A man put his cigarette between his lips and lightly jogged over to hold open the shelter door. Two women, Michelle Tampakis and her daughter Panagiota, were delivering muffins, 600 in total, to the NYC Tech College—currently the closest evacuation center to the partially flooded neighborhoods of Red Hook and DUMBO. The muffins arrived in boxes from Tampakis’s local bakery, after a client couldn’t pick them up due to the storm.
“Donating them to a shelter was my daughter’s idea,” Michelle said.
But a day after hurricane Sandy flooded the streets of Red Hook—a low-lying port neighborhood neighboring the East River, and containing the Red Hook Houses, the borough’s largest housing project—washing away not just sandbags but uprooting trees and leaving cars afloat, just a handful of people had sought out shelter from the city.
The college in Downtown Brooklyn has a capacity of nearly 8000 people, according to an Office of Emergency Management spokesperson, but the most recent tally on Tuesday morning counted only 75 evacuees at the shelter. In the lobby, roughly a dozen staff members sat in reflective vests with campus police—walkie-talkies clipped to their vests, a half a dozen flashlights resting on foldout tables.
As residents assess the damage from the flood, it’s possible that number could rise over the next few days.
Drizzling in fits and starts, some evacuees stood outside smoking next to banners reading “EVACUATION CENTER” in all-caps and in seven languages. Other evacuees were optimistically returning home. Edwin Ruic, 42, came to the shelter earlier this morning after passing a sleepless night with his wife and daughter in their Red Hook apartment. “I was worried something bad would happen so I came here,” he said. “My neighbors said the water had come all the way up to here,” pointing to his waist. Nevertheless, he and his family were returning to their apartment near Dikeman Street after a brief stay at the shelter. “We’re on a higher floor,” he said.
Shelter staff didn’t allow reporters beyond the entrance, but at least a half a dozen volunteers were turned away over the course of an hour. Kathleen McDonald, 61, a would-be volunteer who lives in the area, asked the staff if any of the other 18 Brooklyn shelters might need extra volunteers. She was told they did not.
A young evacuee from Red Hook, who declined to give his name, stood outside finishing a dark green, brand-less bag of chips—the kind of food supply you’d sooner see on a camping trip than on a Downtown Brooklyn sidewalk. He had spent the night with his mother and sister and said the shelter was comfortable. “They give you food that you can heat up with water and this salt powder,” he said. He was waiting for his mother and sister so they could also leave the shelter and see the state of their apartment.
Tampakis and her daughter left the shelter as quickly as they came. Her Red Hook bakery, the Whipped Pastry Boutique, is still flooded, she said, so she’ll use her other kitchen, near Schermerhorn Street in downtown Brooklyn, to fulfill her usual 1,800 muffin-a-week routine.
For Red Hook and its residents, however, it’s unclear when a normal routine will set back in.