'We Are A Lost Community," says organizer; volunteers come from near and far.
Two weeks after Hurricane Sandy devastated the East Coast, causing particularly severe damage to beach communities, the Jewish community in this enclave adjacent to Coney Island is still struggling to recover and reeling from what residents say is a lack of attention from authorities.
Numerous houses in the community, which was overrun by storm surge, remain without power or uninhabitable, and five synagogues in the neighborhood were heavily damaged.
Teams of volunteers spent the day there Sunday and Monday, helping residents clear damaged possessions out of waterlogged homes; members of Borough Park’s Shomrim are patrolling the area to keep an eye out for looters.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered a mandatory evacuation of the area during the Oct. 29 storm.
“We have been completely devastated,” said Esther Zicherman, 32, a lifelong resident who has been working to call attention to the plight of the neighborhood, a gated community of about 800 homes established in 1899. It has its own police force, but no commercial area. About 300 families in the community, about 1,500 people, are Orthodox, Zicherman said. Some 90 percent are displaced from their homes.
“Our priority is to get people back into their homes,” said Zicherman, an education consultant. “An entire community has been displaced. The government forgot about us. We are the lost community.”
Aside from Department of Sanitation vehicles that have entered the area to remove debris from the streets, Zicherman says she has seen no other government agency assisting in the recovery.
“No one is looking out for us, we are fending for ourselves,” she said Sunday night, speaking by cell phone from a neighbor’s house, without power or heat, where she is staying.
Mayor Bloomberg visited the area to survey the damage on Nov. 2. E-mails to the mayor’s press secretary for an update on the city’s efforts in Sea Gate were not answered in time for publication.
On Tuesday, Bloomberg announced that the opening of seven Restoration Centers that will distribute disaster relief supplies and offer services, from assistance with benefits to applications for small business loans and information about home repairs, which will be open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. One of the centers will be in Coney Island. The others are in Far Rockaway, Breezy Point, Staten Island, Gravesend, Red Hook, and Throgs Neck-Pelham Bay.
The city also said that 20,000 city workers and contractors were at work on debris removal, storm clean-up, facility rehabilitation and food and aid distribution. A new program, NYC Rapid Repairs, will send teams of contractors and inspectors to homes impacted by Sandy to help homeowners repair and reoccupy their homes more quickly.
Zicherman added that despite the neighborhood’s reputation as a tony enclave, “the community has evolved so much in the last 25 years, and that is completely not the case; 65 percent of the community is working class. They don’t have savings, they don’t have insurance or anything to cover what we have suffered.”
Insurance coverage in the area is limited; for example, property below street level would not be covered by most policies. Policies that are issued have extremely high premiums, Zicherman said, and many families have not purchased them.
“We’ve never experienced a catastrophe of this nature before,” said Zicherman. “We’ve gone through storms, but nothing on this level.”
Any funds from FEMA, she fears, will be “a fraction of what it takes to restore us from the devastation.”
Power, she said, has been only partially restored because Con Edison has yet to certify hundreds of homes ready to receive power after the water damage.
“At this point it will take an enormous amount of funds to get families back into their homes, and even then they won’t have many bedrooms, no washers or dryers or material items or resources. We just want them to be in their own four walls.”
Spigelman, 45, a computer consultant from Baltimore, and his son Dovi, 20, were among several hundred volunteers who spent the day in Sea Gate Sunday. “We all grouped into groups of five men, and were given assignments,” David told The Jewish Week Monday by e-mail. “We went to the houses and did what they needed us to do. Someone had previously gone around and offered assistance to all the residents, asking that if they wanted volunteer help, to sign up on the list.”
“We cleared away 30 years of one man’s life. He couldn’t even get down the stairs to see the damage. I took pictures on my phone to show him. And then the shul ... The sifrei Torah [Torah scrolls] were gone already, as we’re most of the seforim [holy books]. But we still had to bag up pairs of tefillin [phylacteries], tallitot [prayer shawls], some siddurim [prayer books] birchonim [after-meal prayer books] ... We had to break one of the doors because the fridge had floated in front of it, and blocked it, and what was inside that fridge. ... Let’s just say it didn’t smell too good.”
Not far from Sea Gate, the offices of the Jewish Community Council of Coney Island, which assists the elderly, immigrants and others in Coney Island and Brighton Beach, was completely destroyed by six-foot high flood waters during the hurricane.
“Not only was all the equipment, furniture, and files ruined, the walls, ceilings and floors were structurally damaged as well,” wrote executive director Rabbi Moshe Wiener on the organization’s web site. “The damage is so extensive that estimates of restoring JCCGCI's facilities stand at over 1 million dollars in repairs for the main office alone.”
The Sea Gate Jewish community has set up a mailing address for donations to the CYS (Seagate) Hurricane Relief Fund at 3832 Lyme Ave., Sea Gate, NY 11224. Phone pledges may be made (718) 705-9666. A website is at sgsandy.com.
To help the JCC of Coney Island, go to www.jccgi.org.
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