There are plenty of unsung heroes in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but the story of how those at New York's least desirable address lent their muscle and might is perhaps among the most compelling.
On the night that the storm roared into the city, Dora B. Schriro, the correction commissioner, slept on a couch in her office at the Rikers Island jail, bracing for flooding and reassuring inmates and employees that the island would weather the storm.
The next morning, the vast jailhouse complex was mostly unscathed, but Schriro was stunned by the devastation the storm had wrought elsewhere.
So she decided to put her jail, and those who call it home, to work. Inmates did 6,600 pounds of laundry for people in emergency shelters; the jail provided gas from its pumps to fuel the generators it provided to neighbourhoods in the dark and donated long underwear usually given to inmates; and officers with medical training provided emergency care to victims.
"There was a lot of loss," said Schriro, who pitched in at food lines on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens. "It was our responsibility and opportunity to jump in and help."
Schriro, a Staten Island native who lives in the Bronx, and her deputies started strategizing how they would tap Rikers' enormous resources even as the storm was still raging. Schriro had already reminded the Bloomberg administration of all that Rikers had to offer should the storm prove to be as catastrophic as predicted.
But Schriro felt a greater sense of urgency after seeing firsthand what the storm had done to the Rockaways, a place that is home to some of the jail's inmates as well as to some of the guards who watch over them.
She mobilized a group of correction officers to deliver truckloads of canned and dried goods from the island's food supply and to use emergency relief supplies from the jail's warehouses, including bottled water and blankets. The agency also delivered clothing to relief centres in the city, including jackets kept for inmates.
Officers took generators and backup lights from various jails to Breezy Point and other locations. Correction Department buses and vans transported evacuees on Staten Island and shuttled recovery workers in Brooklyn.
Capt. Richard Polak, who helps oversee the laundry at Rikers, accompanied other correction officers to pick up sheets, blankets, towels and clothes from a dozen shelters in storm-struck parts of the city. The items were returned laundered within hours. It was the first time that Rikers' laundry was used to help in a citywide emergency, the correction agency said.
The laundry, on the north side of Rikers, serves the island and most of the city's other jails. It already handles enormous loads and, in what turned out to be a stroke of good timing, a huge new washing machine was installed there in July. The machine, a long tube that looks like a rocket lying on its side, can do 2,000 pounds of wash every 90 minutes. The jail's inmates were able to add extra loads from the shelters during their shifts, for which they are paid 39 cents per hour.
"With this thing, we can tackle anything," Darrell Jennings, the superintendent of laundries at Rikers, said recently as he watched inmates load sheets and pillowcases into the machine, as well as thin wool blankets and inmate jumpsuits.
Of the city's institutions, Rikers - which houses 11,000 inmates and has 8,500 employees - was uniquely equipped to play its unheralded role in the recovery effort. It is more than a jail complex; it is a mini-city that is often referred to as New York's sixth borough. Spread out over 400 acres, the jail has its own schools, infirmary, power plant, auto shop (with carwash), chapels, commissary stores, barbershops, bakery, tailor, print shop, and athletic fields and gyms.
The jail continues to contribute in ways small and large. On Wednesday, a shipment of food and clothing was made to a women's shelter in the Bronx where more than 100 storm evacuees are living. And Thursday, an association of black correction workers is delivering Thanksgiving dinner to a public-housing project in Far Rockaway.
Other correction officers have also played key roles. Some have provided security for relief centers. Others have helped unload incoming supplies at Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn for distribution. Some have helped to staff a medical triage centre at a church in the Rockaways, while others have protected a senior residence on the peninsula whose lobby was opened as a warming center.
The jail laundry may still be used to do some shelter laundry, but it has largely returned to its normal routine of handling the department's wash, as well as linens for the Homeless Services Department and uniforms for the Parks and Recreation Department. Jail officials did not make inmates available for interviews about the role they played in helping storm victims, but Schriro said, "I'm confident they knew what they were doing."
While she was in the Rockaways, arranging the services that Rikers provided, Schriro heard the stories of storm victims whose lives had been upended. One of those was Tommy Corbett, a Rikers Island guard who, after the storm, divided his time among trying to fix his badly damaged house, getting his five children assigned to schools that were not closed by the storm and helping other neighbours.
"His house and life was eviscerated, but he was smiling and cheerful and trying to find a decent pair of boots so he could come back to work," she said. "He was a symbol of the kind of professionals we have here."
© 2012, The New York Times News Service