No Seinfeldian glee at the temporary storm shelter at John Jay

John Jay College of Criminal Justice. (Via New York National Guard)
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Happily, some New Yorkers had the luxury of feeling that Hurricane Irene, which turned out to be a tropical storm, was much ado about not much. They dismissed the whole thing, according to the New York Times, with “Seinfeldian glee.”

But the event was less easily dismissible for some of the New York’s sick, elderly, very poor, homeless and disabled residents, and for those who were involved, as I was, in the disaster-response effort.

A little background: Eight days after the attacks of Sept. 11, my wife, out of the blue, was diagnosed with Stage IV terminal cancer. A few months later I enrolled in school, John Jay College, to become an EMT-B. I completed 200 hours of training, passed a state and national exam to become certified and went to work riding on an ambulance with paramedics responding to 911 calls. While working, I took a course to become an EMT-I, Intermediate, which teaches you how to put someone on an IV, work with needles and medications, interpret EKG heat rhythms, intubate patients. I’ve also completed workshops in which I worked with human cadavers, had haz-mat and OSHA training, took continuing-education classes like “Situational Awareness in Emergency Operations” and “Multiple Gunshot Wounds: Care of the Street Warrior,” passed the arduous "Work Capacity Test” for New York State Wildland Firefighter certification and at home injected my wife with morphine and cared for her during her illness, hospitalizations, and during home hospice. I stopped it all when she passed away.

Last Thursday at 5 p.m., I got a robo-call from the city Office of Emergency Management asking me to volunteer to help with hurricane shelter and evacuation centers.



I don’t actually know how they got my number or why they called me, beyond that I’m on some list or database somewhere for something. But I figured I could be useful, and also that it would give me a good look at the city’s response to the hurricane, which would maybe make for a good story afterward.

I pressed 1 for “yes, I am available.”

I packed a backpack with basic first-aid material and some gear (seatbelt cutter, auto-window punch, flashlight), got together all my medic-related IDs and waited.

I called the 718 number that called me and was told the mailbox was full or not accepting messages. I called 311 repeatedly and they had absolutely no information about where I should report, what agency was coordinating the response efforts, or who I should call. I asked different operators, and asked to speak to supervisors. No luck.

I finally got a second robo-call, and was told to report to City College in Harlem on 137th Street at 10 a.m. for a 12-hour shift.

The city was using the gym as a shelter. I showed up and sat outside with about 14 other people who had been called. It turned out they were all city teachers, except for two who were volunteers for NYC CERT. Trucks were being unloaded and boxes and pallets were being stacked in the gym by City College custodial and maintenance staff. I started helping the workers unload and stack the boxes.

One teacher, I’ll call her Sadie, later said: “We don’t unload boxes.” But she was a good person who bought everyone ices late at night, gave her own socks to a pregnant woman who showed up barefoot, was prepared to spend the night at the shelter and said she was going to call Mike and other administrative movers and shakers she referred to on a first-name basis to make sure I got paid when it was all over.

We stood around for a long while with nothing to do, because no one was in charge. The City College athletic director came in. She wanted to make sure her floor was OK. She got people to come in and cover the volleyball court and told us the roof was leaking in a number of different places and that if the rain got bad so might the leaks. (This was in a hurricane shelter.)

There was a teacher who was head of science research at Stuyvesant. He and I went up to the roof to check it out. People were still working up there. There were numerous construction projects in progress with large amounts of material all over the place—the stuff that you would want secured or lashed down if you thought a hurricane was coming. We asked two workers whether they were going to be taking care of that. They said they didn’t know; their supervisor was out and would be back later.

Eventually, the head of security came in and addressed us a group. He found the two who were part of CERT and said that they would be in charge. They got special vests. Sadie was designated as the team’s public information officer. (“Do not allow media to enter unless directed by the Public Information Officer”: 6.7.1 in the Hurricane Shelter Field Guide, part of the section entitled “TIPS FOR DEALING WITH MEDIA INSIDE THE SHELTER.”)

Stuyvesant, a bit of a wise guy, pointed to me and screamed out, “He is the media.” He said he doesn’t trust the media. He was made our head of communications, even though he didn’t know how to put together, charge or operate any of the brand new radios he and I were taking out of their packages, putting together and charging.

Someone at City College security eventually found out there was a D.V.D. all the volunteers were supposed to watch on how to set up and run a hurricane shelter. My temporary colleagues and I gathered around to watch it, but one of the CERT guys said I should go with him and security to lug supplies on a rolling cart from another building to the gym-shelter.

We set up tables all around the perimeter and upstairs, making an ad hoc intake shelter, kennel, food-distribution center, medical-treatment area and command center. There were maybe six huge duffel bags filled with medical supplies, equipment and medicine. I said I had E.M.T. training, so I volunteered to handle the medical area. I unpacked all the essential items and set them up on and around the table, and made sure I had an idea where they were: wound dressings, neck collars, bandages, glucose, eye flush, antihistamines, acetaminophen, sterilization liquids, protective gloves, blood pressure cuff, stethoscope.

The CERT guy who’d drafted me to move equipment left at 2 p.m. Two teachers, one of whom had been working with the blind for 30 years and has a Braille-symbol necklace and another younger E.S.L. teacher who speaks five languages and lives in Williamsburg, were particularly caring and hard-working and got things done. I treated one volunteer who cut her finger setting up the cots.

For a few hours, we sat there with nothing to do, meeting with various administrators who came in and also didn’t know what was going on or where we were supposed to go the next day, when the storm was supposed to hit with full force. A police officer came in at one point, stayed for a minute and left. The volunteers started leaving.

Around 8 p.m. another CERT volunteer came in, and it was his show. He was big on authority and instructed the remaining CERT person, a woman, to pack up all the equipment and medicine that I had carefully arranged and put in order and stuff it all back into the duffel bag. The Stuyvesant teacher asked me why I thought they were doing it, sort of mockingly. No matter what I said, CERT wouldn’t listen. He told me that under no conditions should I “self-deploy” the next day. I should do nothing unless I got another robo-call. I left at around 9:30 p.m.

On Saturday I got another robo-call directing me to report to the shelter nearest my house at 3 p.m. The call also informed me that I would be getting paid.

I live a block away from Baruch college, which is on Lexington Avenue in the 20s. I showed up there, but I was told that people with medical needs would not be taken there, but instead either to Hunter or John Jay. I got in a cab and went across town to John Jay, on 59th Street and Tenth Avenue.

John Jay had the ground floor set up as a command center and the fourth floor set up as an evacuation shelter. This was a full-blown operation. Three people in red vests seemed to be in charge: One woman who told me later that she’s a lawyer, one middle-aged white man named Matt and an Asian man named Daniel. (I only learned their names as I was leaving, 16 hours later.)

There were hundreds of evacuees there, and assorted workers and volunteers: red-vesters with bullhorns, a doctor wearing a white lab coat, medical personnel in different-colored scrubs, military men in green B.D.U.s (Battle Dress Uniform) and desert camouflage, and one soldier in the lobby who was wearing some sort of flak jacket.

I signed in, was handed a red vest, and started working, carrying boxes, climbing up on the bleachers to stack items, moving cots, doing whatever the red vests in charge told me to.

Matt announced, “I need five men who have experience lifting patients with medical problems.”

I told him I’d worked as medic and that I could do it.

There were many elderly residents and disabled people from nursing homes, people who couldn’t talk or understand and people with psychiatric problems and on anti-psychotics. They were people who couldn’t care for themselves properly.

Matt said: “I need four men who have experience lifting people who have medical problems.” No volunteers. “I need four men who can lift.”

Eventually it was left to me and two muscular men who were doing everything while wearing their backpacks and didn’t seem to speak English. I’d heard other workers telling them earlier that they could put their packs down with the others’, and that their stuff would be OK. But they declined.

They were good lifters, it turned out. Their technique was excellent and they were obviously used to doing this. I later asked and found out they were French-speaking Canadian firefighters in town for the World Fire and Police Games, a sort of first-responder Olympics.

At a table in the middle of the shelter were a table full of athletic-looking women in sports jerseys preparing hot M.R.E.s and handing out water, and keeping good, careful records of what they were doing. Somebody said they were a soccer team. I later asked them who they were: Canadian police officers, also in New York for the Games.

There was also a contingent of nurses, medical assistants and a doctor, Dr. Long, from a clinic affiliated with Harlem Hospital. At one point there was a call that an ambulance was arriving with patients. They were pulling up on the side of the building, by the loading dock. I went down to help. A paramedic had two patients, one of whom Dr. Long was uncomfortable taking because of the patient’s status. She diverted that patient to the hospital and accepted the other one. But the shelter had no stretcher to transport him off the ambulance, through the loading-dock area and up to the shelter. He was stuck there. Then another ambulance showed up, then another, then there were ambulances two and three deep trying to pass.

At the behest of the E.M.T.s, I stayed in the back of an ambulance with the rejected patient from that first ambulance while they brought another one up to the shelter.

I suggested to the medic and Dr. Long that I go across the street to Roosevelt Hospital to see if I could borrow a stretcher or some sort of gurney. I went to the E.R. and explained the situation to the charge nurse. The charge nurse said I had to talk to the operations manager, and that she would page her. I waited for a while. The manager came. I tried to ask her ten different ways if there was anything she could do, or any way she or the hospital could help out. I used key words: “emergency,” “Dr. Long,” “medic.” I showed ID, explained who I was and what was going on. She was nice, but couldn’t do anything.

I was back there an hour later.

A number of people at the shelter were diabetic and had to be checked and there was only one glucometer. I asked the nurse using the glucometer if it would it help if there was another one and she said that yes, of course it would. So I was back in Roosevelt E.R. asking the operations manager whether she could possibly spare one.

After a while, she checked and told me that no, I couldn’t borrow a glucometer because all of theirs were built into units. I asked whether I could take one from one of the Roosevelt ambulances. She said she would try that, and then another administrator got involved, and he tried to open an ambulance door, but it was locked. He made some phone calls but couldn’t get in touch with anyone. I left my cell-phone number, asked him to please call me when he heard anything. Back in the shelter, maybe 30 minutes later, he called to tell me that no glucometer was available.

Maybe an hour later, a Roosevelt administrator, Eileen Yost, showed up to speak with Dr. Long, asking what she could do to help. When she was walking away, I went up to her and introduced myself, told her what I had been doing and what had been going on and that what we really needed was a glucometer. She gave me her cell phone number.

Eventually we got our glucometer. I took it from the hospital to the shelter under my raincoat. Dr. Long saw me pull it out from under my coat and asked whether I stole it. I had to explain that the very nice Roosevelt administrator had found one for us.