By Brandon A. Beach
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
CONEY ISLAND, N.Y. -- When Hurricane Sandy barreled into Coney Island on the night of Oct. 29, it left an entire community in the dark.
With high winds and a 15-foot storm surge, Sandy stranded many Coney Island residents, a majority living in high-rises, without power, heat or hot water. At Coney Island Hospital, the basement flooded from floor to ceiling, shutting down the entire 371-bed medical facility. It has yet to reopen.
Within two days of Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, at the request of the city, issued a tasker to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to install a two-megawatt generator at the hospital. So began the Army Corps' emergency power mission in Coney Island.
"It's one of the biggest generators in FEMA's inventory," said Elton Choy, an electrical engineer with the Army Corps New York Recovery Field Office.
Three days later, the Army Corps would install a 480-kilowatt generator, backing up the hospital's emergency power grid as construction crews mobilized to gut the basement and begin repairs.
"The [hospital's] transformers were completely destroyed by water," said Choy.
Three of the Army Corps' power teams have deployed to New York City in the nearly seven weeks since Sandy. Those teams have come from Pittsburgh, Tulsa, and, most recently, Honolulu districts. Additionally, Soldiers from the 249th Engineer Battalion (Prime Power) out of Fort Belvoir, Va., began arriving soon after Sandy to assess facilities and install generators, as needed.
"We go in and drop a generator, so the facility can continue to function," said Geoffrey Lee, power mission manager for the Army Corps New York Field Recovery Office. "Meanwhile, the state and city are working on their end to get their services back up."
In the two-and-a-half weeks following Sandy, the Army Corps installed six generators in Coney Island and an additional 99 at locations in Queens, Brooklyn and Manhattan. As of today, most of these generators have been de-installed, as facilities complete repairs and return to commercial grids. Three, though, remain in Coney Island, supplying around-the-clock power and helping a community get back on its feet.
"It enabled us to feel human again," said Connie Hulla, pastor of the Coney Island Gospel Assembly, of the FEMA-generator sitting at the corner of Neptune Avenue and West 29th Street providing power to the church.
One day after Sandy, volunteers at the Gospel Assembly, which serves as a kind of ad-hoc distribution center for the needy, began passing out food, blankets, and bottled water.
"We have always fed, sheltered and clothed," said Hulla. "People here have lived in crisis even before this disaster."
Like the hospital two miles away, water seeped into the church's basement the night of Sandy and wiped out the daycare, kitchen, several offices and the electrical panels.
"The water came up to the top step and stopped a quarter of an inch from the sanctuary," said Hulla. "Any more and we would have lost the entire church."
Instead, the sanctuary was spared, and within days, became the central hub of relief efforts in Coney Island, a place where volunteers from the American Red Cross, Operation Blessing, Mercy Chefs, Doe Fund and others would gather. Despite not making a single phone call, Hulla said supplies just started showing up.
"We had to start right away. We were under candles in the beginning. In order to move products inside the church, we needed a chain of 25 people passing one box after the other up the stairs," said Hulla.
Since Sandy, more than 3,000 people visit the church every day. The relief center operates around the clock, providing food and other aid to the community. In the last several weeks, it has moved from the sanctuary to the church's adjacent parking lot. Trucks continue to arrive with supplies, still without Hulla making a single call.
"Light is hope. People gravitate to the light," said Hulla. "Thank God for that generator; otherwise, we'd still be in the dark."