East Harlem Tragedy Victims Still Waiting For Help

"I cannot wait any longer," said Carlos Pérez, who lost his home and is still waiting for the City's help. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario).

“I cannot wait any longer,” said Carlos Pérez, who lost his home and is still waiting for the city’s help. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

One month after the explosion that collapsed two buildings in East Harlem, causing eight deaths and displacing dozens of families, there is still a lot of uncertainty and anxiety among those directly affected, according to a special report by El Diario/La Prensa.

A story by Juan Matossian and Joaquín Botero focuses on the shortcomings of the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, which gathered $330,000 in donations to help the 16 displaced families and multiple business owners affected by the explosion.  The Fund is directed by Chirlane McCray, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife.

Although nonprofit organization Safe Horizon has been appointed by the city to distribute the funds, several victims said that they have received little or no help and that their queries are returned with vague answers.

“They said that help was on the way but that they are still gathering and organizing it. They didn’t even say what type of help we would be receiving or when,” said Carlos Pérez, a 48-year-old Dominican who lived on the top floor of 1646 Park Avenue. He survived because he left his home a half hour early that fateful morning. “I cannot just stay still. I need to start moving on. I cannot wait any longer.”

Pérez shared an apartment with a friend whose name was on the lease, and has filed applications with the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD) to find a new home to no avail. The municipal agency is in charge of providing temporary housing support to the victims.

“I was told that I did not qualify for a subsidy because I make $46,000 a year, and that they could not assure me that I would be able to get housing in the city,” said Pérez, who for the past month has slept in the piano factory where he works in the Bronx.

The HPD said that Pérez was not registered as a dweller in either of the two destroyed buildings.

The story goes on to interview another victim, Ecuadorean Carlos Carabajo, 52, who lived on the fourth floor of the same building. This week, he accepted a house the HPD offered him, but said that the process has been long and difficult.

“I declined two offers because the apartments and the buildings where they were located were in terrible condition,” said Carabajo. “The floors were very old and had leaks. In one of the apartments, a strong smell of marijuana came from next door. I was not willing to live under those conditions.”

The HPD said that they had to seek the help of a community organization because Carabajo’s income exceeded the city’s limits to qualify for housing subsidies.

The agency has a list of 12 registered tenants between the two buildings. Five of them are now in temporary housing, six have found themselves new places to live, and only Carabajo has been offered a new permanent home.

Like Pérez, Carabajo said he has not seen any financial assistance from Safe Horizon or any of the independent fundraising campaigns that were launched to help the victims. On April 3, Marcus Samuelsson, the renowned chef and co-owner of the Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem, organized a benefit in which sources say he charged $350 per plate.

According to the article, another unnamed victim said that, after finding a new home on his own, Safe Horizon gave him $1,500 to purchase furniture as well as one month’s rent and a security deposit.  “Those who have lost a loved one will also receive assistance paying for funeral services.”

Thus far, Con Edison has offered the most monetary support. The victims we interviewed said that they received compensation between $2,000 and $6,000, depending on their individual cases. The company said that they have helped up to 90 injured or displaced victims, to assist them with emergency expenses.

Carabajo and another tenant who also chose to remain anonymous have already begun taking steps to file a lawsuit against the city. Their attorney, Stavros Sitinas, said that he submitted a claim this week. The claim is the first step to ask for compensation for the victims for death and material losses, and it must be filed within 90 days of the incident. (…)

“If NTSB [the National Transportation Safety Board, a federal agency in charge of investigating transportation and pipeline accidents] finds that the city and Con Edison were negligent and are responsible for the explosion, I would be surprised if they did not reach a quick settlement,” said the lawyer. “We are talking about people who have lost everything and are only asking for what is fair. No more, no less.”

The family of Griselda Camacho, one of the fatal victims, also filed a lawsuit against the city. They are claiming a $20 million compensation for Camacho’s death and $20 million more for their mother, who was badly injured and is still in the hospital.

A separate story by Zaira Cortés (with video) focuses on the local businesses that are left struggling one month after the explosion.

One of them is Mounir Nasd, 44, whose restaurant was badly damaged by the explosion. Located on 116th Street and Park, Kiosk Restaurant remained closed for three weeks, leaving the owner with losses including large amounts of perishable food.

“The federal and city authorities asked me to be patient. They did very little to help me recover my business, which I opened seven years ago,” said Nasd.

Because help would not arrive, the business owner had to pay $27,000 out of his own pocket to repair the restaurant. Nasd said that the only assistance he received was a check for $2,500 from Con Edison. However, the business lost around $30,000 in sales during the time it had to remain closed.

“The biggest challenge was getting our customers back. Many of them still have bad memories,” said the owner.

Nasd lost yet another business, the Adar Lounge,  located on Park Avenue, between 115th and 116th streets, which had opened just a couple of weeks before the explosion.

“Mayor de Blasio came by to have dinner with Melissa Mark-Viverito a few days before,” he said, showing the picture he took with the two officials. “Now my business is closed and I can barely keep my restaurant open.”

Dimitri Gatanas, 35, the Greek owner of Urban Garden Center, a gardening supply store located under the Metro-North railway, chose not to go into details about the amount he lost for damages and the temporary closing of his business. “The city agencies are in constant communication with us, but the help they provide is limited to counseling. We small-business owners still haven’t seen any concrete solutions,” he said.

Gatanas said that the structure that was destroyed by the blast had just been meticulously renovated a few weeks ago using wood from fallen trees from Hurricane Sandy. He added that he was saddened that the remains of one tragedy ended up being part of a new one.

He said that, because the city has not provided any financial assistance to rebuild the 50-year-old family business, he had to start his own crowdfunding campaign online through GoFundMe.com. After rousing an active response from the community, the beloved gardening store reopened on April 5.

“This area has not been declared a disaster area. That makes it harder for victims and other people to obtain the help we need,” he said. “The city could help us by waiving our taxes or allowing free parking for customers, but our voices often go unheard.”

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