Three Months On, Still Struggling After Sandy

Three months after Hurricane Sandy released havoc on the tri-state area, the eastern boroughs continue to suffer the repercussions. Some receive assistance, others are left with the pieces. While much of mainstream media attention dims the light on the storm, segments of the New York community and ethnic media keep the candle burning for the darkened and demolished homes, businesses and lives on the edges of Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island.

The Jewish Week‘s Steve Lipman looks at the Jewish institutions in South Brooklyn still struggling to return after Sandy. South Brooklyn, like other low-lying areas in the city, endured the brunt of the hurricane. Among the destruction lay Jewish homes, businesses and centers. Many in this part of the Jewish community have roots in the former Soviet Union. Now, months after Sandy, little has changed.

Sights like this proliferate throughout Sea Gate, Brooklyn, months after Hurricane Sandy rattled through. (Photo by Michael Datikash/The Jewish Week)

“There are institutions that are reeling,” families living in homes whose walls are lined with mold, other families still living in friends’ cramped basements, says William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

“Sadly, because of the Washington, D.C. delays in passing [storm-recovery] funding for New York, the [recovery] activities are far behind where they should be.”

The continuing problems in southern Brooklyn are “very representative of those [Jewish institutions] in Zone A, those areas that had the [most severe] impact,” says Rapfogel, whose organization focuses primarily on the financial and psychological needs of families. “There still are people out there who need help.”

Lipman paints a sobering image of what’s left of Sea Gate.

A drive last week along Seagate’s Atlantic Avenue, where homes have the ocean for backyards, reveals the damage — piles of discarded goods at curbside, empty lots where homes once stood, houses whose empty rooms offer an unimpeded view from the front window to the rear window. Sand is everywhere, carried inland by the surging currents, and not yet removed.

All these homes, many where Jewish families lived, are deserted, says Julie Greenberg, a Kiev-born Seagate resident. Verizon has yet to restore phone service to anyone in the gated neighborhood, she says.

The Mazel School in Brighton Beach resumed classes for its 130 students in pre-nursery to sixth grade using empty classrooms in other areas. The school opened in 2002 by parents who sought a Jewish education pertinent to families from the former Soviet Union. These families helped to clean up the school and have brought in over $30,000 through fundraising efforts (donatemazel.com).

However, fundraising for institutions such as the Mazel Day School is burdened by the reduced incomes of its supporters, with their money having to go to their own rebuilding efforts as well as limited expenses due to lost jobs.

Have residents moved on or will they stay among the remnants of home?

Some residents of the flooded areas have left for good, preferring safer — inland — places to live.

In Seagate, “a few have left,” Rabbi Brikman says. Most residents of the neighborhood say they will return when their homes become habitable, they tell him.

“I encourage them to rebuild,” he says. In the wake of 9/11, he asks, who knows where is safe. “You can’t run.”

In nearby Coney Island, Brooklyn Bureau‘s Neil deMause reports that low-income housing residents face slow cleanups, complete with power outages, piles of garbage, concerns of mold, and a frustrating wait for relocation and repairs.

“When you drive into Coney Island, everything doesn’t look so bad. But when you get inside of these buildings, it’s a horror,” said Pastor Connie Hulla.

Wiring runs through the ground-floor windows at NYCHA’s Seaside Gardens. (Photo by Neil deMause/City Limits)

While electricity and heat are back on throughout the West End, residents say that many buildings are still limping along with partial power and recurrent heat outages. Marcie Jackson, a resident of the sprawling Seaside Gardens complex between Surf Avenue and Mermaid Avenue, says the heat there is shut off at 10 p.m. each night, thanks to temporary boilers patched into place after the storm. “That’s crazy!” she says in amazement. “You got people in the building with little babies, and they cut the heat off!” Hulla says she’s been asked by NYCHA not to provide tenants with electric heaters, for fear of starting fires.

Then there’s the broken garbage compactors.

Across Surf Avenue in the NYCHA-owned Coney Island Houses, tenant association vice-president Steve St. Bernard says that the broken garbage compactors that left residents to pile up garbage in hallways remain broken three months after the storm. “We do have a little stench in the buildings,” he says. “There’s 544 apartments, and all that garbage being put in the hall and staying overnight until the maintenance comes the next day, that is creating a rodent and roach situation.” Meanwhile, residents of Gravesend Houses near Coney Island Creek say they’ve been visited by a plague of mid-winter mosquitoes. “I close my sink up at night so they don’t come through,” says Gravesend resident Dolores Johnson. “In the basement, it smells just like the sewer.”

In places like Gerritsen Beach and Coney Island, there’s the problem of mold, particularly in homes that weren’t properly cleaned after Sandy, whether because they were abandoned or landlords did not have the money. Hulla “claims mold has taken root in both the low-rise single family homes that dot the neighborhood and in the NYCHA-owned high rises that house most of Coney’s population.”

There, stairwells still reek of dank, wet sand nearly three months after the storm; Hulla says she’s heard reports of mold starting to creep up inside walls and elevator shafts to the upper floors.

Hulla continues to help residents navigate the abundance of bureacratic entities that rule the rebuilding process, including insurance companies, FEMA and Rapid Repairs, a city program that helps residents make emergency repairs so they can stay in their homes while trying to fix damages.

“I find that the process is so complicated—people are being sent from place to place,” she says, while Rapid Repairs “is just backlogged,” citing an example of one local resident who waited 12 hours for workers to show up, then had to return to his damaged home the next day to wait even longer.

“It’s just difficult,” continues Hulla. “Everybody lost their cars here, if you were lucky enough to have a car. So how much time do you have to spend going from place to place? You’re tired, you’re sick, living in deplorable conditions. It’s a hard thing.”

An Occupy Sandy sign hangs at headquarters at St. Jacobi Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. (Photo from Postcards, Post-Sandy, via The Indypendent)

Occupy Sandy volunteers are quite familiar with the problem of mold. Its members have tried to rid neighborhoods of mold bacteria, but with approxiamately 70,000 to 80,000 homes hit by water damage and thousands of residents displaced or living in bacteria-hit buildings, the mold clean-up require greater efforts, Peter Rugh reports on WagingNonviolence.org, and republished on The Indypendent.

The article gives a rundown of efforts by Occupy Sandy to fill in the gaps left by big money and big organizations. Volunteers deliver food, clothing and medicine at Occupy Sandy headquarters at St. Jacobi Lutheran Church in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. According to Pastor Juan Carlos Ruiz, “From day one, Occupy put down its principles of solidarity and mutual aid. And that has made all the difference because it has cut through all the bureaucratic and corporate tape. Otherwise we would still be waiting for help.”

Occupy and allies continue to perform day-to-day relief functions and have begun to institute long-term recovery projects in affected areas. Meanwhile, a new storm has begun to gather. Fifty billion dollars from the federal government is expected to begin rolling into disaster areas in the coming months. Funds will be filtered through what Eddie Bautista, of the New York Environmental Justice Alliance (NYEJA), calls the “Disaster Industrial Complex” or “D.I.C.” — an intricate network of government agencies and contractors. The groups on the ground that stepped up while these agencies that collect our tax dollars slept in are pushing for a recovery that is bottom-up, not top-down.

As for the mold build-up, recovery may emerge soon, as Queens Courier reports that the mayor’s office is now taking action against the problem.

Though FEMA assistance can help homeowners deal with some of the devastating effects of Sandy, there is no direct federal funding for mold removal.

A new program aims to solve that issue for around 2,000 homes in hard-hit areas.

Using private money raised to help storm victims, the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, in partnership with the American Red Cross and Robin Hood Foundation, is sponsoring a $15 million mold remediation program, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently announced.

The mold treatment will be performed free of charge by private contractors and nonprofit organizations.

Then there’s Queens.

Breezy Point boasts a large Irish community which has seen help from Irish organizations both local and abroad. Members of the Gaelic Players Association – a non-profit sports organization in Ireland made of Irish hurling and football athletes – joined volunteers from the airline Aer Lingus to help rebuild youth sports facilities destroyed by the storm, with the GPA also donating sports equipment, reports Irish Central. The 18-member group, which will stay on site to continue reconstruction efforts, comes after a visit by members of the GPA last November to the Rockaway Peninsula, who promised to help the local youth athletic program.

Speaking about the visit GPA chairman Dónal Óg Cusack commented; “The visit by the travelling GAA/GPA All-Stars to this extraordinary Irish-American community was a very moving experience last November. We were invited out by the local people, to bring the Sam Maguire and help provide a boost to morale. However, when we got there we were taken aback by the extent of the devastation. We were equally inspired by the spirit of the community; there was a real sense of joy in seeing players arrive in the area. It was at that moment we resolved to return and provide some practical support to the reconstruction effort – and helping the local sports programme through our friend and community member Tim Devlin was, we felt, the best way to do that.”

Tim Devlin, a Breezy Point resident, described how the GPA has helped rebuild the community’s losses.

“In Breezy Point we lost not only our homes but many of the buildings and athletic fields used by our community organizations. When the GPA reached out to donate to our community I suggested our CYO Athletic Programme. The GPA project has enabled us to replace the gym floor and sporting equipment lost in the storm as well as provide new uniforms to all of the participants. The GPA’s interest in Breezy Point has also spearheaded an expanding fundraising effort among many Irish and Irish-American organizations.”

It didn’t take long for a swath of Breezy Point to realize the consequences of Hurricane Sandy, which unleash a blaze that destroyed 126 homes and damaged 22 more. In a December article, Queens Courier reported that the FDNY found, according to Fire Commissioner Salvatore Cassano, that most of the fires “were sparked by sea water impacting electrical systems and components in and around these structures.”

Kieren Burke stands in the remains of his Breezy Point home, destroyed by a massive fire during Hurricane Sandy. (Photo by Alexa Altman/Queens Courier)

More recently, Queens Courier reports that when resident Kieren Burke, who lost his house in the blaze, found that the cause of the fire was electric and that power company LIPA could have have turned off the area’s electricity before the hurricane, he started a lawsuit against LIPA. The suit now involves 90 residents. Each is suing for a different amount, with the highest claim standing at $1.5 million.

“[LIPA’s] negligence destroyed my home and incinerated 40 years worth of memories,” said Burke. “That was my childhood home, I raised my family there.”

He added, “Their negligence nearly killed me.”

Amidst the stories of destruction and unknown futures, some places have managed to return. For Poles on Staten Island, the borough’s branch of the Polish-American non-profit Polonians Organized to Minister to Our Community, has resumed operations after three months of closure, reports Nowy Dziennik. The organization’s acronym, POMOC, means “aid,” “assistance” or “support” in Polish. Below is a translation of the original article in Polish by Aleksandra Slabisz, who also did the translation.

“Hurricane Sandy completely flooded our office. The water was six feet high inside. It was a scary sight. Everything in our office was destroyed, including our furniture, equipment and documents,” says Ewa Kornacka, executive director of POMOC Inc., a non-profit which for over 30 years has provided assistance in social and immigration matters to Poles in the New York area.

The Staten Island branch of POMOC, which first opened in mid-2010, uses an office donated to the organization by Atlas Bank. The building, which the bank rents, is located close to the shore in an area among the most affected by Hurricane Sandy. “Many buildings in the neighborhood will have to be demolished because of the scope of post-hurricane damage,” says Ms. Kornacka.

POMOC’s Zofia Mossakowska in a newly renovated, though still not fully-furnished, office in Staten Island. (Photo via Nowy Dziennik, courtesy of POMOC)

For almost three months following the hurricane, Staten Island residents who needed POMOC’s assistance were referred to the organization’s Ridgewood branch. Now the location at 339 Sand Lane in Staten Island has finally opened, though still lacks furniture. Ms. Zofia Mossakowska – the organization’s representative – works on borrowed equipment. The branch is open on Mondays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. till 5 p.m. and on Fridays from 10 a.m. till 3 p.m.

The Staten Island branch of POMOC offers assistance for immigrants who need help filling out immigration documents such as those for family sponsorship or citizenship. It also offers help in applying for social assistance. The programs are financed primarily by city councilmen representing Staten Island, with James Oddo being cited by the organization as the politician who has greatly helped POMOC.

Last year, in the period from January through August, some 250 people benefited from the assistance offered by POMOC. (Statistics for the months of September and October were destroyed by Sandy, and the office was closed in November and December, also because of Hurricane Sandy).

While POMOC managed to bring back the Staten Island branch, it has been facing its own financial challenges independent of Hurricane Sandy.

The main branch of POMOC Inc. is located in Ridgewood, Queens, where it uses space donated by Maspeth Federal Savings Bank. The organization moved its headquarters there in December 2011 after losing its space in Maspeth due to financial difficulties. Earlier, also because of tight finances, it was forced to close its Brooklyn branch.

“Insufficient funding continues to be our biggest problem. This can’t be stressed enough,” says Ms. Kornacka.

Howard Beach in Queens is welcoming businesses back as well, reports Queens Chronicle. Sapienza’s Deli is among the dozens of eateries and stores in the neighborhood returning to relative normalcy.

Angelo Mugnolo, owner of Sapienza’s, said he was able to open for business about three weeks after Sandy.

“We lost our compressors, our refrigerators, we needed everything new,” Mugnolo said. “Thank God for FEMA.”

Mugnolo said his regular customers have come back, especially for his deli’s trademark pastrami sandwiches.

Travel agent Glenn Dybus of Cross Bay Travel said business there is “back to normal” after the office building was damaged and needed new floors. Its four employees worked from home during the office’s closure.

“We were out until the day after Thanksgiving,” he explained. “We were still able to work from our homes.”

Dybus said business is booming as local residents seek escape.

“After the shock of the hurricane and its aftermath, people just need to get away I guess,” he said.

Sometimes, it’s not just strictly about getting a business back on its feet, it’s also a matter of community morale.

State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) said he still has concerns about the state of businesses along Cross Bay Boulevard and in Coleman Square near the subway station, which was also devastated by the storm. He said it was both economically and psychologically important for these establishments to be open.

“We need them up and running for the morale and service provided by these businesses,” Addabbo said.

Despite business chugging back to normal on the boulevard, some say it will still be some time before the neighborhood looks like it did before Sandy.

“It’ll be two to three more months before Howard Beach is back to normal,” Mugnolo said.

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