SANDY ONE YEAR LATER: Howard Beach autism center ready to survive another storm

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THE COURIER/ Photo by Liam La Guerre
THE COURIER/ Photo by Liam La Guerre

Andrew Baumann rebuilt the NYFAC autism center with enhancements in case another superstorm returns.

At the New York Families for Autistic Children (NYFAC) center in Howard Beach, the staff uses colorful plastic boxes for files and toys. Cardboard boxes aren’t allowed.

It isn’t that the staff prefers the colorful selection of plastic containers because they blend well with the center’s bright walls. The plastic boxes are a small example of how Sandy conscious the center has become following the immense damage it sustained from the superstorm.

“They cost a little more, but they’re waterproof,” said Andrew Baumann, CEO and president of NYFAC.

After Sandy touched down last October, water as high as four feet flooded the first floor of the nearly $6 million center, destroying walls, furniture and electrical equipment, and forcing the facility to close two weeks before it was slated to open.

But now because of some major adjustments it may be able to survive another Sandy-like storm. A backflow valve was installed to prevent sewer backup, and the center, which is mostly powered by solar panels, now has backup gas generators in case the power goes out. Baumann is also researching technology that would block or limit water outside from flowing into the building and is hoping to get funds to install it by next year. And of course, he has obtained flood insurance for the facility.

“I have so much flood insurance, if you split on the floor, I’m covered,” Baumann said.

To fix the damage and replace furniture and equipment after Sandy, Baumann had to borrow nearly $400,000 from his bank. The center was able to have its grand opening in April, nearly six months behind schedule.

Now it serves about 60 children with autism in day and evening sessions. The staff interacts and socializes with the children, who can play sports, instruments, bake, grow vegetables in an outside garden, play video games and read books, among other activities. Baumann said they plan to accept more children, but will do so slowly because it takes a while before the kids can get used to new people.

The facility is an inviting place for the children and Baumann hopes for the community in general as well.

In case another storm like Sandy does return, he wants residents to know that the center could provide shelter.

Baumann said the building, which has two floors, dozens of rooms, six bathrooms, two showers and a full kitchen, should be able to accommodate about 100 people in an emergency.

“I really think of this as more than just an autism center,” Bauman said. “It’s a community center.”