Sandy Especially Tough On Vulnerable Populations It's been four days since Superstorm Sandy battered the Northeast U.S., flooding towns and coastlines and knocking out power to millions. Concern is growing for the elderly and the physically disabled, many of whom remain isolated in cold, dark homes without assistance, food and running water.

Sandy Especially Tough On Vulnerable Populations

Sandy Especially Tough On Vulnerable Populations

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It's been four days since Superstorm Sandy battered the Northeast U.S., flooding towns and coastlines and knocking out power to millions. Concern is growing for the elderly and the physically disabled, many of whom remain isolated in cold, dark homes without assistance, food and running water.


Alejandra Ospina, disability activist
Marianne McCune, reporter, WNYC
Joseph Shapiro, investigative correspondent, NPR


Three days after, some towns and cities remain under water. Millions can't turn on the lights. Transportation is better but still a mess. Amid all the problems, the elderly and physically disabled face special challenges. Many remain stranded in cold, dark high rises, in nursing homes, adult care facilities, worried about food and medicine and water. Some rely on electricity to power ventilators or recharge wheelchairs. If you or someone you know with a physical disability got hit in the storm, what happened? 800-989-8255. Email us: You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We begin in Tribeca in New York City with Alejandra Ospina. She's a local disability advocate and joins us by phone from her home. Nice to have you with us today.

ALEJANDRA OSPINA: Hi, Neal. Thank you so much for having me.

CONAN: And what's your situation right now?

OSPINA: We are in a high-rise building in Tribeca on Dwayne Street. I live with my partner, Nicholas Dupree, who is ventilator dependent. He is also a disability activist. We are not in an evacuation or flood zone A or B. We were in zone C. We didn't expect to lose power, although we were prepared as we possibly could be. We have lost power and water. We lost those things on Monday night. So what we've been doing, with the help of our community, is having people go up and down 12 flights of stairs to charge two ventilator batteries at our local fire stations. They do have a functioning generator. So that is what is keeping Nick alive currently, literally.

We have a battery swap coming up in about 15 minutes. And we have other members of the community bringing us car batteries and marine batteries, which can also power a ventilator and all the other medical equipments that we have. But we're low on those two. We're - we've got a couple of dead car batteries sitting around, so we're waiting for some folks to contribute more to that.

We had some issues with people around us, trying to, sort of, force evacuation, which in a lot of situations would be a good idea. But with someone - like Nick who's medically fragile. There are a lot of complications to an evacuation to a hospital. And as you probably know, several local hospitals were evacuated themselves because they lost their generator power so - and it became really important for us to keep Nick safe here and in place. He has nursing care 24 hours a day. The transit shutdown on Sunday night has made that difficult, however, because his nurses come from as far away as New Jersey and Long Island to Downtown Manhattan.

CONAN: We know some of that subway service, those transit services are back up but not as far downtown as where you are. And I'm - I think we can hear Nick Dupree there on the ventilator nearby. How's he doing?

OSPINA: Nick, how are you doing?



CONAN: That's good to hear. So as you look ahead, it could be days, even longer, before power is restored.

OSPINA: I'm really hoping that we don't go further than Saturday. But if we do, we still have our collective of folks willing to go up and down for us. We have - we're doing pretty well on supplies of fresh water and food. As long as we have batteries that can power feeding pumps and humidifiers and the like, we can keep chugging, which is why we know that we can take care - better care of Nick at home than if he were evacuated, which would be dangerous. I'm also someone who uses a wheelchair, and that would also complicate things a lot.

So we're doing the best that we can. We just had a new friend come deliver us stuff that will help us hopefully get back online. Self-service has also been spotty because towers have also been down, so it's actually really fortunate that you got me on the phone in the first place.


OSPINA: We were also convinced that we'd be good to go because we have a landline, but there's not a single functioning landline in our building, so that was a bit of a surprise.

CONAN: And you described both you and Nick Dupree as advocates. Have you been able to get in touch with others? Are people in your situation sort of there on the end of a string?

OSPINA: We were able to send someone out to a friend of ours, who is in a building on 21st Street, also without power for four days, to do sort of a well-being visit and do what she needed and maybe bring some provisions. So we're going to try and see if some of the folks who've been helping us out can help her out because we've had people come from as far away as Boston to bring us batteries and the like. So we're trying to spread the resources around, but I know that we are not the only one. She is clearly not the only one.

I'm - I know that there are many people in the area. I have a friend in the Rockaways who I haven't heard from, another on Long Island, who I haven't heard from, both wheelchair users. So there are many people that we are concerned about, and we don't know if they have this bit of support network as we do, which we were lucky to get. I mean, we have - we've had people reach out to FEMA and OEM on our behalves. But really, the only on-the-ground assistance that we've been able to get is from local community members. Even the fire folks across the streets, they're kind enough to let us borrow their generator, but they're also overtaxed. So they can't really provide direct assistance.

CONAN: Well, hang in there. We wish you the best of luck.

OSPINA: Thank you so very much.

CONAN: Alejandra Ospina, a local disability advocate in New York, with us by phone from her home in New York City; any number of similar stories around New York City and other areas affected by the storm, particularly in Connecticut and in New Jersey, older residents, those with disabilities who remained stranded. Joining us here in Studio 3A is NPR investigative correspondent Joe Shapiro. Nice to have you with us as always, Joe.


CONAN: And joining us by phone from member station, WNYC in New York, is Marianne McCune, a reporter there for WNYC. And nice to have you with us.

MARIANNE MCCUNE: Nice to be here.

CONAN: And I know that you've met an elderly lady who had not been able to leave her apartment in a housing complex on the Lower East Side for a few days. How is she doing?

MCCUNE: She is doing fine. She's 87 years old, and she lives on the eighth floor of the LaGuardia Houses on the Lower East Side. And she had gotten supplies before the storm from her senior center, and then she had stayed home, you know, through the storm. And then they lost power and that means, as you've just heard, losing elevators, that the stairwell is pitch black. You have to feel your way down the stairs if you don't have a flashlight. No heat. It means there's no water in the building, and that means the toilets aren't flushing, for example, which is something that she was feeling a little concerned about by the time I met her yesterday.

But I was the first person to knock on her door. No one in her building had come and knocked, and none of her family members had been able to reach her. And the only reason I was there was because I got an email from a friend of a friend of a friend who said they knew somebody who was looking to make sure their aunt was OK. And so I got her address and went over to check on her, and she was actually in pretty good spirits.


MCCUNE: She wasn't looking to leave, but I did offer her my phone to call - to make some calls. And so we called her - my phone has not been working well either, as everybody is saying, my cellphone. But we managed to call her best friend, who was actually the maid of honor at her wedding 60 years ago who was in Harlem. And it's easier to call landlines sometimes. So they spoke and argued about whether she should leave or stay there, and she was very insistent about, well, where will I go? What would I do? And not excited about the idea of trying to walk down the stairs. She doesn't walk very easily. And she was just ready to stay put with - she had boxes of crackers. She said she was eating crackers and orange juice, and she had some other food. But she was very conflicted about leaving.

But I do have an update, which is that after the call to her friend - I think there was sort of a chain of phone calls - and that yesterday evening, her nephew picked her up and took him - took her to his house in Queens.

CONAN: How did she get down the stairs? She felt her way down?

MCCUNE: He - another - actually, another relative came and got her and brought her down the stairs.

CONAN: That's nice to hear. I'm glad she made it. Yet, there have to be suspicions. There are, well, probably thousands of people in circumstances like this.

MCCUNE: Absolutely. I've - since I've been telling her story and the stories of some of her neighbors on the air, people have been contacting me also to say, I think there are many other people in the situation out there. Sometimes it's volunteers saying, you know, if you know of people in that situation, we have groups of volunteers who are willing to help. But, yes, she can't be the only one.


CONAN: We heard Alejandra Ospina talking about she hasn't been - unable to get in touch with a friend who's in a similar circumstance in Rockaway. Well, we know, boy, that's an area that's been hard hit by fires in the northern part of it, but also power outages and floods. And there's a lot of high rises there. There's a lot of public housing.

MCCUNE: Right. And if you're a person without either of the physical or the mental or economic resources to deal with this kind of situation, even if you're not flooded - I mean, Margaret Maynard's building complex wasn't flooded, but just living with the electricity out when it's getting cold and, you know, after a few days, batteries run out.

And another thing that people have talked about is that the stores in the area, some of them are opening, but they're only taking cash because they don't have, you know, any electricity.

CONAN: Or connectivity, necessarily, to check on the credit card, yeah.

MCCUNE: Exactly. And it's EBT cards, the food stamp cards. A lot of people buy - are able to buy the groceries and things that they need with those cards, but they can't - they're saying that they can't use them at local stores. And I did see one Rite Aid open but was dark and with a big line outside, and they were just letting three people in at a time, and they did say they were only taking cash.

CONAN: As we mentioned, NPR investigative reporter Joe Shapiro is with us here in the studio. You've covered these kinds of situations and other crises.

SHAPIRO: Going back to Hurricane Katrina.

CONAN: And one of the lessons you would think people would have drawn from those: let's make a list.

SHAPIRO: Of who's where, right?

CONAN: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Right. Well, that doesn't get done and it's basic. If you know where people are, you can reach them. That's a basic part of preparing for these sort of things. Some places actually - some cities, some communities are starting to do that.

CONAN: And - I'm sorry. You're about to say something, Marianne McCune?

MCCUNE: I was just going to say that I know that - at least in some areas where people were being evacuated, where they weren't in the zone A, and those people who didn't - who refused to evacuate, I know that there were some lists made of those people, but Margaret Maynard was not in an evacuation zone and so - and I think as we - as everybody has been hearing in the last few days, nobody was prepared for the extent of what happened.


CONAN: That's Marianne McCune, a reporter for our member station WNYC in New York. Joe Shapiro of NPR is also with us here in the studio. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And if this is your story, if you or a member of your family's been stranded or somebody has got disabilities or is elderly with the storm, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us: And let's go to nearby Talkeetna, Alaska. Laura is on the line with us.

LAURA: Hi, there.


LAURA: I'm calling from Alaska. My parents are in New Jersey, and they had been without power since Monday night. My dad's 85, and my mom's 78. I haven't talked to them. My sister has seen them, but she has a house on the Jersey shore, and she is down there dealing with that. They are doing well as far as I know. There's no phone either. They do heat with wood so - and they have cook stove, wood cook stove. So when I listen to what I'm hearing about in New York City, it's quite scary for me, but I'm not that worried about my parents because they're very self-sufficient.

CONAN: That's good to hear, and especially that part about the wood cook stove and the wood heating stove. And Joe Shapiro, it's not like this is terribly, terribly cold. But after any number of days in a dark apartment, it gets wearing on you.

SHAPIRO: It gets wearing and you need support. We mentioned Hurricane Katrina. There's an epidemiologist who went back and looked at all the death certificates from Hurricane Katrina, the ones in Louisiana, and found that about half of the people who died were people 75 and older. So, in other words, those are the people that are more frail, they have more trouble dealing with an emergency like this.

CONAN: Laura, we hope your parents do well. Thanks very much. And I hope your sister's house did OK, too.

LAURA: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it. And, Marianne McCune, as you look at this - obviously, well, those kinds of statistics are not available for this crisis as of yet - but part of problem is, as you experienced, older people are sometimes very reluctant to relocate for any number of reasons.

MCCUNE: Absolutely. I mean, Margaret Maynard was very convinced she's going to be fine, and it was a funny conversation with her friend, Doris George, to say - they just kept coming back to this chorus of, well, what are you going to do? You can't stay there. And she just kept saying, what I'm going to do? I mean, she didn't want to go to a shelter, and she was - she didn't feel she was dressed appropriately to go somewhere in public. She had a lot of layers of clothes on because she was - she also was feeling a little bit cold.

One thing, I did speak to the - some of the people who are working with a group called Henry Street Settlement that actually runs the senior center that Margaret Maynard goes to. And they were, they have been - the senior center is closed, but they are giving out food across the street from it, and they're also - they do Meals On Wheels program regularly. But they're also trying to reach those people who are - who come - normally come to the center, but now can't come down because the elevators are not working.

CONAN: Yeah. Let's see if we can get a...

MCCUNE: And...

CONAN: Oh, I'm sorry. I just wanted to get one more caller in if we could.

MCCUNE: Of course.

CONAN: Let's get Mike on the line. Mike with us from Moosapin(ph), Connecticut.

MIKE: Yeah. How's it going?

CONAN: Good. Thanks, Mike.

MIKE: Yeah. Well, we only suffered an outage for about 24 hours. I use a wheelchair for mobility and I'm usually stocked up on batteries, you know, the regular stuff - food, water. Eventually, we ended up going to a hotel room for the evening just for the comfort of a warm shower and, you know, some television. But other than that, it really wasn't too bad up here. We didn't get it as bad as they did down on the coast and in the inner cities. Well...

CONAN: I think that's probably right. But at least, you prepared ahead of time to have extra batteries for your wheelchair.

MIKE: You go to. You got to.

CONAN: And, Joe Shapiro, that's something that, you know, we forget more and more, those wheelchairs are powered.


MIKE: The huge accessibility for me, you know, I don't get around without it so...


MIKE: ...that's something that you really need to plan for.

SHAPIRO: And some of that that might be an inconvenience for the rest of us not having electricity can be a matter of life or death, getting around, communicating for a person with a disability. There's actually a group called Disability Rights Advocates that actually has a lawsuit against the city of New York. They're going to try a month from today, and they claimed that the city hasn't - has not done enough to prepare for emergencies just like this.

CONAN: Mike, thanks very much. Continued good luck.

MIKE: Yeah. You, too. You guys have a nice day.

CONAN: Thanks very much. And our thanks again to Marianne McCune, a reporter at member station WNYC, with us from the studios there, and more from her later today on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Thanks very much for your time.

MCCUNE: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here with the look at how we can rebuild our infrastructure to survive the next big storm. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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