Neighborhood That Emergency Workers Call Home is Still Reeling From Storm

NY Times - November 11, 2012


If any neighborhood could have been expected to cope smoothly with Hurricane Sandy, it should have been Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn, which is rich with police officers, firefighters and emergency medics accustomed to dealing with other people's disasters.

Yet, more than a week later, Gerritsen Beach is worse off than all but a few city neighborhoods. Just one block in this seaside enclave of 1,700 homes, nearly a New York City fishing village, has electric power and heat. Shivering residents living in darkened bedrooms and still mourning the loss of treasured possessions are scrambling to feed and clothe themselves and find more tolerable roofs over their heads.

"When its your own, it's more difficult to deal with because your emotions get involved," said Doreen Greenwood, chief of the neighborhood's volunteer Fire Department, as she took a break from organizing relief efforts.

The reason that the enclave is so badly crippled is precisely because Gerritsen Beach, which borders Sheepshead Bay, lives off the water, with residents in the alphabetized rows of winterized bungalows docking cruisers, skiffs and sailboats in the neighborhood's canals. On the night the hurricane hit, the neighborhood experienced a surge of water that Ms. Greenwood described as a "mini-tsunami."

"It was at least 10 feet," she said. "I grew up here, and I've never seen anything like this."

Despite its vulnerable position, the neighborhood was not included among the low-lying coastal patches where evacuation was urged -- Zone A. As a result, many residents who would have sought safety before the storm were forced to abandon their homes in the middle of the flooding and 70-mile-per-hour winds.

A spokesman for the city's Office of Emergency Management, Christopher R. Miller, defended the evacuation designations, saying, "The city used well-established models" provided in 2003 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The wave of salt water, mixed with sewage and petroleum from overwhelmed automobiles, flooded almost every basement and many first floors, destroying furniture, appliances and irreplaceable mementos. Some homes have been condemned by city officials as unlivable. Neighborhood detritus -- soggy sofas, kitchen chairs, bedroom lamps, stereo sets -- could be seen piled on sidewalks and in alleys, waiting for garbage trucks to haul them away.

"Everybody's lives have been thrown out on the street," said Laura Golding, who has lived in the neighborhood for eight years.

Also destroyed in many homes were basement circuit breakers. Consolidated Edison and National Grid have told residents that power cannot be restored to defective circuit breakers because of the danger of another inferno like the one that consumed much of Breezy Point, Queens, across the Rockaway Inlet. But circuit breakers are harder to find in the region's hardware emporiums than a tank of gasoline in shuttered gas stations. And electricians have to be found to install them and sign the paperwork that will allow Department of Buildings officials to permit a return of power.

State Senator Martin J. Golden showed up in the neighborhood and said afterward that the city needed to call in a major contractor who could coordinate the necessary electrical work because "the way it's going now, it will take to Christmas."

Anthony D'Agosta, 55, an unemployed private sanitation worker, lost the contents of his basement recreation room to a rush of water that he said went from ankle-deep "to four feet in a matter of two minutes and just kept on coming," eventually reaching eight feet. Destroyed were a pool table, jukebox and his cherished collection of Dean Martin record albums, autographs, clippings and memorabilia. He blamed the city for not giving him time to relocate his possessions.

"So much for Zone B -- I think they got it wrong," he said. "This is something you see on the news; I never expected to be in it."

A low-slung building that the "vollies," as the volunteer Fire Department is known, use for training has become the neighborhood's de facto civic center, overflowing with donations of clothes, canned food, toilet paper and thousands of objects given by generous outsiders. Parked outside was a Gorilla Cheese truck that usually caters to the bustling Manhattan lunchtime crowd but is among a number of mobile food vans financed by a City Hall fund to offer residents food -- in this case, free grilled American cheese sandwiches and tater tots.

The neighborhood had the usual complaints about the lack of help from the federal government, but was getting other help. Police cruisers prowled the storm-littered streets and, on every block, a garbage truck seemed to be loading up. There are some advantages to having a neighborhood with so many city workers.

Ms. Golding, wearing a black winter parka against the cold, stepped inside the basement apartment where her widowed mother, Ann Mollo, 84, lives. Lost in the thigh-high deluge were two floral sofas, a breakfront containing her mother's china and porcelain knickknacks, and wedding albums -- hers and her mother's. She repeated a phrase that for her has become almost a mantra.

"Her whole life is out on the street and in the garbage," she said.