On March 12th, 2014 eight East Harlem residents lost their lives, an estimated 70 people were injured and dozens of families were displaced when a supposed gas leak resulted in an explosion that leveled two residential buildings. A month has passed since the East Harlem explosion and since then the community has seen a show of support from other residents of New York City.
However, there has been a pouring in donations to help those displaced, those who lost someone, some of the survivor are still feeling a sense of displacement and slightly ignored by the city. In a story reported in El Diario, some families are still suffering in the aftermath of the explosion. Some residents are finding that the city has abandoned them in light of originally coming out and promising to help them.
Advanced New York City—an organization aims on getting the community to support public programs in areas including the environment, youth development, financial empowerment, health, volunteerism, and the arts—and Safe Horizon—victims’ services agency that aides an estimated 250,000 children, adults, and families affected by crime and abuse throughout New York City—have been tasked to aid the survivors and those affected by the explosion yet those who need aid are saying that they have received little to no help from the organizations and have not received any answers to questions if asked.
Since the tragedy, Advanced New York City—which is directed by Chirlane McCray, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife—has received an estimated $330,000 in donations. Because of the donation Safe Horizon was appointed by the city to distribute the funds to the 16 displaced families, including several business owners within the affected area, but according to those affected there hasn’t been any true help.
One such victim who feels he is being ignored is Carlos Pérez, who once lived on the top floor of 1646 Park Avenue.
“They said that help was on the way but that they are still gathering and organizing it. They didn’t even say what type of help we would be receiving or when,” said Pérez, a 48-year-old from the Dominican Republic, “I cannot just stay still. I need to start moving on. I cannot wait any longer.”
Not home when the incident occurred, Pérez was already gone from the apartment he shared with a friend a half hour before the explosion. Since losing his home, Pérez has been living in a piano factory located in the Bronx where he works because he has yet to receive the necessary help to find a new place of residence. Having filed applications with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development to find a new home, Pérez’s journey has been unsuccessful.
The HPD is a municipal agency that is tasked with providing victims with support and temporary housing. However, according to the HPD since Pérez’s name was not on the lease along with his roommate there is no registration proving Pérez was a dweller in either one of the two buildings.
But registration upon the lease was not the only thing keeping Pérez from finding a new place to call home.
“I was told that I did not qualify for a subsidy because I make $46,000 a year, and that they could not assure me that I would be able to get housing in the city,” said Pérez, citing that another reason for his lack of support and aide was due to his earnings.
The HPD currently has a list of 12 registered tenants who once lived in either one of the two buildings. And out of the 12 families, 5 are now in temporary housings, 5 have found new housing for themselves, but only one resident from this tragedy has found a new permanent place to call home.
However, for Carlos Carabajo the month long journey was a long and nearly did not result in its favorable outcome.
Prior to finding his current place of residence, Carabajo, aged 52 and from Ecuador, comments on how the first residents the HPD wanted to place him into were not of his liking or anyone else who has suffered like he has.
“I declined two offers because the apartments and the buildings where they were located were in terrible condition,” said Carabajo. “The floors were very old and had leaks. In one of the apartments, a strong smell of marijuana came from next door. I was not willing to live under those conditions.”
For Carabajo the process in finding a new home was long and difficult. It wasn’t until last week that Carabajo accepted a house offered to him by HPD. An offer that nearly didn’t happen due to the HPD also claiming that Carabajo’s income was far too high in-regards to the city’s limits for those to qualify for housing subsidies.
But housing placement aside, what victims like Carabajo and Pérez are also encountering is a lack of financial assistance despite a great deal of donations and charity launched to aid the East Harlem residents.
According to some victims, Safe Horizon has yet to give financial assistance to survivors. Meanwhile, one victim has stated that after finding a new home on his very own Safe Horizon gave him about $1,500 purchase new furniture. In-addition to the offered assistance, the unidentified man has said that they were also given one month’s rent and a security deposit.
While donations have been collected for victims, victims of the explosion are also noting how Con Edison has stepped in to make contributions to getting the resident’s back up on their feet. According to several victims, Con Edison has given between $2000 and $6000 in support to those injured and displaced. The money has also been given to aide with emergency expenses.
But residents are not the only ones who are suffering during the aftermath of the explosion.
Some business located around the leveled buildings are struggling to stay afloat in an area trying to recoup and are feeling also abandoned by the city that once welcomed their business. One such business owner is Mounir Nasd whose restaurant was badly damaged by the explosion and is on the verge of losing everything he worked for.
After the explosion, Nasd’s Kiosk Restaurant was forced to be closed for three weeks which left him losing large amounts of food and a great deal of financial loss. When Nasd turned to the city for help, the city did little to help the business owner who opened his restaurant several years ago.
“The federal and city authorities asked me to be patient. They did very little to help me recover my business, which I opened seven years ago,” said Nasd.
Having to pay a total of $27,000 from his own pocket in order to repair damages to his restaurant, the only assistance that Nasd received from the city was a check for $2,500 from Con Edison. The check did very little to help make up the $30,000 his business lost in sales during the time his restaurant was to remain closed.
“The city agencies are in constant communication with us, but the help they provide is limited to counseling. We small-business owners still haven’t seen any concrete solutions,” said Dimitri Gatanas, owner of a gardening supply store called, Urban Garden Center that was also impacted by the explosion.
“This area has not been declared a disaster area. That makes it harder for victims and other people to obtain the help we need,” Gatanas said, trying to make sense of why there has been little aid being provided to the neighborhood.
Feeling like they are being unheard and ignore by the city it is understandable that Carabajo and several other residents of the now destroyed block are taking the city to court. According to the residents’ lawyer, Stavros Sitinas a claim has been filed and will seek to gain compensation for the victims who have lost both materials and beloved family members.
One such family suing the city is the family of Hunter College Security Guard, Griselde Camacho. The family is seeking about $40 million dollars in their lawsuit against the city. $20 million dollars is compensation for the loss of Griselde Camacho and another $20 million dollars is to aide Camacho’s mother who was badly injured because of the explosion.
“If NTSB—also known as the National Transportation Safety Board, which is a federal agency that is in charge of investigating transportation and pipeline accidents—finds that the city and Con Edison were negligent and are responsible for the explosion, I would be surprised if they did not reach a quick settlement,” said Sitinas, confident that if there was a gas leak as suspected the victims will receive needed compensation.
“We are talking about people who have lost everything and are only asking for what is fair. No more, no less,” reminds Sitinas.
Some good news comes a month after the disaster.
Carmen Quinones, the mother of Griselde Camacho, had an emotional reunion on Friday with FDNY Firefighters who pulled her from the smoky rubble of her building. Hugging each of the firefighters from Rescue 1, Quinones could not hold back tears as she thanked the men who saved her life during a press conference at Mount Sinai Hospital.
“I’m working,” Quinones said, “I’m trying to get better. I had to work a lot for so many people, but most of all my Lord.”
Today, Quinones is expected to be released from the hospital and will be with her family.
It was only a month ago, but each and every day that passes the residents of Harlem–the victims of this explosion–are still coming to terms with what happened. There is a sense a loss–from the loss of a home to the loss of a loved one–that may never be forgotten but hopefully in time healing will make it easier to move forward. Until then, hopefully the city will begin to do more. Hopefully, the city will do as promised and help the residents, the survivors, of the Harlem explosion.