When a student calls to say, ‘Professor, I’m sorry I haven’t turned in the assignment, I lost my home,’ you’ve got to try to work something out,” he told Clarion.
Using procedures developed after 9/11, CSI worked with students who concluded they had to withdraw from classes altogether and seek a tuition refund, even though the normal withdrawal deadline had already passed.
At KCC, 2,300 faculty, staff and students were living in the Zone A evacuation area, making it the college with the largest number of affected people of any CUNY school. “We’re encouraging faculty to be as flexible as possible, and to use online options for students who can’t make it to class,” spokesperson Ruby Ryles told Clarion. About 1,400 people used KCC’s on-campus resource centers to obtain food, with about 1,100 using other emergency services.
From Staten Island to Red Hook to Far Rockaway, Sandy has left a humanitarian disaster across many communities. In turn, it has sparked a massive response from ordinary New Yorkers, and PSC members and CUNY students have been heavily involved.
Yoko Inagi, a library faculty member at City College, had trained to run in this year’s New York City Marathon. With the race canceled, Inagi joined hundreds of other marathoners who set out to help storm victims on what would have been the morning of the big race. They combined running with relief work, aiming to provide some concrete assistance and focus public attention on residents’ unmet needs. Inagi ran six to seven miles, carrying a backpack full of supplies to a community center in Midland Beach. She then went to work with a team of volunteers, gutting the flooded first floor of an elderly couple’s home.
“I could see how nicely they took care of their house,” Inagi said. “But it smelled so musty. It was just overwhelming.”
In Brooklyn, Daniel Felsenfeld responded to calls for volunteers, circulated by a Park Slope parents group, to assist a group of 400 to 600 nursing home residents who had been evacuated to the Park Slope Armory. Felsenfeld, a composer and an adjunct assistant professor of music at City College, has been regularly volunteering overnight, the only time the armory doesn’t have a full roster of 60 to 70 volunteers. During his shift, Felsenfeld walks a row to monitor the elderly evacuees. He helps them into their wheelchairs, runs errands for them and engages in long conversations.
“It’s an amazing experience,” Felsenfeld told Clarion. “Everyone is working there because they genuinely want to help.”
On the day after the storm, CUNY graduate assistants Conor Tomás Reed, Marissa McCleave Maharawal, Zoltán Glück, Daniel Schneider and Brooklyn College student Julieta Salgado – all experienced organizers who knew each other through Occupy Wall Street – were among a small group of volunteers who set out to deliver emergency supplies to elderly residents of high-rises in Red Hook. These buildings were without power, running water or functioning elevators; the Occupy team walked up many flights of stairs to deliver flashlights, batteries and bottled water they had collected by going door-to-door in the adjacent neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, which was not hard hit by the storm.
Working with the Red Hook Initiative (RHI), a community group with strong neighborhood roots, they helped transform RHI’s offices into a relief center, where they served their first meal to those in need on the night of October 30, 2012.
Word spread quickly through Occupy networks, and the homegrown relief effort quickly burgeoned into Occupy Sandy, a massive grassroots network that has now engaged thousands of volunteers. As the New York Times reported November 9, 2012, Occupy Sandy has in many ways outperformed “larger, more established charity groups, which seemed slow to deliver aid and turned away potential volunteers in droves during the early days of the disaster.
Occupy Sandy organizers say they hope to use their relief work as a starting point for empowering the communities they are working with.
“It’s really inspiring that many of our students and adjuncts who are impoverished are in leadership positions in this relief effort,” said Jocelyn Wills, a professor of American history at Brooklyn College.
At its November 8, 2012 meeting, the Brooklyn College PSC chapter voted unanimously to support a request from the Brooklyn College Student Union to participate in a Sandy Solidarity Caravan to the Rockaways and Staten Island on November 25 and 30, 2012. Participants will pitch in with the relief and recovery efforts, which, Wills says, offer excellent opportunities for service learning. The PSC chapter will contribute $500 to help defray transportation costs and many union members are planning to join the effort.
Students at other CUNY campuses are stepping up to help those most affected. At BMCC, for example, the Student Government Association voted November 7, 2012 to contribute $5,000 toward relief efforts in Far Rockaway.
Brooklyn College sociology professor Carolina Bank Muñoz and her husband have alternated volunteering on weekends – she has delivered supplies to Coney Island for Occupy Sandy, while he has worked with Doctors Without Borders in Far Rockaway. While one volunteers, the other stays behind to look after their five-year-old son. It’s a demanding schedule, but Bank Muñoz wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There are people who are completely abandoned and have nowhere to go,” she told Clarion. “How can you turn your back on them, no matter how crazy your life?”