It was no surprise that 200 East End Avenue was vulnerable to superstorm Sandy: the garage had been flooded once before during a Nor’easter. But no one anticipated how much devastation the storm would wreak on this 17-story tower or the gargantuan effort it would take to bring the building back to life.
In the early hours of October 29, the building’s superintendent, Scott Falk, thought the co-op would weather the storm with little damage.The property sits on the edge of Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive, so Falk and his staff evacuated the garage and secured the sloping driveway and service entrance with sandbags. The rain wasn’t as heavy as forecast and by late afternoon, the streets were relatively dry.
But by early evening, the winds had picked up and within minutes, everything changed. Tree limbs began to snap. Falk and board president Elizabeth Guerin rushed to 89th Street to check on a fallen limb. When they came back, water filled the street, putting pressure on the sandbags and rushing toward the service entrance. Falk made a critical decision: he removed the sandbags and let the water flood the empty garage, hoping it would protect the basement and all the critical equipment housed there.
“You know when things are going to happen. You know when you are not going to survive,” says Falk.
A river rushed the driveway as more pumped out of the sewage drains like geysers. Within minutes the garage filled. The pressure burst open a cinderblock wall separating the garage from the basement and trapping two workers inside the break room.
Staff members in the lobby could hear their colleagues screaming in desperation over the handheld radios. When staff ran downstairs to help, the basement was already inundated with three feet of water. They wedged open the door to the break room. The workers were trapped in four feet of water. “Those two men came out like fish out of a bowl,” says Falk.
“They were absolutely in danger,” says Rob Mellman, Orsid Realty’s director of facilities administration, who was weathering the storm at home on Long Island.
With the building quickly filling with water, staff raised the three elevators to the seventh floor, shut down electricity to the building, and turned off the boilers. At about 8:30 P.M., the building shook with a series of explosions as the electrical panels short-circuited and a 3,000-gallon oil tank slid off its footings and careened into a basement cinderblock wall, causing it to crumble.
Terrified the building might explode, the staff made desperate calls to 911, but were told, as the city flooded, that help would not be coming. The staff then called Con Edison, requesting that the utility company shut down electricity to the building to prevent an electrical fire. ConEd would not come either.
“The people on the ground floor were scared out of their minds,” recalls Guerin, who ran to the neighboring building and asked if they would take her shareholders in for the night.
The fire department did ultimately arrive, and Falk began to evacuate the 175-unit co-op at the peak of the storm. Staff members knocked on doors, guiding tenants with flashlights through the darkness. Creating a human chain six people across, the staff led residents through 75-mile-an-hour winds to safety. They carried those who were too weak to walk.
With residents safe, Falk then took his wife and two young children to a neighbor’s apartment on First Avenue. The children were hysterical and his wife pleaded with him to stay. But he returned to the building to make sure that it was protected.
The Morning After
By morning, the extent of the damage was beginning to sink in: the basement and two sub-basements were submerged in up to 40 feet of water contaminated with oil from the damaged tank, raw sewage, and salt water from the East River. A total of 1.2 million gallons of water had breached the building.
Among the items damaged or destroyed: a 3,000-gallon oil tank, two chillers, a boiler, two trash compactors, the laundry room equipment, and the main electrical service and distribution panels. The building’s heating and air conditioning plant had been replaced two years ago, a $2 million project. Without any of its critical systems working, the building had no electricity, no heat, gas, or telephone service. In a few days it would have no running water, either.
“It was a war zone down in that basement,” says Guerin. “People wondered if it would be habitable again.”
As he drove into the city from Long Island, Mellman phoned environmental companies to get one on site so he could safely pump out the contaminated water. By the time he arrived, the building’s electrician was on site, working with Con Ed to cut the power from the grid. And trucks were ready to pump out the water. But because it was contaminated, the top layer had to be skimmed off and hauled separately to a water treatment plant. Representatives from the Department of Environmental Conservation advised building staff on how to safely remove the water.
In the days ahead, the staff would face two overwhelming challenges: finding gas to keep the generators and pumps running, and finding available material and contractors. Every night, staff members drove to Pennsylvania in search of gas. Staff members searched for materials as far away as Virginia and Ohio. “My men went way beyond the call of duty,” says Falk. “Most men would have quit and walked away.”
Meanwhile, the board and management desperately tried to keep residents up to date. But with everyone staying in hotels or with friends, communication was difficult. The staff scrambled to create an e-mail list, but many residents felt left out of the loop. “We were trying to get information out to shareholders, but it was difficult,” says Guerin, who stayed in the building for several days before ultimately checking into a hotel.
After four days, enough water had been pumped out of the building that workers could don waders and respirators and assess the damage. The stench from the mold, oil, and sewage was overwhelming. So was the damage. An electrical fire had destroyed the electrical panels. The laundry room was destroyed, as were the storage lockers that housed tenants’ belongings. Anything porous – clothes, books, and photographs – would have to be thrown out.
Residents lost wedding dresses, photo albums, winter clothes, and, in one case, four fur coats.
“I saw a signed A-Rod uniform tossed into a dumpster,” says Mellman.
To the horror of many residents, their subterranean storage was not covered by individual insurance policies. The building had its own insurance headaches. A few days into the cleanup, Orsid retained a public adjuster to help walk the building through the dizzying insurance claim process. Located in Zone B, the building had limited flood insurance. The $3 million in damages will ultimately be covered by a patchwork of claims from the building’s flood, hazard, environmental, and casualty insurance policies.
“We have the daunting task of having to document every penny spent,” says Mellman, who supervises the management of other properties in Orsid’s portfolio as well. Twelve Orsid properties lost power during Sandy.
Once the water was removed, staff began to repair the building. Electricians worked round the clock to install temporary wires that Con Ed was then able to reconnect to some of the feeder cables, providing a temporary fix until new service equipment and new feeder cables could be installed.
An elevator company confirmed that the elevators were spared, although some damage had been sustained. A temporary boiler was brought in to provide heat and hot water. The basement and garage walls were cleaned and repainted, and air samples were taken to make sure the air was safe to breathe.
During all this time, Falk ordered his workers to vacuum the hallways and keep the common areas clean. On November 11, just 12 days after the storm, residents were invited back home. “I am thrilled to death. Imagine a building completely incapacitated in every single way and now we’re back in two weeks,” says Guerin. “It was miraculous.”
By mid-January, the building was slowly returning to normal. The residents had working elevators, heat, and electricity; gas for cooking; a fully functional boiler; new compactors; new staff uniforms; and a brand new laundry room was nearly complete. The garage reopened in mid-December with a new operator.
The building has retained an engineer to consider ways to protect the building from future damage, including installing a generator or moving the garage entrance. But the changes may ultimately have to come from city policy, as there was little the building could have done to brace itself for this kind of storm.
“The magnitude of the water was overwhelming. It’s going to have to be a government decision about what they can do to protect the city from this kind of flooding,” says Neil Davidowitz, president of Orsid Realty, about changes to building design.
In hindsight, those involved with saving 200 East End Avenue credit the exhaustive efforts of the staff with the building’s miraculous recovery. Falk worked for a month straight without a day off. Others, including Mellman, didn’t go home to their families for a week.
Falk, who ended up in the hospital with the flu, says: “Christmas and Thanksgiving have been forgotten this year. I just want to get the gas and the parking garage ready, and then I can start living my life again.”