By Larry Gordon
The hope is that Sunday’s communal gathering sponsored by Achiezer and taking place at Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv in Lawrence will be a sort of going-away party for Hurricane Sandy. As we approach the first anniversary of the storm that changed so many lives on the East Coast, especially on the Rockaway Peninsula and the South Shore of Long Island, there is much 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.
Most of the physical and even the emotional damage has been largely repaired. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which descended on the community with scores of personnel, was a disappointment in the end and made a lot of promises that it could not fulfill.
For way too many days, there was a managed chaos here in the Five 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, which it distributed as grants for people to begin the process to get back into their homes without having to endure the frustrating delays that are inherent in the insurance companies’ processing, analyzing, and eventually paying claims. They did more and did it better than government could 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 we are dealing with a largely educated, learned, and professional population. And the rabbi latches on to 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 claims,” 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 in disrepair, materially and otherwise.
Sandy is a memory that we would like to park in the past. 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. It knew no bounds, wantonly trespassing past all the natural boundaries that it once miraculously respected.
It was as if the natural order had been 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 those events over a cup of coffee last week together with Achiezer’s affable Development Coordinator, 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 in Far Rockaway. As people became aware that this was not going to be a matter of a few hours of inconvenience, Achiezer, along with the more than 100 Hatzalah volunteers in the community, received frantic calls from people expressing concern about the safety and well-being of elderly relatives in these and other places.
What Rabbi Bender discovered in those first few hours after Sandy struck was that many were dependent on powered equipment—breathing apparatus or other machinery—in order to survive. Without any electric power in the area, this instantly became a matter of life and death.
“In the aftermath of this experience,” Rabbi Bender says, “we now have a list of over 100 elderly residents of the area living on their own or with an aide.” In addition, Achiezer, Hatzalah, and the local Shomrim are spearheading a communitywide disaster/emergency preparedness program in tandem with local government. The project is being coordinated by Adam Mayer of Inwood.
Another major issue that came to the fore last year is the matter of interpreting and adhering to the government’s declaration to evacuate the area. All day Sunday and on Monday before the storm hit our part of New York, we were receiving automated phone calls about those of us residing in a mandatory evacuation area. For those familiar with the map of the area, the calls said that everyone south of the Sunrise Highway should evacuate. That may be all fine and good—as well as absolve government of liability—but where in the world were we supposed to go?
In my case, I had invitations from family in Brooklyn who never lost power, but we preferred not panicking or overreacting and just staying put. This is not Kansas or Mississippi, so it was unlikely that the houses we were in were going to be flying away anytime soon. It was not more than an hour after the heavy rains and wind set in that the power went off in the entire area. And we had no idea that there would be no electricity for most of the next two weeks.
From the start, the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) was overwhelmed. Even if you were able to get someone on the phone, they could not tell you anything definitive. All they could say was that the crews were out on the streets doing repairs. What they didn’t say was that substations were flooded, transformers had blown, and they were in way over their heads, with no idea when they would have sufficient equipment to restore power.
Some parts of the community out here on this sliver of western Long Island didn’t fare as well. In Cedarhurst and Woodmere, bodies of water spilled over onto the streets, resulting in water rushing at breakneck speed into people’s homes. In other areas, sewage plants were flooded, lost power, and were knocked out of service. In other parts of town, sewage flowed loose, flooding basements and making homes unlivable.
Long Beach was overrun with water that raced in from both the ocean and the bay, inundating the peninsula and submerging homes. It was as if the water forgot where it is supposed to stop.
The destruction was rampant and the stories of survival were endless. The events resulted in a heretofore unseen togetherness that transcended all boundaries. Here in the Five Towns, Yeshiva Sh’or Yoshuv—where Sunday’s anniversary commemoration will take place—became a hub and headquarters that dispensed hot meals and a sense of relief. (The event is scheduled to begin at 2:00 p.m. on October 27. Please see Pages 24–25 of this issue for more information.) Other institutions, such as Chabad of the Five Towns, followed suit. Local supermarkets donated food so that people whose homes were not usable had three meals a day as well as a place to be until alternative housing plans were formulated.
“The result of this near disaster for this and other communities here was the creation of a beautiful but unusual and even uncommon unity to pitch in and help one another,” Rabbi Bender says. And the outcome is a consensus articulated by him—as well as many others he has spoken with over the last year—that if anything was learned from all the trouble, pain, and expense, it is that we should not wait for the next tragedy or misfortune to bring us together. v
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