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East Harlem Explosion Aftermath: Displaced Families Are Separated in Shelters, Refuse to Return to What Govt. Agencies Deem 'Safe' Apartments

First Posted: Apr 07, 2014 02:53 PM EDT
East Harlem Explosion -Displaced Families

Photo : John Moore/Getty Images

East Harlem Explosion Aftermath

Photo : John Moore/Getty Images

The tragic East Harlem explosion that destroyed two buildings, killed eight and injured more than 60 people on March 12, continues to bring more heartache, separation anxiety and financial hurdles for displaced families, many who are a part of the Latino community. 

"We have been very much involved in making sure that the residents get back to normalcy and get back into their apartments as quickly as possible, and get those businesses back to business as quickly as possible," Ayo Haynes, assistant secretary for Community Board 11 (East Harlem where the explosion happened) and the vice chairperson of the Land Use Committee, told Latin Post.

Two weeks ago, there was a closed-door meeting with displaced residents and many of the governmental agencies that are in charge of getting them get back into their apartments.

"I was shocked to learn there were so many people who were displaced after the explosion," Haynes added. "Maybe because the focus of the media has been mostly on those who have lost their lives. I didn't realize how devastated the families were who lived in those buildings -- there are about five buildings or so in the immediate area.

"A lot of them have been sent to different shelters, some have had their families split up because the shelters could not handle them all at once. There is a disconnect between what the families believe is a ready apartment to go back to, and what the government agencies deem safe for people to move back into. They were very frustrated with that gap that exists because it is really hard to try to rationalize how a family can go back into an apartment that has no windows, or that has glass strewn everywhere and children still have to live in that apartment." 

Haynes explained that many displaced families have a good point, saying that if they had glass in their apartments to this extent or any other unsafe situation present Children's Services could come take their kids away. "So how can you tell me that it's OK to now bring my kids back into the same unsafe situation?" the displaced families said.

"Many of the apartments don't have cooking gas either. So, we're a long way from getting those families into their apartments, in a way that makes sense, she said. "We should all be actively involved as fellow East Harlem residents in demanding that those government agencies move faster. Those who are able to advocate for those residents should."

What are the possible solutions to help displaced families get back in their apartments?

Upset about what she learned of the current situation of the displaced families, Haynes has personally written letters to the government representatives in attendance at that closed door meeting and to her colleagues urging them to help.

"After that meeting, I had so many ideas of how they can move a little faster and how to get other people and groups involved and volunteering," she said. "It's not just about the monetary fundraising or clothing donation; it's also about helping businesses from all around NYC find ways they can contribute and one of  my ideas is to have businesses donate their services and goods.

"For example, a construction company volunteers their time and they rip up smoke damaged carpets which are obviously problematic for anyone -- especially asthmatics, and then they or another firm donate goods by laying new carpet. That would be an enormous help in getting displaced residents back in their homes faster. " 

Haynes, who is also a Lic. Real Estate Associate Broker and a life-long East Harlem resident, attended the Harlem Helps Benefit on April 3 at Ginny's Supper Club, hosted by celebrity chefs: Marcus Samuelsson (Bravo's Iron Chef, Food Network's Chopped), Aarón Sanchez (Food Network's Chopped), Amanda Freitag (The Cooking Channel's Unique Eats) and Barbuto's renowned chef, Jonathan Waxman. 

She pointed out that Community Board 11 also held a successful, more politically-oriented fundraiser on March 31 called the East Harlem Building Collapse Fundraiser, which cost $25 for entrance, whereas the Harlem Helps Benefit was $175. Haynes added that while it's great to have fundraisers be accessible and affordable to all, there is more action that needs to be taken.

"It's now time for companies to donate service hours from their workers, and/or donate goods," Haynes stressed.

East Harlem's Latino Population

"East Harlem -Spanish Harlem- is traditionally, heavily Latino. Certainly we are a more diverse community these days," she said. "African-Americans have been in the area for a very long time and now you have a lot more families from South America as well. Everybody has been devastated and of course the Latino community, just by the sheer numbers." 

"The Community Board (CB11) is very diverse that way as well with Latinos and African-Americans," Haynes adds: "it's a fairly even split on the board. The beauty of East Harlem is that we are a working class community and we care about each other."  

According to the AP, many of the victims were Latino: Griselde Camacho, 45, a security guard at Hunter College; Carmen Tanco, 67, a dental hygienist who took part in church-sponsored medical missions to Africa and the Caribbean; Andreas Panagopoulos, 43, a musician; Rosaura Hernandez, 22, a restaurant cook from Mexico; George Ameado, 44, a handyman who lived in one of the buildings that collapsed; and Alexis Salas, 22, a restaurant worker. Another victim, identified by the Mexican government, is Rosaura Barrios Vazquez. The eight identified victim was Mayumi Nakamura, 34, a Japanese citizen.

$40 Million Lawsuit Filed Against New York City for Negligence

In addition to the displacement of many residents after the blast, the first family --out of the eight who lost their lives-- is seeking justice by filing a lawsuit.

The family of a Griselde Camacho who was killed in last month's East Harlem explosion notified the city Wednesday (April 2) that it intends to file a $40 million lawsuit against the city for negligence, according to the New York Daily News.

Camacho, 45, was a security guard at Hunter College. The lawsuit also will be filed on behalf of Camacho's mother, Carmen Quinones, who is still recuperating from her injuries at Mt. Sinai Hospital.

"She lost her daughter, her home, all her possessions. She has memory issues, staples in her head, a broken arm held together with pins and a grandson visiting her who looks like a deer in headlights," their lawyer," David Lesch told the New York Daily News on April 2.

According to Lesch, when he "eventually files a full lawsuit, Con Ed and Quinones' landlord will also be named as defendants because anyone with possible notice of gas leaks is liable. The claim says the city failed to respond to complaints from area residents who reported for weeks that they were smelling gas in the streets."

Con Edison has made compensation payments to nearly 90 survivors and residents displaced by the fatal explosion in East Harlem, CBS Local reports.

"Con Ed spokesman Robert McGee said the company made 87 payments to people who were injured or lost their homes."

The National Transportation and Safety Board's initial inspection revealed small gas leaks below the pavement at 116th St. and Park Ave., which lead to the horrific March 12 explosion that destroyed two buildings, killed eight and injured more than 60 people.

Check out more of Latin Post's East Harlem coverage:

Harlem Helps Benefit Raises $55,000 for Displaced Families With the Help of Food Network's Aarón Sánchez & Marcus Samuelsson

Celebrity Chefs Sizzle Up Support at the Harlem Helps Benefit with Gourmet Eats & Good Tunes

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