By Juan Gonzalez
As Hurricane Irene was storming up the coast toward New York on Thursday night, Aixa Torres, 59, of the Smith Houses on the lower East Side, got a shocking phone call from a housing authority manager in Manhattan.
"Aixa, we're going to have to evacuate everybody in your buildings," the manager told her.
This was hours before Mayor Bloomberg had issued an evacuation order.
The manager was alerting Torres because she is president of the Smith Houses tenants association and the agency needed her help.
More than 4,300 residents live in Smith Houses, a complex of 12 high-rise buildings along the East River.
Having lived in that project since she was 6, Torres knows most residents by name.
No one understood better how difficult such an evacuation would be.
"I have a very mixed, multiethnic population," she said.
"There's a lot of seniors here and the biggest part are Asian and Hispanic and many don't speak English."
Torres had some things working in her favor, though.
"Everyone in this place is related to everyone else," she said. That meant she could rely on family connections to spread the word.
She also has a strong tenant association board, with one captain per building. That night, Torres phoned her board members and summoned them to an emergency meeting for the next day.
The board warned her the main problem would be transportation. Without buses, few of the project's low-income seniors would be able to leave.
Torres emailed Housing Authority Chairman John Rhea and insisted on a contingent of buses.
She didn't stop there. She started calling her elected officials, State Sen. Dan Squadron, City Councilwoman Margaret Chin, Assembly Speaker Shelly Silver, for help.
All responded to her request. Squadron and Chin dispatched 25 volunteers who could speak Mandarin and Cantonese and those volunteers joined NYCHA staff going door-to-door to persuade residents to leave.
By 6 a.m. Saturday, the Smith Tenants Association office was functioning as the command center for the entire operation.
NYCHA chairman Rhea even showed up Saturday morning to make sure things went smoothly.
"People really did not want to leave," Torres said. "It took a lot of convincing on our part."
One woman on the first floor of a building was adamant about staying. The woman's mother was in hospice care and she refused to put her mother through the ordeal of moving.
"I left just before the storm arrived with my heart in my hands because there was some neighbors I was leaving behind," Torres said.
Despite the holdouts, Smith Houses "had a 90% evacuation rate, the highest of any public housing in the city," Squadron said.
At other lower East Side NYCHA developments like Baruch, Jacob Riis, Lillian Wald and Albizu Campos, barely 50% of residents heeded the mayor's evacuation warnings.
All of which proves that sometimes all you need is a few strong leaders like Aixa Torres to lead the way.