Volume 81, Number 15 | September 8 - 14, 2011
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Photo by Aline Reynolds

Smith Houses T.A. President Aixa Torres, third from right, and volunteers were honored for their efforts during Irene by, from left, state Senator Daniel Squadron, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, NYCHA Chairperson John Rhea and Councilmembers Margaret Chin and (not pictured) Rosie Mendez.

Smith leader, tenants honored for a great Irene evacuate rate

By Aline Reynolds

As Tropical Storm Irene approached New York City last weekend, Smith Houses Tenants Association members diligently knocked on neighbors’ doors and warned them to evacuate the Lower East Side housing complex.

Through their unflagging efforts, Smith T.A. President Aixa Torres and a roughly 50-member volunteer group managed to evacuate almost 90 percent of the public housing development’s 1,920 residents. The impressive feat was cause for a special honorary ceremony held by local elected officials last Wednesday.

The politicians showered the volunteers with praise, and awarded them individual certificates for their good work.

“The fact that this wasn’t a tragedy at Smith Houses isn’t only because the weather had turned and it got lucky,” said state Senator Daniel Squadron. “This wasn’t a tragedy at Smith Houses because you did the work to ensure it wasn’t a tragedy. Congratulations for a job done extraordinarily well.”

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said, “While we’re all grateful that Hurricane Irene didn’t come with the severity that was predicted, what we did see was the spirit of compassion, the spirit of the community, and the spirit of generosity that we’ve come to expect from our fellow neighbors in Lower Manhattan.”

Squadron and Silver gave Torres and her team a state proclamation, honoring their achievement of the highest Irene-related evacuation rate of all New York City Housing Authority developments.

NYCHA Chairperson John Rhea said that Torres and her volunteer group set a precedent for the city’s public housing developments to aspire to in future emergencies. Rhea noted that not only did they alert tenants to the evacuation order on the Friday before Irene, but they also recruited volunteers and translators and coordinated the residents’ transportation to nearby shelters.

“We’ve blazed a trail for what it is to reach out and to make sure our fellow neighbors are safe,” he told Torres and her fellow volunteer tenants.

Councilmember Margaret Chin also presented the volunteers with a proclamation.

“We told the evacuees, ‘There might be danger. You have to take care of yourself and your family,’” Chin said. “Getting that information out was so critical early on.”

Torres appreciatively accepted the accolades and proclamations and said she sensed the urgency of NYCHA official Robert Knapp’s call Thursday evening before the storm to convene an emergency meeting the following day.

“For the first time, the responsibility of life and death really hit me,” said Torres after the ceremony.

On Saturday afternoon as Irene was getting nearer, the T.A. president took charge and assigned volunteers to do several evacuation rounds in each of the development’s 12 buildings.

As for the recognition, Torres said, “I’m feeling overwhelmed, and I’m definitely feeling really humbled.”

Mariainez Quinones, chairperson of the T.A.’s Grievance Committee, helped assemble residents for the emergency meeting before evacuating her elderly mother and seeking shelter with relatives in Nassau County.

“Everybody was very worried. We’re not used to things like this in this community,” said Quinones.

Raising awareness among her Smith Houses neighbors, she added, is something that comes “naturally.”

“I’m surprised they’d give me recognition for something I’d automatically have done,” Quinones said.

“Everybody was calm and cool, and cooperated real well,” said Robert Walker, who came all the way from Englewood, N.J., to help evacuate Smith residents on Saturday and clean up the development grounds on Sunday after the storm.

“This feels really good,” he said of being recognized for his efforts.

“I’d do it anytime,” the smiling volunteer said. “I care about my Smith people.”

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