Testimony

The impact of Hurricane Sandy on New York City public schools and students

Testimony of UFT Staten Island Borough Representative Emil Pietromonaco before the New York City Council Committee on Education

Good afternoon Chairman Jackson and members of this distinguished committee. My name is Emil Pietromonaco, and I am the Staten Island Borough Representative for the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). On behalf of UFT President Michael Mulgrew and our entire membership, thank you for this opportunity to testify before you today.

The ripple effects from Hurricane Sandy were felt far and wide by the schools in my borough of Staten Island as well as in parts of Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. Dozens of school buildings were flooded or damaged, and tens of thousands of students were displaced. In the weeks after the storm, many schools hosted the staff and students from the damaged schools, sharing their buildings and supplies in what can only be described as an extremely cordial and collaborative effort during a difficult time.

Many children were also displaced from their homes and lost all their belongings; some remain in temporary housing to this day while others have left the city for points unknown. Some schools saw huge impacts on their student populations. For example, more than 60 percent of the students at PS 38 and PS 39 on Staten Island were displaced from their homes. At New Dorp High School, more than 365 students and three dozen staff members suffered property losses. Even now, our teachers are still seeing students who don't have the proper winter coats, clothes, food or school supplies; they try to help out whenever and wherever possible.

School staffs were severely impacted by the hurricane as well. More than 10,000 UFT members had homes and cars in Flood Zone A, and several thousand were in need of urgent assistance in the days after the storm, many of them sustaining extensive property damage. The level of need was so high that the union set up its own hotline to field the calls for assistance. Our Member Assistance Program has also helped hundreds of members through their mental and physical health issues related to Sandy. Also, tragically, two of our teachers lost their lives in the storm.

We often talk about how the strength of our union is defined not just by our members' hard work, but also by their dedication and commitment to helping others. In the days and weeks after the hurricane hit, thousands of UFT members were part of a wide-ranging relief effort that helped get New Yorkers back on their feet and students back in their classrooms.

Our members did it all. They travelled by the busload to hard-hit communities to clean out damaged homes and hand out donations. They climbed the steps of darkened high-rises to bring aid to elderly residents and shut-ins who were without food or medicine. UFT member nurses pulled consecutive 16-hour shifts during and after the storm to stay with their patients, aiding in their evacuation and safe relocation. Some UFT members collected donations, books or money for Sandy victims. Others distributed dozens of mattresses, box springs and bed frames to those who had lost homes. Still others hosted holiday dinners for displaced families, or knit scarves and other warm weather gear for hurricane victims. That kind of community work went on for weeks, with the UFT working hand in hand with Councilman Recchia and other elected officials to help the many thousands of New Yorkers in need.

Our members also packed and delivered 30,000 backpacks stuffed with school supplies for children in storm-battered neighborhoods — a massive project made possible thanks to the leadership of Speaker Quinn and her staff. Students at more than 150 schools and shelters benefited from this initiative. In addition, with the support of the nonprofit organization, FirstBook, and our national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers, we delivered 30,000 brand new books to kids and schools to replace books damaged or lost in the storm.

Getting damaged or flooded schools back up and running was also a top priority. Teams of UFT staff, led by our union's Safety and Health Department, fanned out to the schools immediately after the storm. Together with the UFT members already working at schools that served as evacuation shelters, these union members and staff surveyed the school system for problems.

They quickly ascertained that buildings housing approximately 200 schools had sustained damage during the storm, with more than 50 experiencing significant flooding, structural damage or plumbing problems as a result of Sandy. More than 80 had lost power. The UFT worked closely and collaboratively with the DOE's Division of School Facilities and the School Construction Authority throughout this inspection process.

At a number of schools, flooding that reached eight feet or more poured into basements and wrecked oil tanks and pipes, which in some cases caused oil leaks. Beach Channel High School in Queens had 30,000 gallons of oil leak into the building's basement and seep out into Jamaica Bay. Coney Island's PS 288 had thousands of gallons of oil coating its basement and first floor.

The flood water along with the sand that washed into some schools also destroyed other physical plant machinery, including electrical components, heating and air conditioning units, electrical panels, ventilation systems, exhaust fans, motors and ductwork. This was the case at PS 52 on Staten Island, which had more than 500,000 gallons of seawater pumped out of its basement. Even PS 126 on Catherine Street in Lower Manhattan saw its basement and crawlspaces completely flooded. The sand was so deep in Coney Island's PS 329 that crews carted out the equivalent of 10,000 sandbags.

The storm left many schools with damaged walls and floors, waterlogged sheetrock, and ruined furniture and supplies. Everything from copy paper to library books was lost. PS 42 in Rockaway, Queens needed sheetrock and ceramic tiles ripped out of their hallways, classrooms, cafeteria and more, while both PS 114 and PS 256 in Queens lost their school stages to Sandy’s destruction. At PS 329, PS 188 and Scholar's Academy in Brooklyn, the school gymnasiums were ruined. PS 52 and PS 90 in Brooklyn each had cement-block walls destroyed by the overwhelming force of the storm surge.

The damaged schools have all been dried out and brought back into operation. All but five were reoccupied just before the December break; the remaining five were reopened by Jan. 11.

Still, the effects of the storm linger. As of late January, 22 schools were still using temporary boilers for heat and 12 were using generators for electricity. Another 36 still did not have phones. These ongoing challenges have required schools to institute new safety protocols such as fire watches because the fire alarm systems are inoperable. We are still getting calls to investigate possible odors and mold conditions.

The UFT is continuing to work in our schools and communities to help New York City recover from Hurricane Sandy. In addition, the New York City Teachers Retirement System has pledged $1 billion to new investments in infrastructure projects, including improvements to transportation, power, water, communications and housing in New York City and throughout the tri-state area.

The Council has been outstanding in its efforts to support residents and help neighborhoods rebuild. We urge the Council and others to continue that commitment in the months ahead. While most people have been able to return to their ordinary routines since Sandy, many of our students, teachers, nurses and others are still trying to recover. Our schools also still need help — including capital funding to replace damaged operating systems and walls, and money for supplies, books, furniture and other items lost to the storm. Thank you.

Read more: Testimony
Related topics: Hurricane Sandy
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