Seeking Shelter from the Storm | Teachers College Columbia University

Skip to content Skip to main navigation

Seeking Shelter from the Storm

The TC Reading and Writing Project has raised more than $60,000 for schools affected by Hurricane Sandy. For former staff member Stacey Fell, the work seems all the more urgent after a week living without some basic comforts
The TC Reading and Writing Project has raised more than $60,000 for schools affected by Hurricane Sandy. For former staff member Stacey Fell, the work seems all the more urgent after a week living without some basic comforts

By Joe Levine

Stacey Fell (Ed.D ’05) is quick to tell you that she and her family are among the lucky ones.

“We were able to come home, while others weren’t,” says Fell, who scrambled to find water, gasoline, medical care for her ailing daughter, and, ultimately, shelter during a harrowing week that followed Hurricane Sandy. Her odyssey, which evolved over a period of days, like a train wreck in slow motion, illustrates the different ways that New York City has been split into two worlds since the storm, and how people have become isolated and deprived of basic needs even as they move daily among others who are unaffected.  The experience has also made Fell, an eighth grade humanities teacher at Tompkins Square Middle School on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a committed supporter of Literacy Lifeboats, an initiative launched by Lucy Calkins and the TC Reading and Writing Project to help schools hard hit by Sandy.

Fell, who wrote her TC dissertation on curricular responses in the aftermath of 9/11, is a former TC Reading and Writing Project staff member. She and her husband, Brian, an architect, live with their three young children in a tenth-floor apartment at Seward Park Cooperative, a group of buildings in lower Manhattan that were built during the 1960s for union workers. Her mother, who recently underwent knee replacement surgery, lives across the street, in a 13th floor apartment in the same complex.  (The New Yorker magazine recently published a piece on an elderly woman living in Seward Park who was marooned in her apartment after the storm.)

“Part of why what happened to us is so upsetting is that in our regular, taken-for-granted life we have access to services like reliable heat and hot water, trash pick-up,” Fell says. “I live in a building that functions, and when my kids need a doctor, I just call and go. But very quickly after the storm we were put in touch with struggles that are way too familiar for many people. Our temporary struggles quickly put me in touch with the day-to-day world of many of the adolescents I teach.”

The Seward Park complex is directly adjacent to, but not actually in, a Zone A high-flooding area of the city. Water did not turn its streets into rivers, as occurred on Avenue A and parts east. But the buildings did lose power at 8 p.m. on the Monday night that the storm hit after an explosion at the Con Edison plant on 14th Street.

At that point, Fell says, she believed that she and her family were well relatively well prepared.

“A lot of these buildings have electric water pumps. We’d received an email before the storm from the building manager, saying, it’s likely we’ll lose power and water, so fill up your tub and sinks – and we’d done that.

“At first, we were thinking, well, come on, how long will things really be out? My husband and kids and I do a lot of camping, and we said, OK, we’re in good shape, we’ll be good sports, we’ll take the stairs.”

Of course, taking the stairs meant going up and down another 13 flights across the street to check on Fell’s mother, whose phone didn’t work and who couldn’t receive texts.  By Wednesday morning, when the Fells ran out of water, it also meant carry containers up from the hydrant that the local fire department had opened on a nearby street.

“Once we ran out of water, it really became much more difficult – going up ten flights of stairs, carrying heavy containers of water, with three kids, in the pitch darkness,” Fell says. “And outside there were no stores open and no toilets working.”  

Things snowballed quickly when, on one particularly difficult trip up the stairs, Fell’s five-year-old daughter wet her pants.

“I yelled at her for having an accident, which is not something I would do under normal circumstances,” Fell says ruefully. “But I was having trouble keeping the kids clean, and I was feeling increasingly stressed by the whole situation. And then I realized my seven-year-old, Cornelia, was getting sick. And it was getting colder, and one by one, everyone on our floor in the building was leaving, except for one elderly woman whom we were helping. We went very quickly from ‘let’s be good sports’ to ‘we can’t do this.’”

 The Fells helped Stacey’s mother to relocate uptown to the assisted-living apartment of an elderly relative. Then, fortune smiled on them: a friend in the Jackson Heights section of Queens who had an extra car said, in essence, if you can get here, you can take it. They did, and on Halloween night made their way to the Upper West Side, where a teaching colleague of Stacey’s offered them showers, the use of his washer and dryer, and the opportunity to go trick-or-treating with his children. 

“It was the first time I’d seen my kids smile in days,” Fell says. “They were a family of five – otherwise we would have stayed with them, and I’m sure they would have had us anyways.” 

Plans were for daily return visits, and the Fells headed back to their car for the return drive to the Lower East Side. And that was when their troubles really began. No sooner had they pulled away than Brian noticed that the car was nearly out of gas. A cabbie told them that there was no gas to be had in Manhattan, and directed them to a station in Queens, just across the Queensboro Bridge. But the pumps there were empty as well. Finally, just around midnight, after driving around Queens, the Fells pulled into another shuttered station and tried their luck at one of the pumps. Miraculously, it worked and they were able to fill their tank – and within minutes about 20 other drivers pulled in and began pushing and shoving to get access to the pump.

At around one in the morning, the Fells pulled up at the home of their friends in Jackson Heights – but as they were carrying their children into the house, they discovered that Cornelia was glassy-eyed and running a high fever.
Now the quest was to find a doctor – and that proved a much tougher task.

“We called our own pediatrician, whose office is in lower Manhattan, in the morning, but he was gone,” Fell says. “We called doctors in Jackson Heights, and they were sympathetic, but they were under-staffed, and they couldn’t see her. Finally we realized: We have a tank of gas. So we drove upstate and stopped at a hospital in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and sure enough, she had a staph infection – probably from being unable to wash her hands after using the bathroom. They gave the children juice and sandwiches. And then we spoke to one of our neighbors from back in the building, and it turned out her parents had a house in West Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where they and another family from the building were already staying.  There were already five children and three adults staying in the house, but they told us of course, we should come.” 

The Fells took refuge at the house, with its pleasures of lights, heat and company. Cornelia revived as the antibiotics kicked in, and a few days later they drove back to New York.

“By then, we had power and cold water, if not heat,” Fell says. “I was anxious to see my mom, and I knew the kids would be glad to get home.  And by then, we’d gotten a flood of calls from friends asking, where are you, what do you need.

“And that’s when our thinking shifted to, What can we do for others?”

In particular, Fell started thinking about her students, most of whom live in flood zone areas and, a week after the storm, were still without heat or hot water. On her first day back, about a third were absent. She spent the day talking with those who were there about what had happened and was still happening.

“That was when Lucy called me,” she recalls. “She’d gotten the idea for Literacy Lifeboats. And I said, yeah, there’s a real need. We agreed that I would look through my students’ writing and see which students wanted to be interviewed to get the word out. Lucy sent Project staff developers and graduate students down to our school to document our situation on video.”

For Fell, the experience of surviving Sandy with her family will always remain bittersweet. On the one hand, she is dismayed by what she feels was an inadequate response by city, state and federal officials.

“When we were getting water from the fire hydrant, people were so grateful – it was so much easier than standing in long lines at supermarkets that were selling the last of their bottled water. But at a certain point, I thought, really – this is the best we can do? It took such a long time to get the National Guard and FEMA down here. And of course, it was far worse out in places like Breezy Point.”

On the other hand, the empathy she’s seen among those afflicted by the storm has been uplifting.

“After our building’s power was restored, our older neighbor came by with a bouquet of flowers, to thank us for helping her, and she just dissolved into tears. It was one of several times I saw people release their feelings like that.”

It was also “really inspiring,” she says, to see Literacy Lifeboats raise more than $60,000 for schools – and to watch her students become excited by the idea of helping other people.

“I said, if we can get our stories down and share them through the Literacy Lifeboats website, it will motivate other people to help. And they were excited to realize that just by sharing their own experiences and perspectives, they could move people to make donations and help others.

“It was very empowering for thirteen-year-olds to get involved like that, even the ones who were most affected. Because you can always find someone who needs more help than you do.”

Published Monday, Nov. 12, 2012


More Stories