New York in the teeth of a hurricane – heroes and errors

Volunteers have made heroic efforts, but why didn't the evacuation start earlier?

Just after eight o'clock, Hurricane Sandy made landfall along the eastern seaboard – and so did the "storm surge", the vast swell of water the storm was driving before it. 8pm was high tide in New York, and the full moon further added to the water bulk – the dreaded co-incidence of factors that made Sandy so devastating.

Peter Meijer Jr, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, was in Brooklyn when the storm made landfall, at a shelter for people who lived down near the river. He was with Team Rubicon, a volunteer organisation that works with disaster management agencies to use the skills and expertise of military veterans in crisis situations. “It was kinda crazy out there,” he tells me.

“There were just two of us going out, we went to a couple of different shelters checking on conditions. One woman told us her husband lived in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn. Apparently they had been in [evacuation] zone B” – not the compulsory evacuation zone – “so a lot of people didn't evacuate because they weren't expecting sea levels to get high enough. But the surge came out there pretty brutally. There were cars underwater. If you had a one-storey house...”

“It was kinda crazy out there. So this lady came up to us, said her husband was out there, he's old, it's hard for him to get around. She keeps coming back to us, saying the water's getting higher, he's going to the attic. We tried to get her to call 911, but they were overloaded.” Meijer's two-man team set out into the storm for Gerritsen Beach at 9.45pm.

At about the same time, the Lower East Side of Manhattan was really feeling the force of the same surge. Water advanced through the streets, rising higher and higher. It rushed into tunnels, flooded the Subway – which has never happened before – and even poured into the deep building-site pit at Ground Zero. Around ten, people started reporting that they had seen an eerie green flash in the sky. It was caused by a spectacular explosion at the ConEd electricity transformer on 14th Street, and it and other blow-outs like it plunged most of lower Manhattan into darkness – but NYU hospital had back-up generators in its basement.

For two hours, the water level continued to rise. A little after midnight, it peaked. As it did so, water from FDR Drive leaked into the basement of NYU hospital. Just like the 14th Street transformer, they blew up.

At around the same time, Peter Meijer and his Team Rubicon mate were wading into the waist-deep water at Gerritsen Beach. “Some dude out there had a little row-boat – a local resident, he was looking for his brother – and we joined up with another guy who was looking for his father, and we went into this waist-deep water looking for people who needed to be evacuated,” he tells me.

In Manhattan, one of the engineers at the NYU hospital, John* was also in the water at that moment, trying to stem the flow of water into the hospital's basement. “I was in the water, I was down there when they blew. The generators downstairs – when the generators blew, they actually blew a hole in the wall. All the water came in. We tried to stop it; but there was no stopping it. It was...” he gives a rueful grin, exhaustion written on his face, his eyes bloodshot. “Traumatic.”

Upstairs, all the lights in NYU hospital went off. What followed was a truly heroic evacuation of more than 200 patients. Nurses manually worked the air-lines for premature babies as they carried them down from the NICU. Doctors carried patients down dark stairwells before fire crews and NYPD arrived to help.

Amir Paydar MD, a resident radiologist, was there. “I made three trips, carrying patients down seventeen flights of stairs, before the fire department arrived and took over,” he tells me, stood outside the hospital in the cold light of the following day. “it was dark – it was... like war in there.”

The hospital administration called in backup after the electrics went, and people came in droves to help – including medical students and research fellows, all helping to move people in almost-pitch darkness and transfer them to hospitals all across Manhattan.

I speak to two more doctors outside the hospital who decline to give their names. They tell me that they had been called in to help after it became clear that the management felt there was a good chance the back-up generators might fail. “Last year [before Hurricane Irene struck], they evacuated everyone from here two days before.” I ask why they didn't this time. “Couldn't say.”

Paydar, a radiologist, is worried for his department. “Our CTR scanner is completely shot, MRI scanners, gamma knife – each one of those MRI machines is worth millions of dollars, and they're all in the basement – under water, completely submerged.”

John, the engineer, is very critical of the hospital's management. “It was not well organised,” he tells me. “No planning ahead. Everyone's really angry [with management].” In 2011, when Hurrican Irene threatened the city, NYU hospital was evacuated two days before the storm. This time, there was no such evacuation.

I speak to James*, another employee at NYU hospital, standing outside in the rain. “On the news, they want to blame [electricity company] ConEd.” He makes a skeptical face, so I ask him if he blames them too. “No. Their 14th Street generator was completely underwater.” Then who does he blame? He glances back at the hospital. “It's... not my place to say. But maybe if it had been evacuated earlier...”

“I think they did everything they could,” says Paydar. “It's a natural disaster. You can't predict everything. Maybe if we could have predicted the generators were going to go out...” He tells me that doctors have been informed of four patient deaths related to the loss of electricity, though the hospital could not be contacted to confirm or deny this.

Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, Meijer and his small band were battling hellish conditions. “Winds were up to 70-80 miles an hour. We were getting blown every which way. The storm surge was moving vehicles into the road – it was very powerful.”

“We stopped at the guy's father's house, we checked on the other guy's brother's house – but then we went to the last house, the guy who's wife was at the shelter – and we found him, hiding out in the attic with his dog – called Buddy – and we brought him back to the shelter. It was really amazing.” Meijer and his team spent half the night searching for people as the surge receded.

The fire and police services, at the height of the storm, were receiving ten thousand 911 calls every half an hour, so the assistance that these volunteers were giving was a godsend to those trapped. The water levels rose by much more than predicted, and many were trapped.

“It was amazing to go out there and see all these New Yorkers going from house to house seeing who needed help,” Meijer says.

Outside the NYU hospital, in the cold light of the post-storm Wednesday afternoon, James lights the last of his packet of Marlboro Golds. His face is sallow. He's been there since Saturday, he tells me, and spent the previous night wielding a torch for emergency services and doctors to see by. Now, all he wants to do is go home. “But my locker is in the basement. My wallet and keys...” he laughs. “They're under twenty feet of water.”

*Some names in this piece have been changed

The Brooklyn Battery Tunnel flooded after the storm surge. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Why orphanages are not the answer to Hurricane Matthew’s devastation

For this year’s New Statesman Christmas charity campaign, we are supporting the work of Lumos in Haiti.

Two weeks after Hurricane Matthew made landfall, I found myself driving along the Haitian coast, 40 miles north of Port-Au-Prince. The storm had barely impacted this part of the country when it hit in early October. There were a few days of rain, some felled trees, and locals complained that water ate away at the beachfront. But nothing remotely comparable to the devastation in other parts of the country.

In an odd turn of events, I found myself traveling in this relatively untouched central zone with two young American women – missionaries. “And there’s an orphanage,” one pointed out as we zoomed by. “And here’s another one too,” the other said, just on the opposite side of the road. They counted them like a memory game: remembering where they’ve popped up, their names, how many children are housed within their walls.

The young women spoke of the neglect and abuse they witnessed in some of them. No matter how “good” an orphanage might be, it simply cannot replace the love, attention, and security provided by a safe family environment. “And it doesn’t matter if the kids look OK. It doesn’t mean anything. You know it’s not right,” the younger of the two quietly says. She was a volunteer in one that cared for 50 children at the time. “Most people who live and work in Haiti don’t like the orphanage system. We keep getting them because of Americans who want to help but don’t live in Haiti.”

In the quick mile of road that we covered, they identified nine orphanages. Two of the orphanages housed less than 10 children, six averaged around 40 children. One housed over 200 children. All but one was set up in the months following the 2010 earthquake. There was a significant increase in the number of orphanages across Haiti in the next four years.

The institutionalisation of children is still the go-to response of many Western donors. US funders have a quick and relatively cheap access to Haiti, not to mention an established history of support to orphanages with nearly seven years’ investment since the earthquake. Many local actors and organisations, international NGO staff, and others in the child protection sphere share the same fear: that many new orphanages will crop up post-hurricane.

But it’s not just orphanage donors who do not understand the true impact of their interventions. Humanitarian relief workers have a gap in institutional knowledge when it comes to best practice in emergency response for this particular vulnerable group of children.

Nearly two months on from the hurricane, rain and flooding continue to hamper humanitarian relief efforts in the south of Haiti. Over 806,000 people still need urgent food assistance and 750,000 safe water, and 220,000 boys and girls remain are at risk, requiring immediate protection. But what about the virtually invisible and uncounted children in orphanages? These children cannot line up to receive the food aid at relief agency distribution centers. They cannot take advantage of child-friendly spaces or other humanitarian services.

We must find a way of reaching children in orphanages in an emergency, and bring their situations up to an acceptable standard of care. They have the right to clean water, food, medical attention, education, and safe shelter – like all other children. But therein lies the catch: orphanages cannot just be rehabilitated into perceived best options for vulnerable families. A balance must be struck to care for institutionalised children in the interim, until family tracing and reunification can occur. Simultaneously, families must be strengthened so that they do not see orphanages as the only option for their children.

We know that nine orphanages per mile does not equal a good emergency response. Housing children along an isolated strip of road segregates them from their families and communities, and violates their best interests and their human rights.

Since I visited Haiti last, Lumos, in partnership with the Haitian government and local partners, has documented over 1,400 children in 20 orphanages in the hurricane-affected South. Vulnerable families have been strengthened in efforts to avoid separation, and we are working with the government to ensure that no new children are placed in orphanages.

We are all worried that, without concerted messaging, efforts to raise awareness among donors, relief agencies, and families, the orphanage boom will happen again in Haiti. And though Haiti is susceptible to natural disaster, its families and children shouldn’t have to be. In seven years we cannot find ourselves repeating the same sorry mantra: “and there’s another orphanage, and another, and another. . .”

Jamie Vernaelde is a researcher with Lumos, based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: @jmvernaelde

This December, the New Statesman is joining with Lumos to raise money to help institutionalised children in Haiti return to family life. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, funds are needed to help those who have become separated from their families. Please consider pledging your support at http://bit.ly/lumosns

Thanks to Lumos’s 100 per cent pledge, every penny of your donation goes straight to the programme. For more information, see: http://wearelumos.org