Washed Out

Despite reports of assistance, evacuees of Brookfield Gardens say they're on their own.

If Battery Park existed largely out of public view before the storms hit, Brookfield Gardens may be more obscure, tucked away on the southern tip of the Battery Park neighborhood in North Side off Chamberlayne Avenue. The complex is owned by commercial and residential real estate giant Drucker & Falk LLC, and consists of 189 buildings with 404 units. It’s valued at nearly $5 million, according to city real estate records.

Amid the city’s much-publicized efforts to help the low-to-moderate income homeowners and residents in Battery Park, those who reside at Brookfield Gardens, including many college students and senior citizens, say they’ve been left to fend for themselves.

“It’s the lowlands like this that we’ve had a hard time getting to,” Johnson says of the health department’s move to mark dangerous dwellings in the area. The risk, he says, is bacteria from “raw sewage.”

In the wake of recent storms that pummeled Shockoe Bottom and gave rise to skepticism about the city’s response to drainage problems there, Battery Park has popped up on the public’s radar — perhaps for the first time since tennis great Arthur Ashe played on its public courts.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch began publishing a map of Battery Park to accompany articles about the flooding, the century-old cracked sewage pipe and the city’s response to the disaster. Still, even some who live there, such as Virginia Union University student Derrick Coles, had never heard his neighborhood referred to as Battery Park until the rains came and brought the flooding.

At Style’s press time, the estimated cost of the Battery Park disaster had climbed to $39 million. Eighty-nine residents had been displaced; 77 residences were condemned.

But residents fear the attention and promise of money — unlike in Shockoe Bottom — could be fleeting.

“Little Katrina”

Some who live in the neighborhood and some working to clean it up are referring to the situation in Battery Park as Richmond’s “little Katrina,” after the hurricane that devastated New Orleans a year ago.

That comparison is prompting Battery Park residents, specifically college students who live in Brookfield Gardens, to question whether they’ve been victimized more by a natural disaster or by what they say is a conditioned and uncoordinated response by city government and nonprofits to those perceived as poor and underserved.

They question, for instance, how the city can make contractors from Michigan — along with hordes of orange construction cones, mesh fencing and an aboveground pipe — appear in a matter of days, while a week after the flooding many residents still have nowhere to go and no help getting their belongings out of condemned buildings. They question why the American Red Cross has said it couldn’t send volunteers to help them, or provide shelter. And they say the Salvation Army is passing out water, Gatorade, mops and buckets — but hasn’t offered to lend a hand.

Calls to Britt Drewes, the city’s public works spokesperson, were not returned by press time. Likewise, a call to Bill Harrison, spokesman for the Greater Richmond Chapter of the American Red Cross, was not returned. However, according to the chapter’s Web site, Battery Park residents affected by flooding can receive assistance at the agency’s headquarters at 420 E. Cary St. Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Also, the site says, volunteers from as far away as Indiana and Michigan are canvassing Battery Park, providing meals, snacks, comfort kits and clean-up kits.

But Tammie Winston, 23, says the cleaning supplies and snacks don’t go far enough. Winston is a student at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College who works two jobs — one at Advance America, another at a BP station — and splits her $555-a-month rent with a roommate. Six days after the flooding of her Brookfield Gardens apartment on Fells Road, the city is just getting around to condemning it. Everything inside her apartment — furniture, clothes and sundries — appears soaked and likely ruined. Still, on Sept. 5 she was told she had three days to get out. Only her boyfriend, Charles Ellis, helps her.

“No one has told us anything,” Winston says. Fliers appear on some doors advising displaced residents of Brookfield to call the Red Cross or to go to the city’s emergency mobile command station at Norell School Annex, a quarter mile away.

Winston says she called the Red Cross and was informed it couldn’t help her. Likewise, she adds, her calls to the apartment complex’s rental office weren’t answered or returned. Brookfield Gardens’ property manager, Michelle R. Rich, declined to answer Style’s questions about the company’s response to the flooding.

Outside her front door, Winston points to her roommate’s car, which has been submerged twice by flooding in recent weeks. It is rimmed with muddy sewage. Behind the car, sandbags droop along a bank across the street.

With all the disruption, Winston says she’s having a hard time focusing on school. She’s taken a leave of absence from one job and hopes to do the same with the other until she can find a new place to live. For now, she carries a blue bedspread outdoors, wrings it out and places it by the curb.

Next door to Winston, Richmond Police officers Shane Watson and Glenn Gohlke tell two roommates that their apartment, like Winston’s, is condemned. The women are both 23-year-old seniors at Virginia Commonwealth University.

“It’s the uncertainty” that people find most frustrating when they’re displaced, Watson says. According to the officers, because Brookfield Gardens is private property, it’s up to the management office to provide alternative accommodations and assistance. Watson says he and the officers patrolling the neighborhood are “tasked with property maintenance” to ensure that pilfering of unoccupied apartments doesn’t occur.

The college roommates, Leticha and Memunatu, decline to give their last names. After talking with police outside their apartment on Fells Road, they drive a few streets over to the complex’s rental office on Roane Street. They’ve called the office repeatedly, they say. A “Closed” sign hangs on the door during what are regular business hours.

“We’re on our own,” Leticha says. Her sister lives in Petersburg. The two roommates have been staying with her since police knocked on their apartment door Sept. 1 and ordered them to evacuate within 15 minutes. They complain about having to wear the same clothes for days. Mostly, they’re annoyed by having to drive from Petersburg each day to attend classes at VCU.

They’d rather stay in a nearby hotel, they say, but can’t afford it and haven’t heard of the city offering to put them up. Memunatu sees a U.S. postal worker approach in his truck. She scurries over to ask how she can get her mail.

Leticha rages aloud: “We have no shelter. All of our things are inside our apartment. We have no movers or trucks to help. How do you expect us to move out by Friday?” Seeing the “Closed” sign on the office door, she shakes her head in frustration. “I was here to really cuss somebody out,” she says.

Stuck in a “Trap”

Walter Fry, 83, enters his apartment for the first time since he evacuated Sept. 1. Recently widowed, Fry has been staying with neighbors, Carolyn McMichael and her 9-year-old granddaughter, Yakia. They live at Brookfield Gardens too, but only had to leave their apartment during Ernesto’s rains. The next day city workers told them they could return.

Not so with Fry. His apartment smells rancid and moldy. Standing water and mud are everywhere. Pictures of his wife, kids and grandkids are ruined, along with his Bible. Fry has lived at Brookfield Gardens for four years, ever since a flood forced him to move from his apartment at First and Dove streets, he says. After first refusing to go inside, Fry slowly walks in. He grips his mail in one hand and waves the other in dismay. “I don’t want much of this stuff ’cause the smell of it makes me sick,” he says.

Derrick Coles, 21, stops Fry and McMichael outside to ask where they’re staying. Coles informs them he has no place to go. Since the evacuation, the college senior who holds the ambassador title of “Mr. Virginia Union University” has been crashing on friends’ floors. His roommate has done the same. But after six days, he says, everyone’s over it. He’s come back to his apartment to get his dry cleaning and see if there’s word of what residents can expect. The “No Tresspassing” sign hangs on his door, but he hasn’t seen the flier directing people where to go for assistance.

McMichael tells Coles she’s heard that Brookfield Gardens is putting up some people at a Best Value Inn on Robin Hood Road.

Coles explains his frustration: “I feel like the people in New Orleans a little bit. Everybody took so long to get to us, and the simple matter is, they forgot about us even though the warning signs were here. The area’s flooded twice in recent weeks. Is this going to happen again? Are they going to wait until somebody dies? We’re in a trap right here, a man trap.”

It’s after 4 p.m. and the Brookfield Gardens office is open. Coles enters. Property manager Rich sits at her desk, appearing visibly drained. After hanging up with one caller, the phone immediately rings again.

Coles explains his problem, that he’s just gotten out of class and has returned to his apartment to find a “No Trespassing” sign on his door. He says police told him he could be back in today. He says he has no place to go.

Meanwhile, across the flooded First Tee greens by Brookfield Gardens, strange-looking machines buzz in Battery Park as preparations begin to dig a trench to ward off flooding in the future — at least for property at higher elevations. In time the standing water, the rats, the smell and the mud will subside. And the city’s emergency mobile command unit will disappear from the Norell School Annex. Today, according to a city health official, about 20 people visited the mobile center. S

  • Click here for more News and Features

    WHAT YOU WANT TO KNOW — straight to your inbox

    * indicates required
    Our mailing lists: