Andrew Baas, 32, a federal employee sent to New York as part of a recovery team, told the folks back home in Everett, Pa., that he was helping Hurricane Sandy victims in south Brooklyn and sleeping on a ship docked at the base of a bridge in the Bronx.
“They said, ‘Like a troll, under a bridge?’ – and I said, ‘Well no, it’s a big bridge.’”
Indeed it is — it’s the 2,900-foot-long Throgs Neck Bridge, and the ship is the T.S. Empire State VI, a 565-foot training ship for SUNY Maritime College, where the ship is regularly docked at the tip of the Throgs Neck peninsula in the Bronx.
When the federal government needed emergency shelter for thousands of employees arriving in New York to assist with relief and recovery efforts, the academy offered the Empire as something of a waterfront hotel – a spartan one.
Two other ships — the S.S. Wright and the T.S. Kennedy – that were brought to the New York area to house workers are anchored off Staten Island.
All three ships provided sleeping space for about 1,200, but that number has decreased in recent weeks as the immediate response has ebbed, said Mike Byrne, 58, the coordinating officer in charge of the Federal Emergency Management Agency response in New York.
Workers board the ship, which currently houses about 260 workers, through a wide concrete pier and up a sturdy gangplank. There is a rack of USA Today newspapers at the entrance, but little else on board resembles a typical hotel.
Workers sleep in narrow bunks stacked three high and embedded into the wall like cubbies, on thin foam cushions in one of several berthing holds that can each sleep 138 people. Underfoot are steel floors, and overhead are labyrinths of ducts and wiring. To the side are long rows of stainless-steel sinks, and nearby are group showering areas. Belongings are kept in tall lockers.
It is not party central. There is a 10 p.m. lights-out rule and wake-up time is 5 a.m., when the workers divide into groups and board vans to areas in Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island.
Meals are eaten in the cadet mess area, served cafeteria-style on metal trays and eaten at long tables. (There is one bar near the ship, Paddy’s on the Bay, and it has become a popular decompression site.)
“There’s no mint on your pillow, that’s for sure,” said Mr. Baas, who when his duties here are complete will return home where he works for the federal Transportation Security Administration at Altoona-Blair County Airport. “I’ve never been in the military, so this is all new to me. It’s something I had to get used to.”
Among the things he’s had to forego are computer games because Wi-Fi and electrical outlets are scant on the ship. “I had to go cold turkey,’’ said Mr. Baas, who is working as a FEMA outreach worker. “I took the mind-set like, ‘This is like camping.’ It’s allowing me to focus on the mission we’re here for.”
Another worker, John McEwen, 61, said the sleeping conditions hardly bothered him because, “I enjoy operating outside my comfort zone and spent 35 years in the Coast Guard.”
“You adjust quickly to this environment,” said Mr. McEwen, who is from Virginia Beach and had spent the day in Coney Island and nearby Sea Gate supervising a team signing residents up for assistance. “You’re working long days, so you’re out as soon as you lay down. You’re not concerned with comfort. This is something you go home and tell your kids about, that you made a difference.”
Mr. Byrne said the ship helped to alleviate a problem caused by the lack of vacancies in New York-area hotels, at a much cheaper cost.
The ship is typically used to train the academy’s cadets with summer terms at sea and for classes and training during the school year. Its classroom space came in handy to prepare FEMA workers for their assignments.
“New York City is such a different environment for a lot of our people, so they need orientation,” said Mr. Byrne, who grew up in the Stanley Isaacs public housing project in Manhattan and is a former lieutenant with the New York Fire Department. “It helps to know the neighborhoods and their people.”
Mr. Byrne walked through the ship, up and down the stair towers that link the decks, and along narrow hallways and through oval cutout doorways. He passed the sick bay and entered a game room where, next to air hockey machines, a group of young women who had worked the day distributing food in the Rockaways were exercising.
The adjacent television room has grown popular lately, after FEMA arranged for the installation of a cable hookup. This was high priority, because many of the workers hail from college football-addicted southern states.
“A lot of SEC fans on board,” Mr. Byrne said, referring to the Southeastern Conference.
Mr. Byrne said that those living aboard the ship did not have to use the subways, something that some workers staying in Manhattan found distressing.
“I got reports that some of the workers had high stress levels,” he said. “I said, ‘Because of dealing with the people?’ and they said, ‘No, from riding the subway.’”
Mr. Byrne ate some beef and mashed potatoes and chatted with workers from the Midwest, and told them about meeting President Obama during his visit to Staten Island.
“The president shook my hand and said, ‘Stay on it,’ so that’s what I’ve been telling my people, ‘We got to stay on it.’”
Mr. Baas said that after a hard day’s work, he was hardly looking for luxurious lodging.
“I’m enjoying this,” said Mr. Baas. “I’m sleeping like a baby.”