After the storm

Shomrim brigade helps New York City’s Sea Gate neighborhood.

Superstorm Sandy in Sea Gate, Brooklyn (photo credit: MICHAEL WILNER)
Superstorm Sandy in Sea Gate, Brooklyn
(photo credit: 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.
As 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 pipes.
Nearly two weeks later, most homes are still flooded, in desperate need of a third or fourth pumping before rebuilding can begin in earnest.
“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 beach.
“The damage is that the community has been destroyed.”
And 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 people.
“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 pumping.
“People with an ocean view had houses ripped to the bone,” Schwartz said.
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.
“We’re not giving out used clothing because it’s deepening the depression,” Schwartz explained.
Disaster responders here are wearing various hats: parttime emergency medical technician, haphazard cook, de-construction worker and even elementary fund-raiser.
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 Rockaways.
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 deaths occurred.
It is the worst concentrated death toll from a single crisis in New York since the September 11 attacks. •