Setting Up ‘Home’ Inside an Evacuation Shelter

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Madeline Ortiz and her husband and three children are staying at M.S. 118 on the Upper West side. They were reside at a homeless shelter on the Lower East Side, which was evacuated.

Some people who fled their homes in Lower Manhattan, hunkering down in a city evacuation center, moved again after the power went out Monday night. They’re now staying at a school on the Upper West Side, trying to make the best out of the situation as they wait for the all clear to go home.

Middle School 118 opened on Sunday as an evacuation center for Upper West Side residents and homeless people in need of help during Hurricane Sandy. But by Tuesday, it became a haven for Lower Manhattan residents who were bused from a shelter after downtown lost power.

City officials said the shelter, at Seward Park High School, continued to rely on generator power but they wanted to give the residents other options. So about 100 adults and children were bused to M.S. 118 starting Tuesday.

The displaced downtowners were lying on cots Wednesday morning, covered with blue blankets. Some older children played video games while the younger ones worked on art projects for Halloween.

“They keeping the kids busy,” said Madeline Ortiz, 44, who was bused to the shelter Tuesday with her husband and three children. “They gave us clothes — to the kids, not to the grownups. The kids they gave the toys.”

Barbara Russell, a visual artist who had come to volunteer, got the children to “doodle to the beat” using recycled DVD covers and paper. Their supplies were augmented when other volunteers who went out to buy crayons, colorful post-it notes and stickers. A seven-year old girl showed off a bright pink purse she made of paper and Mini Mouse stickers.

Dozens of volunteers wearing bright-orange vests had come to the shelter to help out. City employees who couldn’t get to their offices had been encouraged to go help out at one of the city’s 76 shelters, more than 60 of which are in public schools. Marjorie Allen, a school counselor at Metropolitan High School in the South Bronx, stopped by Wednesday to help. “I’m in the neighborhood and I’m grateful my family and everybody is safe,” she said, as she offered her services to site coordinators.

Naomi Mark, a social worker with the city’s Human Resources Administration, also stopped by to help.

But despite the warm welcome, several residents said they were cold at night. “We were in here freezing last night,” said Tabetha Searles, 43, who brought along her two teens. “My son has asthma. I heard the children in there coughing all night, I heard the elder people coughing.”

A Department of Homeless Services spokeswoman said the school has heat, and that it didn’t receive any complaints.

Searles was evacuated from the Baruch Houses on the Lower East Side. But many of the residents had been staying in homeless shelters before going to Seward Park, and then moving to M.S. 118. Ortiz said living in a shelter with three children is tough, but that all the moving had given her a new perspective. “I’d rather be there now than here, so I learned now to appreciate things.”

“If anyone’s interested in volunteering they should come here and see if there’s a need for their help,” Upper West Side Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal said, adding that the Brandeis High School complex is also serving as a shelter.

Some local residents are helping out in other ways for Halloween. Eight year-old Sadie Nipon came by with a bag full of costumes.

“We brought, like, princess dresses and Spiderman and Batman and then we brought, like, books for the kids to read,” she said.

Sadie Nipon is a fourth grader at the Manhattan School for Children, which is located at M.S. 118. She came with her two brothers, her mother, and a couple of schoolmates. It was their second visit in two days. The kids seemed excited to be helping out other children.

But Sadie and Michael Seifert, who’s in 6th grade, had mixed feelings when asked if they were upset about missing class and eager to go back to school.

“Kind of, kind of not,” said Sadie. “Because if we lose too much [school], I kind of want to go back to school. But I also don’t!”

“It’s not like snow days where you can go outside and sled,” said Michael. “It’s fun, I’m happy we don’t have school.”

(Photo: (Left to right) Zane, Sadie and Will Nipon plus Michael and Yanai Seifert brought Halloween costumes to the children staying at M.S. 118. Beth Fertig/WNYC)

With the public schools cancelled for the rest of the week, that means Sadie and Michael will have more time to volunteer.