Ronda Kaysen in Building Operations on February 12, 2013
But by early evening, the winds had picked up and within minutes, everything changed. Tree limbs began to snap. Falk and co-op board president Elizabeth Guerin rushed to East 89th Street to check on a fallen limb. When they came back, water was filling 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 Runs Through It
River water rushed the driveway as even more water 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.
Staffers in the lobby could hear their colleagues screaming in desperation over handheld radios. When the staff ran downstairs to help, the basement was already inundated with three feet of water. They wedged open the door to the break room, where 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: the 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."
To see how the co-op board mobilized and recovered, read part two.
Photo courtesy Orsid Realty
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