As year anniversary nears, ‘it brings back memories’; trauma specialists called in for students.
One year after Superstorm Sandy ravaged buildings and displaced families throughout the New York area, many children are unable to keep up in school, are finding it difficult to sleep and are experiencing eating disorders. Some have even turned to drugs.
“Here they were, trying to study for exams and living in a strange house — often while their parents stayed in another house,” said Joel Block, executive director of the JCC of the Greater Five Towns, whose own Merrick, L.I., home was flooded by Sandy with six feet of water.
“There was no one to help them with their schoolwork and everything about their world had been turned upside down,” he said. “They had a tough, tough time.”
Kathy Rosenthal, vice president of FEGS Family Services and Long Island Regional Operations, said the disruption proved so traumatic for some students that her organization has partnered with the JCC to “help them function better. Some of the students will need both tutoring and counseling.”
She said FEGS recently received several grants that will help fund these and other programs, including $119,000 from UJA-Federation of New York.
FEGS and the JCC will be collaborating, Rosenthal said, to provide a comprehensive array of services designed to address the academic and emotional needs of the children in the impacted area.
She said FEGS would be “bringing in specialists who will work with children with trauma.”
But children aren’t the only ones still suffering from the storm that hit with devastating force a year ago this week.
“Thousands of people are still having problems, either because they are living in situations that are unsafe, because they are still displaced or in various stages of rebuilding and recovery,” Rosenthal said. “We are still doing disaster case management.”
Rosenthal noted that last month the last of a total of $900,000 in emergency cash assistance was distributed. The money went to 500 families affected by the storm; they received up to $2,000 each.
Among the families receiving the cash assistance were the Safers of Cedarhurst: Sandy, her husband, Barry, and their adult daughter, who has medical needs; their son was away at the time of the storm.
The Safers, who had received phone alerts from Nassau County asking them to evacuate, remained in their home. Sandy Safer said they remained because their basement had remained dry in other storms and hurricanes during the 25 years they had lived there, and she was suffering at the time from a migraine headache.
But Safer said that as they watched the water in the street rise, “there was a huge boom, the sub pump stopped because the electricity went off, and water started coming in through the foundation. My husband was standing in the middle of the basement, water was pouring in like you saw in the movie, The Ten Commandments, and he started screaming, ‘Sandy, we’re going to die.’”
Exercise equipment, office material, file cabinets, the washer and dryer, and other items that filled the newly carpeted finished basement began to float.
“Barry was paralyzed by it,” Safer said. “I had to physically pull him and drag him up the stairs.”
The basement filled with water, which rose to just below the first floor.
They had no flood insurance and lived in a one-room apartment in Lawrence for seven weeks.
“We had to layout about $150,000,” Safer said. “And we borrowed an equal amount from family. We lost our two cars. It took about nine months to get all the repair work done.”
Rosenthal said special effort is now being given to helping families deal with the problem of mold in their homes either because it was never addressed or because the remediation effort did not do the job. And for many others, the job of rebuilding is far from over.
“We are aware of 60 families who are still not back in their homes,” said Richard Hagler, executive director of the Hebrew Academy of Long Island (HALB).
Elisheva Trachtenberg, a social worker and the Hurricane Sandy project coordinator at the Jewish Community Council of the Rockaway Peninsula, said her office is still seeing many homeless Jewish families and that many families are turning to the organization’s food pantry.
She said there had been a run on the food pantry right after the storm hit last Oct. 29. It then leveled off, but “in the last months attendance at our food pantry has increased tremendously.”
Interestingly, Trachtenberg said, her office has seen “more Jewish residents recently who were affected by the storm and had not sought help before.”
She said, “Many people were renters who had hoped the owners of their homes would make repairs. But they are now coming in asking for new housing because the owners have not made any repairs.”
Trachtenberg noted that an attorney from the New York Legal Assistant Group comes to her office weekly and is explaining to these renters that they have certain rights. The attorney is also still handling FEMA appeals and is working with people whose insurance company failed to cover all the repairs their homes required.
Her office receives funding for the food pantry from the American Red Cross. In addition, funding for other programs comes from UJA-Federation of New York and the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. The latter organization has a team of workmen who visit people’s homes to make Sandy-related repairs through a program called Metropair; there is a waiting list for this help.
Roberta Leiner, senior vice president of agency relations at UJA-Federation of New York, said it “could be months and years before communities deeply impacted will fully recover.”
“The issue of housing has been a major, critical issue that is very difficult to resolve,” she said. “It complicates people’s lives in multiple ways.”
She said that during the weeks and months after the storm when people were trying to reestablish themselves, to find shelter and deal with financial issues, issues of trauma didn’t surface.
“But now, a year after the event, we’re starting to see it,” Leiner said.
In response, Rabbi Toni Shy began work this week to provide spiritual and trauma counseling to adults affected by the storm.
Leiner said FEGS, UJA-Federation, the Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, and the Jewish Theological Seminary all worked together to make that happen.
“This was a perfect opportunity to organize an endeavor that married the resources of traditional mental health as well as spiritual care,” she said.
In responding to the storm, UJA-Federation took $10 million from its endowment, created a relief fund that collected $6 million, and started the program, Connect to Recovery.
The $16 million has been allocated to 200 network agencies, synagogues and Jewish day schools, Leiner noted.
Next week, UJA-Federation leadership will be meeting to analyze the impact of what they have accomplished and determine the unmet needs that remain to be addressed.
Among those who have returned to their newly rebuilt homes is Edith Mazel, 77, a lifelong resident of Long Beach who has lived in the same home for 50 years. She said she evacuated to her daughter’s home in Oceanside ahead of the storm and later stayed with relatives while her home was repaired.
“It was a one-story house and everything was lost — all the furniture and appliances,” she said. “I needed everything. … It took seven months to redo the house.”
Mazel said she had no flood insurance and received the maximum of $38,000 from FEMA and $2,000 from FEGS.
“I wanted to come back,” she said. “I like it here. But if it happens again, I’m going to put a match to the house.”
Felicia Solomon said she returned to her Long Beach home at the end of March after it had been inundated with 18 inches of water.
“Mold remediation took weeks,” she said. “We had flood insurance. It cost more than $75,000 to make all the repairs and the insurance company covered the inside damage but not the outside.”
Solomon said she considers herself fortunate that she evacuated and took her cars with her because “all of my neighbors’ cars were destroyed.”
She said there was no question that she was going to rebuild and she said she saved and restored as much furniture as possible.
“I love my stuff and did not want to get rid of it,” Solomon said. “I lived in this neighborhood my whole life. I’m not expecting to have to do it again from another Sandy.”
She noted that in the aftermath of the storm, one of her sons, Zachary, 24, founded the Comfort Long Beach Initiative that coordinated recovery efforts, raised $150,000 and allocated that money to aid redevelopment projects in the area.
Hagler said two of HALB’s three campuses — Long Beach and Woodmere — sustained significant damage. The third in Hewlett Bay Park suffered primarily wind damage.
“Our Long Beach school had loads and loads of sand inside the building and in the boilers and the lighting — everything was damaged,” he said.
It took weeks before the first floor could be cleaned and air and structural checks made to ensure the building’s safety.
“We didn’t have it easy,” Hagler said. “The spirit of the students, their families and the faculty is what kept us going.”
He added that because the bookroom at the Woodmere school was destroyed, books that filled two dumpsters had to be discarded, as well as “30 to 50 bags of sforim [sacred books] that had to be buried.”
Meanwhile, at the West End Temple in Neponsit, the congregation’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Marjorie Slome, said the rebuilding of her synagogue’s sanctuary is still incomplete but that services are being held in the large, newly refurbished all-purpose room.
“We have one big workable room,” she said. “Classrooms in the nursery school are done, but the upstairs religious school rooms have to be primed. We also need a lot of masonry work and the windows need to be replaced. We had broken windows on the third floor because of the strong wind, and we’re getting estimates to repair the roof. We also need a new heating system.”
Insurance covered $1 million of the repairs, the rabbi observed.
In making the repairs, Rabbi Slome said, “we are thinking about how to make it stronger for the next storm. …We want to be done with all of the reconstruction in five or six months.”
Three couples whose adult children live in the metropolitan area sold their homes to be near their children, she said.
“I thought more would move. They closed Peninsula Hospital and now the closest hospital is in Far Rockaway, which is not a hop, skip and a jump.”
As the date of the super storm nears, Solomon said she and her neighbors are getting anxious.
“It brings back memories. It was a huge trauma; it really hit me. Every person I speak to – everyone – is anxious about the one-year anniversary. … If it happens again, we’re all out of here.”
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