It's finally bright on Bright Street again.
For the past three weeks, the residents of three buildings on Bright Street between Barrow Street and Jersey Avenue have been living off the grid and in the dark after Hurricane Sandy ripped through their neighborhood and snuffed out their lights.
Then yesterday, the power finally came back on possibly in part because of two of its tenants -- former community activist Teresa Lugo, 74 (below), and Pat Byrne, 28 -- who brought attention to their block, one that Byrne says has historically been "neglected."
Byrne, who has been living in his fourth-floor apartment at 52 Bright St. for five years, has cracked a few jokes about his plight on his Twitter account. When JCI asked readers what they were doing for Halloween, he tweeted, "Here's my event: stay home in the dark and laugh," followed by, "will officially rename my street from Bright Street to Dark Street later today. No word whether Healy will show. Stay tuned." As an actor for sketch comedy troupe National Scandal (he's also a singer and musician with They Live and sometimes The Ashes, by the way), making the quips isn't hard for Byrne, but actually living through the ordeal has been anything but easy.
Having experienced some water damage from roof leakage in his bathroom during Irene last year, Byrne stayed behind when his roommates fled so he could take care of the apartment. He also stocked up on water and food and checked in on his neighbors.
"Everyone's great on this block," he says. "Everyone knows each other and looks out for each other."
One of the first people he checked in on was Lugo, who lives in the apartment below him. On Oct. 29, a few hours before the storm, he got her some groceries from Pathmark on Grand Street before moving his car to Dickinson High School. Twenty minutes after he returned, the surge came up and the chaos started.
"We were all standing on the stoop. I heard a scream on the first floor and saw the lights flicker. In five minutes we saw the flood waters rise five feet or so and it just kept going. It was surreal," he says, remembering how people hurriedly tried to move their cars or drive up stoop stairs to elevate their engines. "The street smelled of gasoline and we saw transformer boxes explode into flames. One by one, the lights were going out, apartment building by apartment building."
While 52 Bright's residents didn't suffer flood damage (waters stopped just short of the first floor), the basement and the electrical equipment inside it did, leaving the residents of all eight units in the dark. As time went on, Byrne watched as all his other friends began getting their power back. Gradually, 52 Bright began recovering, with heat coming back thanks to generators provided by their landlord, Puertorriquenos Asociados for Community Organization (PACO), which was founded by Hudson County Freeholder Eliu Rivera, about four or five days after the storm. (The other two buildings, 50 and 48 Bright, are owned by Del Forno.) Gas came back about a week in, with sporadic hot water a week later. (Byrne says it was so unreliable, he created a "shower rolodex" on his phone to find friends who'd let him wash up at their homes.)
Byrne had lots of work as a freelance videographer during the day to keep him busy, but at night, he had to rely on LED-powered lights to even do anything in his kitchen or bathroom. "It was frustating," he says.
Last week, after returning from a four-day assignment in Pennsylvania and New York, Byrne hoped that all had been resolved. It wasn't. He checked in on Lugo, hoping she had been able to continue staying with relatives where he dropped her off a few days before. He knocked on her door, and she answered.
"I said, 'You've got to be kidding me,'" says Byrne. The two decided to rally the troops and reach out to local news organizations to bring attention to Bright.
"Teresa is quite a fighter and she's fought for this block tooth and nail over the 30 or 40 years she's lived here," says Byrne, citing an incident several decades ago when Lugo, armed with a bullhorn, organized protests against developers who wanted to knock down her building and turn it into condos. "She still has that community activist fighter in her," he says.
The two called local authorities to find out what the problem was and contacted news organizations to bring attention to the issue.
City spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill says that power restoration was held up at the building because of a broken circuit breaker that had to be replaced by building management first. PSE&G spokeswoman Annette L. Hicks says that eight electric meters needed to be changed before restoration. PACO did not respond to calls for comment in time for publication.
"The (city) Building Department had been there multiple times and had advised management to repair or replace the circuit breakers," says Morrill. "The management company was having difficulty getting the parts, but apparently the order arrived yesterday and...the city immediately inspected."
Hicks says PSE&G received the city's request to complete their inspection on Tuesday afternoon and was able to restore power that evening.
The work was done by nightfall, when Byrne says he came home and knocked on Lugo's door to check in on her.
"She answered and I could hear her TV on, I saw her kitchen light, and she gave me this huge hug. She was so happy we finally did something -- almost in tears," says Byrne. "She said, 'Let's watch the news.'"
As the Dynamic Duo sat down to see themselves on Spanish-language channel Univision, two volunteers from Jersey City Sandy Recovery swung by with a food care package for Lugo to replace whatever she lost in her fridge. The group, spokesman Bob McHugh says, has visited the Bright Street buildings several times a week since the storm and has brought them food, candles and lights throughout the blackout.
"The support we've gotten is amazing," says Byrne. "This is such a huge victory."
Photos courtesy of Pat Byrne
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