Here is a good question to ponder. At what point will it be possible to have our thoughts and a column or two focus on something other than the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy (or Superstorm Sandy, whichever you prefer to call it)? I think it is going to be a while.
By the way, it seems that what the storm was categorized as is no small matter. A fair number of people had hurricane insurance but not flood insurance. So while Sandy came up the East Coast with unprecedented ferocity, somehow the meteorologists—or maybe it was the insurance companies—downgraded the wind and rain and all the damage that it did to that of a tropical storm. Goodbye, Hurricane Sandy; hello, big problems and spending lots of money to crawl back to the way life was before the big storm.
And the problems caused by this hurricane/storm were legion. Tractor-trailers full of sheimos were carted away from many shuls last week to be buried in upstate New York. Sifrei Torah were accorded their own funeral, as dictated by Jewish law when they are beyond repair. Sofrim are working relentlessly to try to salvage other damaged scrolls.
According to the latest press releases issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, over $600 million has been allocated for storm recovery in the New York area. Over $200 million has been expended in Nassau County, more than $140 million has been allocated for Brooklyn residents, and over $170 million in Queens, which of course includes heavily hit areas like Far Rockaway and Bayswater, amongst other parts of that borough.
Here in the Five Towns, over $2 million has been quickly and quietly put together by private donors looking to help friends and neighbors, thereby sparing many the frustration and difficulty of wading their way through the voluminous paperwork that customarily accompanies applying for almost any kind of government assistance.
On Sunday, December 2, at 11 a.m., Irving Langer, Village of Lawrence trustee and president of Congregation Bais Pinchos/The Harbor View Shul, is to host a meeting and question-and-answer session with FEMA representatives at MBR Seminary in Lawrence. “There are many issues that need clarification,” said Mr. Langer. “We hope and believe that an open and transparent exchange of ideas and FEMA procedures will help clarify many storm-related issues for our community.”
An insurance agent who practices his craft here in the Five Towns tried explaining to the 5TJT the intricacies and nuances of what insurance coverages are out there and how they are being used in the aftermath of the Sandy debacle. This is pretty much what it comes down to: If it is about flooding, regardless of who your insurance carrier is, any money you are awarded from flooding or hurricane-related damage will come from the federal government.
“There are claims with my company,” he said, “that total in the billions of dollars across the region.” He could not speak on the record at press time because his company had not yet authorized him to do so. These insurance reimbursement matters have become extremely sensitive issues, and the insurers need to be very careful about what they say.
My understanding from this agent is that flood insurance can run a typical household anywhere from $400 to $2,000 annually. Depending on where you reside in Far Rockaway or on the South Shore, North Shore, or in any community with the words Shore, Harbor, Sea, Ocean, Water, Stream or any similar water-related reference, you are most likely required by your mortgage company to carry a flood-related policy.
The insurers do not pay for damages incurred by flooding; the U.S. government does, and it seems that when it comes to flooding they will pay whether you have a policy or not. The benefits that you accrue by paying a premium for a flood policy are that you have your own agent or representative to speak to when you have a claim.
As many of you have found out over the last few weeks, while these flood policies may help you get back into your home, when it comes to lost contents that you may have had in a basement, you are out of luck. From what I understand, no flood policies pay for lost contents in an area below street level.
As we said up top, there is hurricane insurance and then there is flood insurance. They seem to be saying that if you live close to a body of water and you have flooding, well, you should have known better. On the other hand, a hurricane is the kind of natural phenomenon that can get you just about anywhere. I have heard from people who felt fortunate to have had hurricane insurance, except for the fact that as the storm hit it was downgraded to a so-called tropical storm. So much for hurricane insurance.
And now Governor Cuomo is saying that, all told, Sandy did about $42 billion worth of damage in New York. Governor Christie adds that in New Jersey the damage has been assessed at $30 billion. Mr. Cuomo said the physical damage done in New York is greater than that inflicted upon New Orleans by Katrina after the deluge there in 2006.
It is not so evident in Nassau County, but in the city and particularly in the part of Nassau that is attached to Queens, you can see police officers and traffic-control personnel stationed at just about every intersection. Well, all that overtime for the men and women in blue is also coming from the federal government, and when it is over it is expected to exceed $100 million. And, by the way, the governor said that more than four weeks after Sandy hit, there are still about 25,000 homes without power. That is most likely upwards of 100,000 people. It is both unreal as well as unacceptable.
Our friend in the insurance business says he has received hundreds of calls seeking information about buying flood insurance. Remember that FEMA is in many cases paying to some extent anyway. Perhaps the feeling is that if we have flood or hurricane insurance, this won’t happen again. At least not too fast or too soon.
The problems run the gamut. Eti Shoor, who runs a subsidiary of Achiezer, says she has documented some 700 families who are either out of their homes or whose homes need repairs in order to make them livable. She and her volunteers from around the country have developed a system that partners families in need with families unaffected by Sandy to help them work through the process of getting their regular lives back and even mentoring children in the affected families.
Rina Shkolnik of the JCC of the Five Towns has been working relentlessly and tirelessly over the last month helping with donations to clean up and prepare temporary dwellings so that families can resume something resembling normalcy. And all the food in the refrigerators and cupboards of most of these homes has come from the very busy JCC food pantry in Woodmere.
Rabbi Boruch Ber Bender, the CEO of Achiezer, is probably the person most involved in all aspects of dealing with the damage inflicted on the community by Sandy. “There are a lot of people out there who are still suffering,” he said, “and we are working around the clock to get them back into their homes.” To that end, he added, some of the restrictions on the $10,000 loans being offered by the Community Assistance Fund for water heaters, boilers, and basic repairs in homes have been loosened. In addition, Achiezer has enlisted the services of a Washington, DC-based attorney who specializes in FEMA issues. A meeting is taking place with the attorney and community leaders on Thursday.
Rabbi Moshe Lieberman, a well-known Five Towns sofer, said that his experience so far has been with tefillin that people left in their cars which filled with water, and with one shul that nearly lost five Torah scrolls. “It’s of course not a good situation when tefillin become submerged in water,” Rabbi Lieberman told us the other day. “Aside from the batim becoming warped and losing their symmetry, the water wears away at the parchment inside, causing the letters to run into one another.”
“I believe that the sefer Torah scrolls might be salvageable,” he said, though he pointed out that large sections will need to be cut out, buried, and replaced with new sections sewn in. He adds that in addition to the damage the water did to the lettering, the colors from the Torah covers ran and became integrated into the parchment, discoloring them. Rabbi Lieberman said the damage to the scrolls might run between $10,000 and $20,000.
Bayswater is still getting a handle on things and trying to go forward. For this Shabbos, Belle Harbor has procured large trailers to house their temporary minyan in the parking lot of the shul that was badly damaged in the flooding. The shul is an imposing structure just one block from the ocean on Rockaway Beach Boulevard.
In Long Beach, the restoration and the rebuilding goes on. The Young Israel, under the leadership of Rabbi Chaim Wakslak, continues to be the hub of activity. Last Shabbos the American Red Cross was the host of the Shabbos kiddushim in both Long Beach and Bayswater. The Yeshiva of Long Beach has temporarily relocated to the Raleigh Hotel in Fallsburg, New York.
The word is that hundreds of families will not be able to move back into their homes for up to six months. It is certainly an imposition as well as agonizing. Home is a place where a person is afforded the opportunity to relax and unwind at the end of the day. Now the job has fallen to us to make these displaced families at home wherever home may temporarily be. There are remarkable life-changing chesed opportunities out there these days. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.