Like so many nightmares, this one began with a phone call. Around 2 o’clock on the dead-of-winter morning of January 15th, the telephone rang on Asher Bernstein’s bedside table. He picked up the receiver and found himself listening to the agitated voice of his building’s superintendent.
Bill Bissell said, “Asher,
there’s a flood!
You better go take a look at 13th Street – it looks like the Hoover Dam opened up!”
Bernstein did as he was told. The president of the co-op board at Butterfield House, a 100-unit wafer of 1960s modernism wedged into a traditional New York block in Greenwich Village, walked to his window facing 13th Street and looked down. A wall of water was roaring westward from Fifth Avenue.
Good God! Bernstein thought. The building’s going to be swept away!
That – thanks to some quick thinking, hard work, and good luck – did not happen. But Butterfield House and many surrounding buildings were ravaged by an unpredictable, almost unthinkable, calamity: a 36-inch section of cast-iron water pipe, laid underground at Fifth Avenue and 13th Street in 1877, had failed. That failure sent water and silt pouring into the Butterfield House’s basement and underground garage, where all of the 56 parked cars and three motorcycles became a total loss. The water also ruined Bissell’s office and workshop, the gym, children’s playroom, storage lockers, and laundry room. The building lost running water, heat, and elevator and Verizon service. The electricity, miraculously, was unaffected.
For the co-op board and staff, the nightmare had begun.
Keeping Cool Under Water
Bissell, a native of Queens, has been the live-in super at Butterfield House since 1992. He heads a staff of 12 and knows the building’s systems intimately, which would prove invaluable in the coming hours, weeks, and months. He had weathered disasters before – flooding and blackouts, among others – and he knew that he was facing a triage situation. He also understood the need for grace under pressure. “You’ve got to try to deal with it with a clear head,” he says.
When the super heard rushing water in the early-morning hours, he thought it was raining heavily outside. A call from the overnight doorman alerted him that 13th Street looked like a miniature Hudson River. Bissell hurried downstairs and saw that the basement was in serious trouble – water cascading down the ramp from 13th Street, and coming down through the ceiling and up through the drains.
His first move was to check that the five elevators were unoccupied, then send them above the first floor and shut them down, safe from the flood. After that, he turned off the two pumps in the basement that send water to the roof tank, so that the system did not become overloaded. The fuse boxes were wet but functioning – because the water was fresh, not saline – and the fire department advised him it was not necessary to shut down electrical power.
Now Bissell summoned his 12 staffers and called Brenda Ballison of Douglas Elliman Property Management, who has managed Butterfield House since 2008. Ballison called the building’s insurance carrier, who promised to have a remedial crew on-site by first light.
As pumps began to deal with the eight feet of water, as well as the silt and sewage that had inundated the basement, Bissell and his staff set up a command headquarters in the lobby. They and the managing agent began dealing with repair crews and city agencies, and orchestrating the planned departure of many of the shareholders. The board alerted residents of the situation via the computerized Building Link communication system. Shareholders who didn’t own computers got a knock on the door.
“First and foremost is the safety of the residents,” says Bernstein, who, as principal with Lawrence Properties (and president of Bernstein Real Estate), had dealt with flood situations during Hurricane Sandy. “At first, people don’t grasp the gravity of the situation.” At the Butterfield House, for example, some residents wanted to know if they could go downstairs and do their laundry.
He urged shareholders to leave the building, and about three-quarters of them heeded that advice. Then he checked himself into a nearby hotel.
By the evening of the second day, enough water had been pumped out of the basement for Bissell and his staff to go downstairs and begin assessing the damage. The staffers stayed on duty around the clock for the first three days of the crisis, carrying five-gallon water pails upstairs so that the residents who remained in the 13-story building could flush toilets. They also ferried drinking water, food, and packages.
“The staff is the key to everything,” Bissell says. “You need manpower, and if you’ve got it, it makes an emergency that much easier to handle.”
Building systems returned to service piecemeal, and the staff went door to door making sure the running water was clear and lighting fixtures in vacated apartments had not been left on. Shareholders began trickling back into the co-op within five days, and by the end of January, most had returned to their apartments.
The building employees, Bernstein says, “were dedicated in a way that’s hard to explain. Without our staff, this building never would have gotten back on line as fast as it did.”
Easing the Pain
Disaster never strikes at a convenient time, but the timing of this one was particularly bad. Butterfield House had just begun an $8 million capital improvement campaign that will eventually replace all windows and heating and air-conditioning units, redo the hallways, install a backup generator on the roof, and increase the electric capacity available to each apartment. These upgrades were halted by this disaster, as were several major apartment renovations. But the building made a point to keep residents in the loop about the situation.
“We were in constant communication with the shareholders through BuildingLink... It minimized the anxiety,” says Ballison, the property manager. “It’s important to give residents as much information as you can. What you know, they should know. Be honest and open with the information you have.”
As it turns out, the Butterfield House was far from unprepared for this emergency. Several years ago, at the urging of Bernstein, the managing agent had put together “The Bible,” a document that contains contact information for all shareholders, staff, vendors, and the insurance broker, plus the proprietary lease, bylaws, house rules, and alteration rules. It also includes contact details for the technicians who service the building’s elevator, as well as electrical, plumbing, and garbage removal systems.
Creating such a directory is “the one thing I would urge all boards to do,” says Bernstein. “It’s the place you can go for all information.”
Matthew Liss, the board treasurer, adds that boards should know their population and make sure their managing agent is proactive in dealing with the issues.
Another key to preparation is reviewing the corporation’s insurance policy and making sure that shareholders’ individual homeowner policies are up-to-date and adequate. Disputes arose at Butterfield House, for instance, over coverage of living expenses for those who chose to leave the building. Some homeowner policies cover such costs only if the city orders an evacuation of the building, which did not happen in this case.
The job of rebuilding is expected to take three to six months. Once all the water, mud, and ruined vehicles and equipment were removed from the underground spaces, mold remediation was required. As the work progressed, the board discussed erecting a protective gate on the garage entrance to repel floodwater if such a freak accident should recur – or if a hurricane worse than Sandy hits. The members of this board, like so many New Yorkers, share the uneasy sense that it’s not a question of if, but when.
“I think the storms and bad weather are going to worsen,” says Bernstein. “The next episode is going to be different – equally harsh, but different.”
The city’s 19th-century infrastructure isn’t getting any younger, either, which leads the super at Butterfield House to believe that this was not a unique disaster. “I don’t think we’ve seen the last of the water main breaks, so it makes sense to be proactive,” says Bissell. “We don’t know where the world is going.”