Sandy strands elderly in New York highrises

A woman arrives at Seward Park High School, which is doubling as an evacuation center for Hurricane Sandy, on October 28, 2012 in New York City.

New York’s skyline is world famous, but many who admire it don’t realize that a lot of those skyscrapers are people’s homes. For homebound elderly in high-rises, the loss of power and elevator access after Hurricane Sandy is a matter of life and death.

The City is stepping up efforts to distribute food and water to those most in need. Nonprofit groups are also hard at work, among them Citymeals-on-Wheels, based in Manhattan. They’re making thousands more deliveries than usual and are eager for more donations and volunteers to fill urgent needs.

Among the volunteers answering the call Thursday were Emery Rosansky and Eric Blumenfeld. The pair was immediately given an assignment. Staffer Sheila Clay showed them the eight-pound boxes they’ll be hauling to homebound elderly. They’re filled with food that doesn’t need refrigeration or reheating: tuna, crackers, canned vegetables, apple sauce, even cookies and teabags. There’s enough in each for three meals.

Then Clay tells them where they’re going, to several addresses in Manhattan that lack power. One number sticks out on the address of their first delivery: 25. That’s the floor they’ll be taking the stairs to.

They walk from the nonprofit’s fully-lighted offices into the powerless part of Manhattan. The pair lives downtown, without power, but it’s still jarring to cross over into a realm of broken traffic lights and shuttered businesses.

“You’re going from a city with full power and everything that New York’s supposed to be into just 1800s, except maybe with cabs,” remarks Eric Blumenfeld as they walk below 40th Street.

It’s not a long walk to the building, but the journey upwards looms.

“Right now it seems like the tallest building I’ve ever seen, which is not true,” Emery Rosansky says as she cranes her neck up at the high-rise. “It’s just because I know I’m gonna walk up it. It feels intense.”

Back at Citymeals-on-Wheels, staffers are taking calls and trying to get food where it’s needed. Some clasp phones to both ears like frenzied bond traders. Their normal work feeding homebound elderly can be hard on its own. Throw in broken elevators, madhouse traffic and sporadic communication and it’s even tougher.

“We are seeing challenges that we’ve really not seen in years and years,” executive director Beth Shapiro says.

Some of the vehicles they rely on aren’t available, so many deliveries are made on foot, by volunteers. For Hurricane Sandy, Shapiro especially prizes the young and fit, willing to climb the stairs of the tall buildings that lack electricity.

Slender and youthful, Rosansky and Blumenfeld fit the bill. But 25 flights is no picnic even for those who exercise. Plus, there are no lights, so they take the dark stairs deliberately, aided by a flashlight. The staircase turns out to be hot and stuffy. They gradually strip off their outerwear on the way up, but are still warm.

Rosansky points out that unlike Blumenfeld, she doesn’t runs marathons. And indeed, he seems barely winded once they finally reach the 25th floor. Not so with Rosansky.

“I can’t breathe,” Rosansky gasps. “But I’m psyched we’re here.”

“And down will be better,” Blumenfeld adds cheerfully.

The hallway is pitch black, but a flashlight-aided examination of doors soon leads them to the home of Jerald Lefkowitz, who lives alone with dogs Morris and Jake. They bark loudly, clearly thrilled for visitors.

Lefkowitz is grateful for the delivery and shares a few words with the volunteers who dragged up his meals. But he looks tired and they don’t want to linger. In any case, they have to walk 25 flights down and head to the next delivery, where a mere 15-flight climb awaits them.

Mark Garrison: At Citymeals-on-Wheels in Manhattan, volunteers Emery Rosansky and Eric Blumenfeld are getting their assignment from a staffer, who shows them what’s in the eight pound boxes they’ll be hauling.

Their first delivery is on the 25th floor. They’re taking the stairs.

Out on the street, we cross into the powerless part of Manhattan. The walk to the building isn’t far, but we’re all thinking about the walk up.

Emery Rosansky: Right now it seems like the tallest building I’ve ever seen, which is not true. It’s just because I know I’m gonna walk up it. It feels intense.

And it’s intense back at Citymeals-on-Wheels, where they’re making thousands more deliveries than normal. Executive director Beth Shapiro says broken elevators make their job feeding homebound elderly even tougher.

Beth Shapiro: We are seeing challenges that we’ve really not seen in years and years.

The non-profit can’t get enough donations, or volunteers like Emery and Eric, who are walking those 25 dark and stuffy flights of stairs.

Garrison: Ok, Eric, where are we now?

Eric Blumenfeld: We’re at the 15 floor, only 10 to go.

Cheerful guy, a marathoner, it turns out, so he sounds a lot better than Emery and I do once we’re finally on the 25th floor.

Rosansky: I can’t breathe, but I’m psyched we’re here.

Blumenfeld: And down will be better.

At the end of a dark hallway is the apartment where Jerald Lefkowitz rests in his bed. He lives alone with dogs Morris and Jake.

Jerald Lefkowitz: Oh, thank you. It’s very nice of you people.

Twenty-five flights down and the volunteers are back on the street, looking to their next upward hike.

Rosansky: Only 15 floors this time.

They hop into a cab, and they’re off to the next hungry older person, in a powerless building, high above the streets. In New York, I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter for Marketplace and substitute host for the Marketplace Morning Report, based in New York.

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