After the storm
Shomrim brigade helps New York City’s Sea Gate neighborhood.
Superstorm Sandy in Sea Gate, Brooklyn, Photo: Michael Wilner
BROOKLYN – The enclave of Sea Gate, just west of Coney Island in southern
Brooklyn, provides respite to its residents on a fenced-in peninsula jutting
into New York Harbor.
Completely residential, it is a small beach
community within the limits of America’s largest city. More than 300 Jewish
families live here.
But dwelling behind a gate in houses built on sand,
with no commerce and far from public transport, these families were sitting
ducks in the eyes of the Atlantic Ocean’s largest hurricane ever.
superstorm Sandy barreled through New York and New Jersey on October 29, a
two-meter current ripped through these homes, dove into basements and found
refuge in sands that clogged almost all of the community’s sewage and drainage
Nearly two weeks later, most homes are still flooded, in desperate
need of a third or fourth pumping before rebuilding can begin in
“The damage isn’t what was done to the houses,” said Yonaton
Tendler, who had a seawall in his backyard nearly six blocks from the
“The damage is that the community has been destroyed.”
yet, well before the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Red Cross arrived the following
weekend, the community was coming together to save itself. In this predominantly
Orthodox neighborhood, the Brooklyn South Shomrim, a brigade of privately
funded, voluntary community organizers, was the first organization to deliver
aid – and with the exception of the city sanitation department, the only such
organization present for nearly a week.
“This place was a war zone,” said
Victor Brief, a coordinator of the Shomrim brigade. “I understand they are as
overwhelmed as we are. But we had people afraid to leave their houses because of
looters here. How should we deal with that?” The Shomrim’s response was to
organize a private police force: 60 volunteers who patrolled the streets,
warding off raiders taking advantage of the cover of night. Already, the sole
supermarket outside the community gates had been looted and closed. Shomrim
became the only source of three hot meals a day for hundreds of
“You’ve got the Red Cross in here days later handing out ham and
cheese sandwiches,” Tendler said in a light moment.
Much of the sand from
the streets has been disposed of, and the cars and the staircases, still
sporting tread runners, have finally been removed from the streets. But everyone
here agrees the clean-up will take months.
“The actual manpower we have
will die down soon,” said Sam Follman, another Shomrim coordinator. “After the
electrical panels, boilers and hot water tanks are all replaced, then we may
start to feel progress.”
Out of Shomrim’s emergency truck headquarters,
Nuchem Schwartz’s schedule is only marginally less frantic than it was in the
first days after the storm.
He is still handing out applesauce and bread
as he coordinates with the city fire department to offer water
“People with an ocean view had houses ripped to the bone,”
In addition to food and water, Shomrim is handing out FEMA
forms and helping in the agency’s application process for emergency relief
funds. While the brigade has certainly been appreciated here, its volunteers
recognize how delicate emotions at Sea Gate have become.
giving out used clothing because it’s deepening the depression,” Schwartz
Disaster responders here are wearing various hats: parttime
emergency medical technician, haphazard cook, de-construction worker and even
One group of potential donors rolled in from
inland Brooklyn in a Mercedes Benz to offer financial aid but first wanted a
tour of the grounds.
Sea Gate is happy about one thing: It experienced no
casualties. Miles Davis, an emergency medical response officer and a resident
who stayed through the evacuation to answer calls for help, smiled with his
neighbors as they recalled the most heroic tale of the storm: a friend who
wrapped himself in a tallit (prayer shawl) and clung to the top of a garbage
truck for several windy hours.
At least 80 percent of Sea Gate is still
without power, and these residents are not alone: Con Edison reported that 12
days after the superstorm there remained more than 20,000 outages in New York
City, excluding an additional 34,000 still living in the dark in the
Some outages occurred after Sandy, which came late in the
hurricane season; an early nor’easter storm a week later brought in snow,
further outages and deepening despair.
Visible from the shattered shores
of Sea Gate is the elegant Verrazano-Narrows Bridge leading to the devastated
Staten Island borough of New York City, where more than half of the city’s 85
It is the worst concentrated death toll from a single
crisis in New York since the September 11 attacks. •