Rabbi Dr. Chaim Wakslak
Rabbi Dr. Chaim Wakslak

The headline of this essay could be problematic, because for so many people the impact and devastation wrought by the hurricane/superstorm called Sandy is not something that can be revisited. It is still very much present here in our midst, with hundreds of families still suffering from what she has produced.

“That is one of the big problems,” said Dr. Hillel Fox, a psychologist with Ohel’s Project Hope, a program developed to deal with the psychological dimension of what the storm experience has done to families, individuals, and indeed entire communities. “People look around and see that their friends and many of their neighbors and co-workers have moved on past Sandy and have gotten their lives together,” Dr. Fox said. “But in all too many instances and for reasons that are often beyond their control they are unable to move on.”

Ettie Schoor of Nivneh, the post-Sandy subdivision of Achiezer that is focused on housing and home repairs, concurs. “What took place and the effect it had both physically and emotionally on our communities is far from over,” Ms. Schoor said. Schoor adds that she is surprised it’s been as long as nine weeks ago. She says her group is dealing with issues resulting from the storm to such a degree that it seems as if it had all taken place just last week.

It’s actually a bit more than ten weeks since Hurricane Sandy hit the south shore of Long Island with unprecedented ferocity. To Rabbi Boruch Ber Bender, the founder and director of Achiezer, the focus of the group he originally envisioned and created just a few years ago has changed dramatically. He says that while no one could have anticipated the severity of the fallout from the storm, by working around the clock, and sometimes under emergency and high-pressure conditions, the organization has risen to the occasion and has become a lifeline for many in this community and beyond.

Today, when you walk down some streets here in the Five Towns, Far Rockaway, Long Beach, Belle Harbor, Oceanside, and other hard-hit areas of the city and Long Island, it looks very much like it did a week or two weeks after the storm. At night, though the streetlights are illuminated–which they weren’t for nearly two weeks–many of the houses on streets like Jarvis in Far Rockaway or Barnard in Woodmere are eerily dark. And it’s not just one or two isolated homes that could not get their act together on reconstruction or other needed repairs. It is the majority of these homes that were rendered unlivable by Sandy and to this day are still unlivable.

The stories about why it is taking so long vary greatly. Mostly it is a shortage of money. It can be waiting for the insurance company to make good on a policy or more federal aid to come down the pike from Washington. But after all this time, for those still displaced the ramifications in many instances are even greater.

“The sense of security that a person usually lives with in the comfort and privacy of their own homes was violated here,” says Dr. Chaim Wakslak, a practicing psychologist and the rabbi of Young Israel of Long Beach, whose oceanfront community was hit particularly hard. “And when that space is torn apart the way it was in this instance,” the rabbi says, “people become unsettled, insecure, and depression sets in, and that open up the passageway to an assortment of additional problems.”

So, in a nutshell, we are dealing with a combination of construction woes, homes that are not suitable to be inhabited, a lack of responsiveness on the part of insurers, and an inadequate response from FEMA despite all the staff and satellite offices that were set up with much fanfare–all of which spawned a plethora of social and personal problems that mental-health professionals are now dealing with.

“Our staff psychologist was, up until Sandy struck, working and counseling people twice a week,” says Rabbi Bender. Now there are not enough days in the week or hours in the day to deal with the demand and the caseload. “Everyone has been affected by what happened,” he says. “The elderly, the young, the middle-aged, men, women, and children.” Today, he adds, the issue for many is advocacy and people’s inability to deal with the myriad bureaucratic obstacles and the excruciatingly slow government handling of the largest problems.

That is perhaps where Ettie Schoor and her husband, Asher, entered the picture. The Schoors saw at an early stage that there would be many needs that only volunteers detached from the immediacy of the trauma would be able to effectively deal with. “People have been displaced and do not know when they will be back in their homes,” Ettie Schoor says. To deal with the myriad issues growing out of that difficult reality, her group has organized hundreds of volunteers from around the country as well as Canada and Israel to become what she calls “Partners in Sandy.” The partner’s effort can be best characterized as one family adopting another and overseeing their everyday interests and concerns.

Partners talk to family members daily, or sometimes many times a day depending on their needs. “It is important for someone who has had their daily life spin completely out of control to know that they have someone they can not only lean on emotionally, but someone whom they can depend on to get things done for them because they are overwhelmed with life and its details, perhaps even from the time before the arrival of the storm,” Ms. Schoor says.

For people who feel that they are somewhat adrift or losing control of the situation, it is most important to know that there are extraordinarily well-meaning people out there just waiting to hear from them, what their needs are, ready to assist to the maximum.

Tzivy Reiter is the director of the previously mentioned Project Hope program of Ohel. The program, which is being funded by FEMA (here’s something you can actually point to that they did) is fashioned after what Ms. Reiter, a clinical social worker, calls a disaster mental-health model. She says it is not dissimilar to Project Liberty, which was developed in the months following 9/11 when the trauma of those events slowly sank in and affected many thousands of people with all kinds of complex and even debilitating consequences.

“In the immediate aftermath of a disaster like Sandy, there is a great deal of community support,” Ms. Reiter says. “But then as time goes by and people’s situations do not appreciably improve, it begins to emotionally wear on them and their family members.” Project Hope deals with the reality of these not-unexpected situations.

Tzivy Reiter calls what many people are now experiencing a “disillusionment phase.” She says there are a number of coping strategies that people can be taught to integrate into their daily lives. Project Hope is operating throughout New York City and Long Island, and their crisis counselors are able to visit clients and families in their homes, making it unnecessary for people to visit an office, which some may feel somewhat stigmatizing. Tzivy Reiter of Ohel can be reached at 718-686-3294.

Many of the difficult personal and family issues coming in the aftermath of the storm are a manifestation of the economics involved. After all, what in the world do you do when you suddenly find yourself bereft of all your earthly possessions, your cars floating away into disrepair and your home destroyed by a combination of torrential floodwaters and stinking, uncontrollably flowing sewage? What do you do when your insured replacement value for contents is $100,000 and you’ve lost several times that amount in personal property, and construction costs run an additional several hundred thousand dollars?

And then the insurance company that you’ve loyally and obediently paid premiums to for years decides to become more picky than usual and discounts a number of items and areas of the home that they say are not covered by your policy. How are you supposed to react when FEMA offers you painstaking and redundant paperwork to fill out and then sends you a check for $1,800 or, even worse, a letter of denial without explanation?

That is where the Community Assistance Fund directed and overseen by Rabbi Dovid Greenblatt and associates came into the picture and picked people up from virtual ruin and despondency. Originally organized in response to the global economic downturn in 2007, the fund was created to provide economic assistance to those who lost employment and could no longer meet their financial obligations.

Local and other philanthropists created a fund to keep people afloat and families together. No one could have anticipated at the time that the fund, which was essentially dormant over the last few years, would have to be brought back to life–and in a major way–following the destruction wrought by Sandy.

The individual stories are endless. Valuables were lost, possessions gone, home businesses and their records destroyed. People were at a loss about what to do and where to turn. It was a true godsend that by this time the Achiezer organization had already decided that their Far Rockaway office on Seagirt Boulevard and Beach 9th Street was inadequate. The board and leaders of the organization rightfully believed that they needed more of a presence, a visibility in the community. And did they ever get both, courtesy of Sandy!

Achiezer and the CAF quickly mobilized and handed out checks for $2,000—3,000 per family, depending on need. Then the next phase distributed $10,000 per family to assist people in getting back into their homes by helping them buy new boilers and water heaters, deal with mold, and close up the walls.

But that was determined to still not be sufficient. Now in Phase 3, the CAF is making grants of $15,000 per family to begin home reconstruction and repairs. While a great deal of the money has come from local private donors, significant funding has come from major outside philanthropists who do not want to be identified. Both Rabbi Bender and Ettie Schoor lavish significant credit on COJO of the West Side and other COJO organizations around the city.

No one can deny that this was a new and unusual experience for all of us. We all plodded our way through this thing with varying degrees of success as well as the unfortunate opposite experience. Granted that most have been able to recover to varying degrees, but almost everyone in the process admits that far too many are continuing to live outside their homes and are struggling to some extent.

Rabbi Wakslak relates that he received a call from an individual from Manhattan the other day who said he wanted to help. But, the rabbi says, the man said that just donating money and having it distributed around the community is not what he was looking for. He wanted his largesse to be focused on one family and he wanted to take care of everything they needed.

The rabbi said he thought about the request for a day and then connected the man to a family that literally lost everything in the storm, including a business that was run out of the home. Rabbi Wakslak said the other day that the individual paid for all their repairs and reconstruction, paid all their household bills, and is helping to rebuild the business that was lost.

“What can I say about it?” the rabbi asked. “I would just say that despite the difficulties and hardships, it is clear that the chesed opportunities out there are boundless.” v

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


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