NEW YORK -- The staff and residents of at least five nursing homes on the coastal edge of this storm-battered city were told by New York officials to stay put in advance of Hurricane Sandy, even though the facilities were in a mandatory evacuation zone and are just blocks from the Atlantic Ocean, according to accounts of those who work and live there.
As a result, hundreds of disabled, handicapped and elderly residents watched fearfully as one of the most severe storms in the city's history roared ashore, sending brackish water surging into the first floor of their buildings, flooding lobbies, basements and -- crucially -- backup power generators.
"It was like Niagara Falls," said a worker at Rockaway Care Center on Tuesday afternoon who was standing outside the building, a few feet from a huge pool of standing water. The worker, who declined to give his name, pointed to the high water mark, about four feet up the lobby door.
Inside, the water had torn apart interior walls. Sandbags that had been piled up outside were split open, their contents strewn about the lobby.
So why didn't they evacuate before the storm? "Call the mayor's office," an official at the facility said. "We were told to stay."
Rockaway Care Center and the other nursing homes are located on an 11-mile spit of land that extends out from the borough of Queens into the ocean. It is a poor and working-class neighborhood of public housing projects, high-rise buildings and two-family homes that few tourists ever see, but it has become an increasingly popular destination for native New Yorkers, drawn by its proximity -- a beach and beautiful wooden boardwalk at the end of a subway line -- and a handful of hip restaurants, such as the ramshackle summertime favorite Rockaway Taco.
When the storm hit, the entire peninsula suffered massive damage. Water surged in from the ocean to the east and from Jamaica Bay from the west, covering the entire landmass with at least four feet of water, according to residents. The boardwalk was completely destroyed and basements and homes were flooded. The nursing homes were surrounded by churning water, briefly cut off from all help or rescue.
As of Wednesday afternoon, there were no reports of deaths or injuries at the nursing homes. But the decision to keep residents in these facilities, even though the rest of the community was under a mandatory evacuation order, is sure to spark debate. Fourteen months ago, before Hurricane Irene came ashore, residents of at least some of these low-lying nursing homes were evacuated, according to reports published at the time.
On Tuesday, the official at Rockaway Care Center, who also declined to give his name, said city buses were expected to arrive by early evening to take the residents to an inland shelter.
The New York Office of Emergency Management did not return multiple calls or emails about the condition of the nursing homes, the status of the residents, or the decision not to evacuate prior to the storm.
It's not clear what happened to the residents of Rockaway Care Center, or another nursing home in the community, Horizon Care Center. The entire community is without power, water or any other services. Shops and restaurants are closed. Phone calls to the nursing homes weren't returned.
The Huffington Post confirmed that patients at Lawrence Nursing Care Facility were later evacuated to Brooklyn Technical High School, in a leafy neighborhood of brownstones near downtown Brooklyn, on Tuesday night.
On Wednesday, a city employee working the intake table at the shelter at Brooklyn Technical said that he was told another 50 residents from Seaview Manor, also in the Rockaways, were on their way -- nearly two full days after the storm hit. It wasn't clear whether they were just now being evacuated, and the account could not be independently verified.
Officials at the shelter set up in the high school declined to answer any questions about the number of evacuees staying at the facility, where they were from, or whether more evacuees were expected, instead referring all questions to the city's Office of Emergency Management.
In an informal tour of the enormous high school, which takes up most of a city block and is seven stories high, a reporter encountered hundreds of elderly and disabled New Yorkers. Unlike other shelters set up in the city, there were no families, or at least none were apparent.
The scene was orderly, with dozens of orange-jacketed city workers keeping order, assisted by volunteers from the community and nurses from the homes. In the cafeteria, seniors and mentally handicapped adults sat mostly alone, picking at a dinner of chicken and rice.
Frances, who said she came from Jamaica, Queens, lamented that it was difficult to eat her pear without her dentures, which she had left behind. She didn't recall her last name.
A few tables away, a woman started shrieking, thinking that she was about to fall backwards onto the floor. In a hallway, an elderly man on a ventilator lay sleeping on a cot under a blue blanket, his bare feet sticking out. Officials from an Ohio unit of the Department of Health and Human Services were also on hand, though they declined to discuss their specific role.
Residents and workers from the two nursing homes evacuated to here -- there may have been others -- said that the decision to leave should have been made before the storm, not after.
"They should have gotten us out sooner," said Freddy, a resident at Lawrence Nursing Care, who didn't give his last name. "We had no lights. We were using flashlights. The first floor was flooded. The generator didn't work."
Ronald Cox, a resident at Surf Manor Home for Adults in Coney Island, Brooklyn, said he was scared when the wind started buffering the building, and water poured into the lobby. "I guess they didn't think it was going to be all that bad," he said.
UPDATE: If you are searching for a loved one in a nursing facility, a spokeswoman for the mayor's office said to call 311. (If you live outside of the city, 212-639-9675).
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