Seniors, disabled struggle with flood evacuation from West Side housing

August 29, 2018

More than a week after torrential rains flooded parts of Madison, more than 100 residents of the Prairie Park senior apartments on the West Side are still out of their homes, with a return now estimated in about two weeks.

On Tuesday, frustrated residents were at the now-locked, three-story, 98-unit apartment building, 6530 Schroeder Road, waiting to get escorted to their apartments to recover more items. Many were upset with the property owner and manager about their evacuation, poor communication and a lack of progress and support.

“This is ridiculous, just plain ridiculous,” said Shirley Philbin, 89, who is staying with her son. “They haven’t done anything for days.”

Harmony Housing of New York City, which owns properties in nine states including seven in Wisconsin, purchased Prairie Park for $10.3 million in July 2017, city assessment records show. It is managed by Greystone & Co.

Later Tuesday, Greystone spokeswoman Karen Marotta told the Wisconsin State Journal the owners are addressing at least $1.5 million in damage to the building caused by the flooding, including replacement of the entire electrical system.

She said actions are being taken to return the building to occupancy and a letter explaining next steps, a $500 check and a care package to help with basic necessities for each household would be made available to tenants by midday Wednesday.

Rents also will be prorated for days tenants spent away from their units, and a website, prairieparkfloodinfo.com, has been set up to provide updates about building status and when it will be reopened, which should be in about two weeks, Marotta said.

“We’re trying to help ease the burden of being displaced,” she said.

The response is still too slow and inadequate, said Shari Zeldin, who had been staying at Prairie Park with her 78-year-old mother, Maxine Weiss, who suffered a stroke in the spring. Her mother is staying at her home, which is not handicapped-accessible, but many tenants have no family and no practical place to go except a costly hotel, she said.

“Can you imagine that? $500,” she said when told of Greystone’s intentions. “(Tenants are) staying at hotels that cost $100 a night, plus food. This is crazy.”

Some residents, who have been previously disappointed with Greystone, including its response to prior flooding incidents, said they or neighbors are looking to live elsewhere.

On Aug. 20, about 5 feet of water flooded the underground garage at the building. Two days later, the city became aware the floodwaters had knocked out elevator service, air conditioning, hot water and a fire alarm panel at the structure, although power remained on, city building inspector George Hank said. The Fire Department ordered Greystone to post a 24-7 fire watch, he said.

With so many elderly residents, forecasts for hot weather and humidity and no air conditioning or elevator, the city decided to evacuate the building on Friday, Hank said.

Also, “anytime you have flooding there’s definitely concerns with electricity and water,” said Madison Gas & Electric spokesman Steve Schultz. “It’s a safety thing.”

The city asked MG&E to keep the power on for a while so tenants wouldn’t be evacuated in the dark, Hank said.

Residents, many in their 70s, 80s and 90s, and some with disabilities, were informed of the evacuation the day they were asked to leave and given options of staying with family, getting a hotel or being taken to a temporary American Red Cross shelter set up at West High School.

“We’re lucky. We’re staying with our daughter,” said resident Jerry Ritchie, who has been at the building for a year and a half with his wife, Pat, after living in the surrounding Green Tree neighborhood for 55 years. Pat Ritchie added, “For a lot of people, I’m concerned. They don’t have a place to stay.”

Ultimately, about half of the tenants went to stay with family, eight went to the shelter, 10 with medical needs were taken to full-time health care providers and others went to hotels, Marotta said.

Some residents said Greystone identified nearby hotels with open rooms for a couple of nights and were told the property owner or manager would pay for them, but that they were told later that the bills would not be paid.

Residents Jeff and Susan Angle said they believed their room and that of another resident would be covered, but both rooms were placed on their son’s credit card, which was provided to cover incidental costs. They’re now staying at their daughter’s basement in Brooklyn.

“I can’t believe (the management) is doing what they’re doing,” said Michael Colby, who is recovering from cancer and could not have stayed at the shelter. He is staying with his daughter.

Although Harmony Housing is not paying for hotel stays, the $500 is intended to help defray those costs or for items such as lost perishable foods due to a lack of electricity for refrigeration, Marotta said.

MG&E will re-energize the building after repairs and an inspection are completed, Schultz said.

“We’ll do whatever we can to facilitate that,” Hank said.

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