Sandy Cripples The East Coast

11.01.12

Inside the NYU Refugee Camp for Displaced Students

Slumber party or living hell? With power out in most of lower Manhattan, NYU students were forced to evacuate their dorms and bunk together. Inside the makeshift hurricane-relief center.

Budding doctors, actors, stock traders, lawyers, and writers all had a slumber party Wednesday night.

New York University
People play board games in an East Village restaurant on Wednesday in New York City. (Abby Haglage)

When Sandy ripped through Manhattan earlier this week, it left most of lower Manhattan ravaged, flooded, and, most lastingly, without power. Below 39th Street, most buildings remain dark, including many of those owned by New York University, the city’s largest academic institution. Approximately 12,000 NYU students live in 21 NYU residence halls spread across Manhattan. As of Wednesday afternoon, seven of those buildings were running with emergency lighting and water, but the majority of the other buildings were completely without power, leaving university administrators scrambling to provide safe shelter for approximately 6,000 of its charges.

The solution: forced sleepovers and a veritable university refugee camp.

Beginning Tuesday night, hundreds of students flocked to the Kimmel Center, NYU’s student life building on Washington Square Park, to receive hot meals, charge their phones, contact worried relatives, and claim prime location on various floors of the nine-story building for their sleeping bags. By Wednesday afternoon, after administrators ordered the evacuation of 12 residence halls, that number was closer to—if not above, according to estimates—a thousand. Blankets, overnight bags, sleeping bags, pillows, iPads, books, and students were splayed throughout the building.

“It looked like the Superdome did during Katrina,” said John Surico, an NYU senior who writes for the university’s news blog, NYU Local.

While NYU, impressively, sustained “virtually no” damage, NYU Vice President of Public Affairs John Beckman tells The Daily Beast that how to accommodate students going on 48 hours without power became a pressing issue. Beginning at 3 p.m. Wednesday, occupants of seven residence halls who couldn’t find housing with friends or family elsewhere in the city were ordered to evacuate for the night and sent to Kimmel, where power from NYU’s co-generation plant kept the lights on, wifi working, water running, and the building heated. Five additional buildings were paired with five dorms that still had power—or at least emergency lights and electricity. Students in those buildings have been forced to open their doors to strangers.

“People are staying in our rooms on the floor,” says freshman Cameron Noble, who lives at Goddard Hall, NYU’s smallest dorm, forced to host stranded students because it was one of the only buildings with power. “Some might have to stay in the hallways.”

As students huddled in the neighboring Bobst Library, which also opened its doors to students to charge their phones and laptops, the Kimmel Center was transformed into a hurricane-relief center. The second floor became a de facto health center, replacing the university’s closed facility on Broadway. The third-floor cafeteria was redecorated with fold-up tables while workers served pasta salad, chicken, and sandwiches out of large aluminum trays. Displaced faculty occupied the eighth floor. “Basically, Kimmel is just a conglomerate of all NYU services packed into one building,” Surico said.

Freshman dorm Weinstein, just across the park from Kimmel, was also serving three meals a day, while fitness center Palladium, located on Union Square Center, was opened for hot showers. No one can be certain when power will be restored to the dorm buildings; NYU already preemptively canceled all classes through Saturday and warned students that, though they can return to their dorms between the hours of 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., they should be prepared to leave again every night until power is restored.

The mood among the suddenly homeless students ranged from upbeat to resigned to downright annoyed.

Assorted members of the gathered crowd, stepping through the sprawled students, webs of power cords, and heaps of paper plates lying on the floor, offered diverse first reactions: “This shit’s crazy! F you, NYU!” “It’s legit like a refugee camp.” “This is honestly a huge, drunk orgy.” “It’s not perfect, but it’s as good as it’s going to get.” Or, “Dude…this is money.”

For some students, it was an "anywhere but here." vibe. Nick Guerrero, a junior, was a resident of one the evacuated dorms, Lafayette. Without power since Monday night, Guerrero said he was lucky enough to know people off campus so he wouldn't have to brave the jungle of sleep-deprived students.

“There are just rows and rows of cots,” he said. “You gotta just find a place and make yourself comfy, I guess." When asked what it's like to be homeless at your own college, Guerrero seemed coolheaded. "It’s frustrating, but I’m just trying to roll with the punches.”

"This is honestly a huge, drunk orgy."

Others, like sisters Elizabeth and Michelle Yang, a senior and junior, respectively, opted to head to Kimmel on Tuesday night because their off-campus apartment had no electricity—“We took a shower in our sink…I smell weird now”—and they heard Kimmel had power, Internet…and a party. “It’s anarchy, kind of a free for all,” said Michelle. “It’s fun!” The sisters stayed until 5 a.m. watching Game of Thrones on their laptops. A family member offered refuge in Brooklyn, but they opted to join the Kimmel camp. Said Michelle, “It’s like a giant sleepover!”

It’s an apt comparison. Bags of chips were being passed generously among new compadres. Movies were being shown on a giant screen; Wednesday afternoon’s offering was The Princess Bride. There were giggles. Lots of giggles.

But for junior Kelsey Sidebaum, who stopped by to recharge her electronics from her powerless East Village apartment, nothing about the situation was appealing. “I could not possibly fathom sleeping at Kimmel,” she said. “The thought of that is just absurd. The students are here because they have no energy to go anywhere else."

As the sun set Wednesday, the outside of Kimmel became increasingly rowdy—it was one of the few buildings downtown with power and, like moths to the neighborhood’s light, students and neighbors began gathering to see if they could access it. Food trucks even started to pull up outside.

Despite the chaos and the occasional disgruntlement, there’s an air of appreciation among displaced students who realize that, given the circumstances surrounding them throughout New York City, things could be much, much worse.

“The thing that strikes me is that [students] are just so grateful. I mean, they’re grateful for hot food and a place to sleep, and that we have a staff here. It’s not easy. They’re sleeping on the floor. But I appreciate their goodwill,” Kimmel’s evening operations coordinator Elaine Fludgate told NYU’s student paper, Washington Square News. “Kimmel will most likely be a home for students, so that’s how we’re preparing.”