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September 29, 2016 / 26 Elul, 5776
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Jewish Communities Among Dozens Decimated By Hurricane Sandy

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“It’s like a war zone,” said Rabbi Akiva Eisenstadt, surveying the damage in Manhattan Beach, a day after Hurricane Sandy swept through New York. “It’s beyond anything anyone has ever seen.”

Manhattan Beach, on the southern tip of Brooklyn, was one of several communities in the tri-state area pummeled by the storm, which caused, across the eastern coast of the country, an estimated $20 billion in property damage and left at least 55 Americans dead and 8.2 million without power.

By Wednesday, Manhattan had still only partially recovered from the super storm as much of the mass transit system that transports millions into the city daily remained shut down. Some experts estimate it will take a week or more before service returns to normal.

Simply pumping all the water that flooded New York’s subway stations and tunnels may take several days. Engineers will then have to assess the infrastructure’s structural soundness. Some fear the corrosive salt water may have also destroyed electrical switches, lights, and the power-conducting third rail.

Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph J. Lhota said Tuesday, “The New York City subway system is 108 years old, but it has never faced a disaster as devastating as what we experienced last night.”

Even New York’s Stock Exchange remained closed Tuesday – its first multi-day, weather-related closure since 1888.

While most of the reports from several communities in New York City – such as Washington Heights, Midwood, Boro Park and Crown Heights – only weathered streets blocked by downed trees and power outages, others sustained a high percentage of homes with massive damage.

Shorefront areas in lower Brooklyn experienced catastrophe. “Two of my friends who lived in ranches lost everything they had,” said Ari Epstein, a resident of Manhattan Beach, where the water filled the streets up to six feet above street level. On Tuesday, after the water had receded, an oily muddy residue remained on every block. Virtually every house in the neighborhood, Epstein said, suffered extensive water damage, destroying furniture and myriads of expensive and sentimental household items. “It’s crazy, unbelievable.”

Rabbi Eisenstadt, who serves as rosh kollel of Manhattan Beach’s Community Kollel, said one waterfront house was on the market before the storm for $9.5 million. Now, “his whole property is destroyed.”

Even Hatzolah was powerless in the neighborhood. The rescue organization received at least two calls about electrical fires but could not respond, a Hatzolah member told The Jewish Press. The roads were simply inaccessible.

Sea Gate, Brooklyn sustained major damage.
(Photo credit: Dee Voch)

In nearby Sea Gate, an area that was similarly overwhelmed by water, one Jewish man survived the storm on top of a garbage truck, an official from the volunteer Chaverim organization reported. The man declined to evacuate when asked; by the time he changed his mind and started driving away, water blocked his path. Seeking higher ground, he spotted a nearby garbage truck and climbed on top of it. Freezing from the cold weather, he wrapped himself in his tallis, the Chaverim official said.

The water also filled parts of Woodmere and North Woodmere, on Long Island, where many homes were almost completely underwater and many residents had to be rescued by National Guard boats.

Summing up the conditions of the Five Towns, Gabriel Boxer, a resident of Hewlett, posted on Facebook: “The entire 5 Towns smells like salt water.”

In addition to the mass flooding and power outages, some suffered from storm-related fires. Rabbi Yossi Serebryanski said two cars exploded from downed electrical wires near his house in Canarsie, Brooklyn. Several other fires blazed on nearby blocks with fire trucks scrambling to get to them. Eventually, firemen took down several power lines to prevent further fires from erupting. Rabbi Serebryanski emptied his refrigerator and headed to relatives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Fires also destroyed more than 100 homes in Breezy Point, Queens. Among them was the residence of Rep. Bob Turner (R-NY).

Bayswater, Queens also suffered greatly. Resident Annette Turner said she has no idea when she will be able to return home after the peninsula community was overwhelmed by water. Among the area’s victims was the Agudah of Bayswater, which was completely destroyed – just one week after the shul had finished repairing damage sustained in last year’s Hurricane Irene storm.

“There is no power, no landline telephones, and if you are flooded you don’t have gas either,” said Annette Turner. “There are downed wires, water and debris everywhere and they are having difficulty just assessing the damage.”

Turner left Bayswater on Sunday to take her son to nearby JFK in order to catch a 3:25 p.m. flight to Israel. “The roads were jam packed, it was like a parking lot,” she said. “He missed the flight and we had to cancel his ticket.”

Staten Island resident Dovid Winiarz lost both a tree and his deck to Sandy’s wrath. “The tree fell against my bedroom window, which, Baruch Hashem, didn’t break,” he said. “My next door neighbor with whom we share a backyard fence came out despite the high winds to make sure that we were safe.”

Winiarz, director of special projects for the community Bikur Cholim, estimates that sixty-five percent of the Willowbook community lost power due to the storm. “Only one shul, Agudas Yisroel of Staten Island, had power for a while,” he said. “They immediately opened their arms to host the community’s vasikin minyan and Tiferes Elimelech transported their entire beis medrash to the Agudah. The kol Torah reverberated over the howling winds.”

North and west of the city, many Hudson Valley residents found it was the wind, not the water, that was the force to be reckoned with. With trees down all around the greater Monsey area, some residents lost power as early as 5 p.m. on Monday and remain in the dark as of the time of publication. Orange and Rockland Utilities estimates that most customers will have power restored within ten days.

On Tuesday, Orange and Rockland county officials offered free dry ice distribution at Provident Bank Park. A line of cars almost half a mile long queued up to get into the ballpark, which had approximately two hundred people waiting to receive just a single brick of dry ice.

Sifrei Torah drying on the pews at F.R.E.E. of Brighton Beach/Hebrew Alliance.

Getting around Monsey has been exceptionally difficult, with downed trees blocking many roads. On Wednesday, the East Ramapo School District closed for the third consecutive day. Local yeshivos are scrambling to get generators and several are operating on a limited schedule. Parents of fifth to eighth grade boys at Yeshiva of Spring Valley received an e-mail Tuesday night informing them that school would be open from 10 a.m. to noon on Wednesday; students were advised to bring both sweaters and flashlights.

In some relatively quieter areas, some were able to attend weddings. Rabbi Yosef Preis, for instance, married off his son at Torah V’Yirah on Fort Hamilton Pkwy and 53rd St. Monday evening. “It was a beautiful chassanah,” he said. The hall was full and, due to the weather conditions and dearth of other simchas that night, many guests stayed for the entire affair, Rabbi Preis said. The only concession made to the storm was holding the chuppah indoors (rather than outdoors) under an open roof, as per the advice of the Rachmistrivka Rebbe from Yerushalayim, Rabbi David Twersky, who served as mesader kiddushin.

Even neighborhoods that sustained little damage in the storm experienced dangerous moments. Crown Heights resident Sruly Meyer, a former South Florida resident, took proper precautions for Sandy, securing a heavy glass outdoor table by turning it upside down and wedging it between a brick wall and other heavy items on his narrow, second-floor porch.

On Tuesday morning, Meyer was at work when he received a text from his neighbor informing him that his table was lodged in the branches of an adjacent tree. Convinced his neighbor was joking, he ignored the text until he received another text asking him what to do about the table.

“I drove home and there was a giant glass table stuck at least twenty feet in the air, wedged in a tree,” said Meyer. “We called 311, but not surprisingly, on the day after a hurricane, we got no response. I called 911, concerned that if the table fell on any passersby the results could be catastrophic, but they yelled at me for calling and told me that if the table falls and hurts someone I should call them back.”

Only much later did a police truck finally arrive on the scene with a ladder and a chain and knock the table out of the tree.

“Looks like I am going to have to buy another table for my sukkah,” said Meyer.

Elliot Resnick and Sandy Eller

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