NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (in brown hat) visiting Congregation Kneseth Israel, the White Shul in Far Rockaway, last week. The Speaker is joined by Met Council Director Willie Rapfogel, Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder, and Rabbi Eytan Feiner.
NYS Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (in brown hat) visiting Congregation Kneseth Israel, the White Shul in Far Rockaway, last week. The Speaker is joined by Met Council Director Willie Rapfogel, Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder, and Rabbi Eytan Feiner.

By Larry Gordon

It is apparently much easier to gauge a disaster by the number of cars lost than through the quotient of human suffering.

So, yes, people have not been in their own kitchens or slept in their own beds for over two weeks now. They gather in places like Chabad of the Five Towns or the Young Israel of Long Beach to have something to eat or to grab a hot cup of coffee. Something as simple as charging a cell phone or a laptop computer has become a special occasion. It can be a satisfying discovery of sorts when you find a location that is accommodating along these lines. But here are the numbers: 250,000 cars have been lost in the deluge now known as Superstorm Sandy. Cars filled with salty seawater had their electronic gadgetry destroyed. They were rendered unusable and irreparable. The interesting thing about this number is that it is the same number of vehicles estimated lost or washed away during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2006.

Last week I walked down Arbuckle, Barnard, and Church Streets in Woodmere with Nassau County Legislator Howard Kopel, his assistant, Avi Fertig, and Moshe Ratner, a local resident, member of Hatzalah, and one of the proprietors of Gourmet Glatt in Cedarhurst. Our first stop was Rabbi Blinder’s shul on Peninsula Boulevard, which was destroyed by the flooding instigated by Sandy.

Inside it was cold, and workers were already hammering away, rebuilding the popular shul. The large safe against the wall of the shul that faces Jerusalem was empty. A lot of shuls now have safes like these to prevent burglary of their precious and valuable Torah Scrolls. Yet the impenetrable safes are useless when it comes up against simple, everyday H2O.

We visited a few homes, most with their entire basement and first floor contents piled high on their front lawns like the garbage they had just become, courtesy of the storm. House after house, without exception, experienced severe flooding. We asked one young woman what it was like during the storm itself, and she said that they all ran up to their bedrooms on the second floor and hoped and prayed that the water would not reach up there. “We cried a lot, too,” she added.

Very few parts of the Five Towns remained unscathed. Some were hit worse than others. The weather improved over this last weekend, and though many were still without electrical power, the warmer conditions made it somewhat more bearable. Not pleasant by any stretch of the imagination, but certainly more tolerable.

In Long Beach on Sunday morning, every which way you turned you saw destruction. The usually clean, almost white sand of the beach that came along with the millions of gallons of cascading salt water seems to have infiltrated every possible nook on this part of Long Island. It’s two weeks since Sandy, and the community is still digging its way out of the disaster.

Rabbi Chaim Wakslak stands outside in front of the shul asking people who approach the synagogue what they need. If it’s a meal, it is inside. If they need someone to help clean out ruined belongings from a flooded home, he has that too. He takes down the address and assigns volunteers as soon as they show up. For the half hour or so that I was there on Sunday morning, there was a steady stream of people looking to help. Some came from the Five Towns, a carload from Teaneck, and still others from Westchester County, Manhattan, as well as a bus filled with volunteers from Boston.

I hear a man say to the rabbi that he is here with his two sons and has two pumps and is ready to assist in pumping water out of a basement. Rabbi Wakslak quickly gives him an address where people require precisely this type of assistance.

Irwin Gershon of the Long Island UJA was on hand directing people as well. UJA has allocated $10 million to those impacted by the storm. He said the money is being funneled through shul rabbis like Rabbi Wakslak. The rabbi overhears our conversation and corrects us–it is not that the money will be given out to assist people with immediate needs; the money (about $50,000) has already been distributed.

Throughout the course of the day, a steady flow of volunteers descended upon the shul looking for a way to be of assistance to people crawling out from the assault of the nearby sea. Whereas water was a serious issue for many nearby communities, here in Long Beach the one-two punch consisted of water and sand that not only invaded but took over homes. The force of the flowing water carrying the sand from the beach with it pushed bolted doors down as if they were toys on a store shelf. The homes flooded with salt water, and when the water eventually receded, the piles of sand remained.

Rivka Bohan, a longtime Long Beach resident and member of the Young Israel, takes us around the shul. The Young Israel building, barely a block from the immensity of the Atlantic Ocean, was an oasis that was miraculously not breached by the water despite its proximity to the sea. It has become a base and hub of activity. The building is dry despite the fact that it features a basement where people now take their meals and where the smaller daily shul is located. In a storm where there was hardly a basement anywhere that was not turned into a bathtub, what you notice at the YILB is its dryness. Sure, there are sandy footprints all over the downstairs burgundy carpet and at some point the place will need to be cleaned up.

In Bayswater, a suburb, so to speak, of Far Rockaway in Queens, the needs are much the same, though the atmosphere and the mood seem different. There is a great deal of mud and debris strewn all over lawns and sidewalks. Here there are National Guardsmen in evidence, something rarely seen in Long Beach or the Five Towns. The men and women dressed in military fatigues are transporting materials and boxes of food. Shortly after I left Bayswater on Sunday afternoon, Yanky Brach called to say that the Guard was about to deliver 4,000 glatt kosher meals to the Bayswater community.

We were there at 2 p.m. and the lunch that was supposed to arrive from a caterer in Brooklyn had not yet arrived. People were getting restless, and Mr. Berkowitz, a resident of the community and one of the remnants of the once-upon-a-time Satmar community in Bayswater, seemed to be coordinating everything going on around us.

Outside the Young Israel building was a large camper-sized command-center vehicle that had its home base insignia inscribed on its side. The vehicle, fully staffed and filled with communication equipment, came to Bayswater from Kiryas Yoel, the Satmar community in Monroe, New York. Perhaps it was because the Satmar community made several attempts to launch and develop a satellite community in Bayswater, they feel an extraordinary attachment to the neighborhood. For the families from that community that stayed, however, they say Bayswater is home and they love it there.

Berkowitz says that the Satmar chevra from Monroe came into town the day after the storm with pumping equipment and for a few days worked almost around the clock pushing water out of basements.

While standing around in the room that is being used for clothing distribution for those in need, I met Sara Stern. A resident of Bayswater and Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Sara says that her home near the shul in Bayswater has for now been turned into a shelter for women and children. She is talking to me and using the word “shelter” and referencing the storm, and I’m wondering if the shelter she is referring to is about families having personal issues or related to homes that cannot be lived in because of Hurricane Sandy. But then, when she clarifies that 25 women and their children are currently living in the house, I summon up some courage, hoping to understand what she’s talking about, and I ask, “What about the men? Where are the men?” To this inquiry she says that the men are at home watching their houses, and though it’s dark and cold most nights, she believes the men are capable of bundling up and dealing with the adverse conditions.

Then it was on to Belle Harbor, a Queens community that was hit particularly hard by the storm but also a community that has demonstrated time and again its fortitude to persevere. Although, granted, these communities never had to deal with anything like this before.

In Belle Harbor, a beautiful pristine sliver of real estate just a stone’s throw from Brooklyn, the expanse between the bay and the ocean is what nightmares are made of. But there is a loyalty and dedication to the community as well as a determination to restore the big shul, Congregation Ohab Zedek on Rockaway Beach Boulevard, and come back stronger than ever.

So far no one is discussing why or how this can happen here. It’s too early for that, and there are too many families displaced and suffering, and that needs to be dealt with as a matter of high priority.

Probably the most practical move in the aftermath of the havoc wreaked by Sandy was the Five Towns reactivation of the CAF–Community Assistance Fund. Founded a few years ago by community leaders as the American economy began to flounder, the CAF was there to help provide the economic glue that kept people and families together. Today the CAF has already accrued over $2 million in commitments, and in the two weeks since the storm already has distributed over a half million dollars to local families.

The fund, run by local community leaders in the Five Towns like Sonny Ganger, Elisha Brecher, and Rabbi Dovid Greenblatt, has sprung into action addressing the most profound community needs. The CAF earmarks short-term economic relief by providing $2,000 per family and $200 in additional funds per child in an effort to assist families to get through this crisis.

And then there is the matter of the electricity and the fact that it has taken more than ten days to two weeks to have power restored. It is sad to report as we write these words, 15 days after the storm struck, that far too many homes are still without power. Even more hurtful or perhaps puzzling is that there are no answers from any of the agencies charged with getting the power turned back on.

As time passes, the negligence, incompetence, and even alleged corruption in LIPA become increasingly startling. People have reported to us here at the 5TJT that once they handed over from $200 to $1,000 or more to power crews, they were then almost instantly treated to having their power turned on.

It looks like short of offering payoffs to linemen, there were no answers to be found to what, how, or when the electricity would be restored. Even elected officials have been stunned by LIPA’s inefficiency and gross negligence. Linesmen from out of New York that we’ve spoken to on the street have related that they had never seen such poor-quality work and that they would not be surprised if the slightest storm would be a catalyst for a repeat performance.

I suppose in summation it would be cogent to characterize what has taken place in our communities by saying that not only were we without power for too long, but that we were powerless in other ways as well.

Hopefully all the lights will be on soon. But this ordeal will certainly not end there. v

Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at editor@5tjt.com.

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