By Larry Gordon –
The hope is that Sunday’s communal gathering sponsored by Achiezer and taking place at Yeshiva Shor Yoshuv in Lawrence will in one way be a going away party for Hurricane Sandy. As the one year anniversary approaches of the storm that changed so many lives on the east coast and especially the Rockaway peninsula as well as the south shore of Long Island in general, there is a great deal to reflect upon.
“We learned a great deal from the experience about emergency preparedness,” says Rabbi Boruch Ber Bender, founder and director of Achiezer, but, he adds, he is not so sure that we are sufficiently equipped to do what needs to be done to keep everyone safe the next time around.
Today a year later most of the physical and even the emotional damage has been largely repaired. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency that ascended on the community with scores of personnel was a disappointment in the end and made a lot of promises that they could not fulfill.
For way too many days there was a managed chaos here in the 5 Towns and Far Rockaway with Achiezer making a yeoman’s effort to keep the community functioning, to maintain sanity in families, look after the elderly and find places for people to live until the infrastructure could be put in place to begin rebuilding. Achiezer along with the Community Assistance Fund and the Davis Memorial Fund raised $10 million that it distributed as grants to people so that they could begin the process necessary to get back into their homes without having to endure the frustrating delays that are inherent in insurance companies processing, analyzing and eventually paying claims. They did more and did it better than government can ever do.
The fund was finally closed this summer, but Rabbi Bender points out that on a weekly basis several first time calls are received at the Achiezer office inquiring about applying for financial assistance. “Far too many people are still living in partially restored homes,” he says. I observe that that’s puzzling considering that we are dealing with a largely educated, learned and in many situations professional population. And the Rabbi latches onto those exact comments and says that this very fact has meant for some that a year after Sandy landed here not all lives have been sufficiently restored.
“People who were not accustomed to reaching out for help and not used to taking assistance from others preferred waiting for the bureaucratic process to run its course and for their insurance policy to pay their claim,” Boruch Bender says. But in far too many cases the insurance company fought the claimants and left people in limbo which translated into one year later still living somewhat or some part of their existence in disrepair materially and otherwise.
Today Sandy is a memory that we would like to park in the past, that is in the annals of history but it seems reluctant to go. How events unfolded on that Monday night one year ago is still chilling. Water that is so much a part of and a necessity in our lives was suddenly and uncontrollably everywhere. Not only did it not know any bounds but it wantonly trespassed all its natural boundaries that it once miraculously and magically respected.
It was as if the natural order was turned upside down. “Quite suddenly and surprisingly people who were never needy in their lives were in a matter of hours transformed into people in desperate need,” Rabbi Bender says. In reviewing the events of last year over a cup of coffee last week together with the Rabbi’s affable assistant, Eli Weiss, the nature of the difficulty and the myriad stressful situations that presented themselves over those few days becomes abundantly clear.
There were elderly people trapped in the darkness in high rise apartments particularly along Seagirt Boulevard along the shore of the ocean in Far Rockaway. As they became aware that this was not going to be a matter of a few hours of inconvenience, Achiezer along with the more than 100 Hatzoloh volunteers in the community received frantic calls from people expressing concern about the safety and wellbeing of elderly relatives in these and other situations.
“In the aftermath of this experience,” Rabbi Bender says, “We know have a list of over 100 elderly residents of the area living on their own or with an aid. What he discovered in those first few hours after Sandy struck was that many were dependent on pieces of electrical equipment—sometimes oxygen or other machinery—in order to survive. Without any power in the area this instantly became an matter of life and death.