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The human issue in Long Island evacuation

Mayor Walsh insists he had no choice in the closing of the Long Island bridge.
Mayor Walsh insists he had no choice in the closing of the Long Island bridge.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Nearly a week after the debacle that was the Long Island evacuation, it remains unclear to many of those involved who actually gave the orders to leave immediately.

"Ultimately, it was me," Mayor Marty Walsh told me Monday.

It was a refreshing bit of honesty in a situation that has been allowed to fester over decades of inaction and buck-passing. It says something about Walsh's reputation in the homeless and recovery communities that many who serve those vulnerable populations didn't believe it was Walsh who made the chaotic evacuation happen.

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But the mayor insists he had no choice.

Walsh was sitting in his office at 2 p.m. last Wednesday when Mike Dennehy, the city's public works commissioner, and Boston city engineer Para Jayasinghe told him the bridge was structurally unsafe.

Walsh said he came very close to ordering the bridge closed during the summer.

"I went out there one day, I got out of the car on the bridge, the expansion joints were coming apart," he said.

Ten years ago, he went out to the island to visit some of the programs he championed when he was a state representative.

"Even then, it was obvious," he said. "This bridge should have been addressed five or six or seven years ago. Why it wasn't comes down to the cost of it."

But the cost of keeping it open, Walsh decided, was risking a catastrophe. It wasn't going to happen on his watch, so he gave the order.

Was it a mess? Absolutely.

RELATED: Cullen: Rushed closing of Long Island bridge takes human toll

Could it have been handled differently? Absolutely. Walsh says he didn't have time to plan a more ordered evacuation.

Bill Sprague, the chief executive of Bay Cove, a nonprofit social services agency that runs Andrew House, a detox unit with 60 beds on Long Island, said his agency had a contingency plan to deal with the inevitable.

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"We had been prepared for a scenario if the bridge was found unsafe, we would hunker down, then place people, and move them off," Sprague said. "In the hectic activity of Wednesday, we didn't get that opportunity, and the people were looking to evacuate the island, by 8 p.m. Everybody did the best they could. In hindsight, it would have been nice to do things differently."

As Sprague's agency looks for a new location, they have to worry about far more than NIMBYism. All the beds and computers and everything else at Andrew House is still on the island, and they don't have the money to run out and buy new stuff.

RELATED | Editorial: A bridge to somewhere?

Still, Sprague was reluctant to criticize the mayor.

"There isn't an administration more committed to people with addiction issues as the Walsh administration," said Sprague.

But the reality is, in the middle of an epidemic of overdoses, there were 135 detox beds in the city of Boston last Wednesday and now there are just 75.

Walsh will meet with state officials Tuesday, asking them to pitch in, and in particular to find some funding for the nurses, therapists, and aides who work with the addicts who were trying to get clean on Long Island. "I don't want people to get laid off from these programs," Walsh said. "There's a big transition going on."

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RELATED: Closure of bridge may not halt Camp Harbor View

The very people who performed so heroically during the evacuation shouldn't suffer for decades of somebody else's inaction. But even more important in the short term is getting those programs that were on the island — for the homeless, the addicted, former inmates — up and running again.

Walsh says he will do everything he can to make that happen, and be judged if he doesn't. "We have two issues," he said. "One is the heroin epidemic, the other is homelessness, and the numbers are rising."

He is prepared for the NIMBYs.

"Every family in Boston will know someone in their family, their friends' families, where mental illness and homelessness and addiction is there. We have to take care of these people. From a public safety point of view, we need to take care of these people. But it's more than that. As human beings, we have to take care of these people."

Previous coverage:

Editorial: Walsh needs to lay out a clearer rationale in shutting down bridge

Harbor bridge closing brings hunt for new shelters, services


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.