National News

Still-Displaced Residents Seek Aid and Answers After Pipe Blast

Posted July 22, 2018 10:15 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Three days since an underground steam pipe burst in Manhattan’s Flatiron district, spewing asbestos-laced muck across several blocks, many residents were still barred from their homes Sunday, coping not only with sudden homelessness, but fear about what the exposure could do to their health.

At an impromptu information center set up by the city inside a public school, bewildered residents whose homes were still cordoned off behind police tape and hazmat signs arrived throughout the day, seeking answers. Inside, a phalanx of emergency service workers doled out information and fielded a steady stream of queries from frightened New Yorkers.

Thursday’s blast resulted in the evacuation of more than 500 people from 45 buildings, but just a handful of minor injuries. Yet there was an undercurrent of deep anxiety among those whose lives were caught up in the path of the explosion, many of whom showed up at the information center set up at the Clinton School on East 15th Street. Although experts say the true risk from asbestos is from prolonged exposure over time, not a lone incident, many were anxious about their health. Others were still displaced, living out of suitcases and on friends’ couches; they wanted to know when they might go home.

“I’m a little scared,” said Chree Taylor, who works in advertising, and was caught in the steam cloud from the explosion on her way to the gym. “I kind of got this kind of brown mist on me, just lightly but, you know, I’m sure I breathed something in.”

At the school, workers from agencies like the American Red Cross, New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection and Consolidated Edison, the power company, fielded questions from the mundane to the esoteric: With steam heat ruptured in the area, when could they expect a hot shower again? A displaced woman demanded a voucher to board her dog, since the hotel where she’d been placed did not accept pets. (She was denied.)

Some people carried sacks containing the clothes they were wearing when the explosion occurred, heeding city warnings to dispose of contaminated garments.

Jonathan Schwartz, 32, who lives in the area but was not evacuated, said he was anxious about the possible effects any asbestos exposure might have. “It’s a little nerve-racking when you see people in hazmat suits,” he said, carrying a bag of the clothes he was wearing the day of the explosion to drop off.

Decontamination work in a so-called hot-zone, about three-square blocks around the blast site at 21st Street and Fifth Avenue, has been continuing since Thursday. Crews had been power-washing buildings caked in asbestos-laced effluvium, and by Saturday evening, the Fire Department had completed cleaning all facades, according to Eric Phillips, a spokesman for Mayor Bill DeBlasio; interior inspections are now underway.

The cause of the steam explosion has not been determined. Con Edison, which operated the steam pipe, is conducting an investigation, as is the New York state Public Service Commission, said Nancy Silvestri, a spokeswoman for the city’s Office of Emergency Management.

Schwartz, a consultant, said he believes more needs to be done. The pipe, according to the city, was installed in 1932 and like much of New York’s subterranean utilities, verges on antique. “It would be nice to see this dealt with at a citywide level, to say, ‘Hey, all these steam pipes are 80-plus years old and we shouldn’t really have to be concerned walking around,'” he said.

By Sunday afternoon, five of the 45 evacuated buildings had been reopened, according to the mayor’s spokesman, and vehicles were permitted back on some of the streets that had been closed.

Displaced residents had received $500 in compensation from Con Ed, but on Sunday, Phillips said that amount was insufficient.

Allan Drury, a spokesman for Con Ed said in an email that the $500 was just an initial payment and did not preclude affected individuals from submitting further claims for additional expenses.

Qian Yi and her husband Leonard Porter were evacuated from their home, a beaux-arts loft building, shortly after the 6 a.m. blast. On Sunday, the family showed up at the information center, still displaced and living in a hotel with their daughter, Elinor, 4.

“We’re just speechless,” said Qian, adding she has booked an appointment with her daughter’s pediatrician to discuss what the exposure might mean for a toddler. “The air was terrible that morning.”

But Qian said that the displacement and the anxiety were bearable given what could have happened. Past explosions have left a trail of injury, and even death.

“Truly, truly I feel like we’re so fortunate,” she said as her husband pushed Elinor in her stroller into the center to ask when they might return home. “We still have the privilege to stay in a hotel, have clean water and food to eat. We’re still fortunate, so we shouldn’t complain too much.”