Jeff Mays is a reporter/producer for DNAInfo covering Harlem. He has written about East Harlem after the March 12th gas explosion and sat down with me to talk about how the community is recovering six weeks after the tragic incident.
Collette Sosnowy: You’ve been covering East Harlem since the tragic explosion that killed eight people and injured many more. What has the impact of this disaster been on the neighborhood as a whole?
Jeff Mays: I think the neighborhood as a whole is still reeling from the loss of those eight lives. A lot of those people were known in the neighborhood, people recognized them, so I think the loss of life is probably one of the biggest issues they’re still dealing with. There’s still a boy in the hospital, Oscar Hernandez who’s recovering from his injuries. The prognosis is good and doctors are hopeful but he still has a long road ahead of him.
Also, one of the biggest impacts you can see in the neighborhood are that businesses are still struggling. There are some that have been able to re-open but not return back to normal. Other businesses have not opened and are waiting for insurance payments and payouts from Con Ed. Just walking around the neighborhood, it seems like everything is normal but when you take a look around it may not be. There are buildings still boarded up, you still see people stop to gawk at the site, you still see city officials around the site. The neighborhood has been greatly affected.
Collette Sosnowy: Obviously, the families that lived in those buildings or nearby are the ones most directly affected. Do you know are they doing at this point?
Jeff Mays: I’ve been told that several of the families have been put up by the city in temporary apartments that I believe are three to six month placements, somewhere around there. Another five or six of them have found their own accommodations. What’s most interesting is that I’ve been told that all of those people from the building want to return to East Harlem and city officials have promised them that they will try to make that happen, which is a big deal. I heard a story about one survivor who’s doing well now who has found another place who is getting donations of clothing and furniture and just trying to put her life back together, but those families obviously have a long way to go.
Collette Sosnowy: What’s your sense about how the community is faring overall?
Jeff Mays: I think that East Harlem is such a resilient community, it’s a diverse community with some very strong people. You have a lot of immigrants who have come to this country looking for a better life who are incredibly hard workers. What I’ve seen is that people in the community came together, not just in East Harlem but lots of people in Harlem. Once they heard about the accident, they got together and tried to organize different efforts, tried to collect clothing, collect food, collect money.
There are people who are specifically patronizing the businesses in the area. People are still devastated over the fact that eight people died and over the possibility that many more could have died, but overall people are really trying to get back to normal.
Collette Sosnowy: What are the most pressing issues that remain?
Jeff Mays: Right now housing is the biggest issue. As I said, we still have those people who lost everything when the two buildings collapsed. I believe all of the vacate orders in the surrounding buildings have been lifted, but I spoke to one woman who lives in a nearby apartment. She doesn’t have windows yet. She still has piles of debris in her apartment, and it’s been difficult for the landlord to fix that up. She’s still struggling with that because her shelter housing ran out so she’s forced to be back in the apartment while they do these repairs, and she suffers from asthma.
It’s still tough for a lot of the businesses in the area. I talked to a meat market on 116th street. They’ve been able to re-open but part of the problem is that the phone lines in that neighborhood are down, so they can’t accept credit card payments, EBT payments, which make up a huge chunk of their business. They’re open, but they’re barely open, and they’re struggling.
I’ve also heard about some immigrants who lost everything when the building collapsed and who are now having trouble getting documentation, which is difficult when they have nothing to prove who they are. Going to the DMV when you have nothing is incredibly difficult. I know some elected officials have stepped in and are trying to help those people.
Finally, I’ve heard some frustrations from people about getting money to replace furniture and clothing and other things that were lost in the explosion. There’s been a lot of money raised from the Mayor’s fund, over $330,000, but I’ve heard some complaints from people in the neighborhood that that money has been slow to trickle down to them to help with very real, pressing needs.
Collette Sosnowy: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Jeff Mays: It’s been amazing to see how people in this community have responded to this crisis. People have come together and helped one another and are looking forward to moving past this.
I talked to the Urban Garden Center, which is a business right next to where the buildings collapsed and they were finally able to re-open. They were basically destroyed. They were one of four businesses that were heavily damaged or completely destroyed, so they are re-building and they’re very optimistic about their future and that they’re going to come out of this situation stronger than before.