Sandy: Scenes of devastation and sharp words for the all-knowing
On Friday night, October 26, I was seated at the lively Shabbos table at the home of Rabbi Eli and Beila Goodman. Shabbos dinner at the Goodmans’ home, on the ground floor of the Casablanca apartment tower at the foot of Franklin Boulevard abutting Long Beach’s famed Boardwalk, is always special, often with many guests, great food, zemiros and words of Torah from the rabbi, the rebbetzin, the guests, and the children. This Friday night was no different, even with the spectre of a major storm brewing to the south of us. We were all aware of the forecasts; we were prepared to do what we had to do, protecting our homes and listening for instructions from local authorities. We were concerned, but we remembered last year’s Tropical Storm Irene, and we somehow knew that we’d get through it.
The weather on Shabbos was surprisingly pleasant. The breeze off the ocean was gentle and the surf was not rougher than usual. Yet as I sat on one of the benches with my friends after shul, all discussion was of the ominous weather forecasts. One friend, a real-estate agent, went as far as saying that, storm or no storm, he was going to close a particularly lucrative deal on Monday. I jestingly paraphrased Jeremiah 32, where the prophet asks G-d why he has to conclude the real-estate transaction with his cousin when everybody knows the enemy is approaching. My friend and I laughed then. (We weren’t laughing after it passed.)
Sunday morning brought with it a greater sense of urgency. By now the clouds had obscured the sky and the sound of the pounding surf, a ubiquitous part of the Long Beach soundtrack, had become louder. I kept my eyes and ears tuned to the media for any possible indication about the storm’s track and estimate time of landfall, as well as any word from local and state authorities about possible evacuations. At the time there was a voluntary evacuation in effect, but I decided that until evacuations became mandatory, I would stay put. I began packing a bag, however, just in case I had to leave in a hurry.
The mandatory evacuation order was broadcast at 2:10 pm, telling us that it would go into effect at 2:00 pm. In other words, “we need you out of there yesterday.” I took my bag and a number of other essential items, loaded them into my car, and headed out. I took shelter with extended family in Kew Gardens Hills, Queens; once settled in there, I kept track of the storm’s progress and Long Beach’s status via news media and online. The news was mostly about preparation for the storm, punctuated by warnings and communiqués from various local authorities. It was clear that people were hunkering down for the storm, but no one really had any idea of what was about to hit them. Indeed, a number of my friends and acquaintances told me they were planning to ride it out.
The wind howled and hissed outside my window all Sunday night and Monday. Only on Tuesday did it let up. I was fortunate that the power did not go out in the apartment where I had taken refuge, though on Monday night in particular there was lots of flickering. There was no communication with anyone in Long Beach. The City Manager’s office sent out automated messages, but there was essentially an official communications blackout for about 24 hours from Monday night until Tuesday evening. Many people complained that the official news was substandard, and indeed, an unofficial Facebook page became the most effective way for locals to find out information about the status of the city and the whereabouts of people not heard from.
On Monday night, I received a text message from a friend in California, someone I knew from my days growing up in Long Beach. She asked me to find out about her brother, who lives in one of the older apartment buildings on Broadway, the street that runs parallel to the boardwalk. She had not heard from him in close to 24 hours. I sent an email to Rabbi Chaim Wakslak of the Young Israel of Long Beach with the name and address (my friend and her brother are children of a longtime member of the Young Israel, who had himself evacuated to Monsey). Rabbi Wakslak said he would do what he could as soon as it was possible. I texted my friend back and told her I had contacted the rabbi, and that I myself would go looking for him as soon as I was able to get back into town.
On Tuesday, I remained in Queens, still keeping track of the storm via the media and attempting to stay in touch with people I knew. The storm died down gradually on Tuesday, but the word came that the authorities did not want anyone coming back into the city just yet. Flooding was widespread; the boardwalk was ruined; Broadway was covered in several feet of sand. Cell phone transmission was spotty at best. Power, water, and sewer services were out. In fact, the water was so contaminated that even boiling it would be of no use. People were warned not to use it for washing, let alone drinking. There was no word as to when the utilities would be restored.
The effects of the storm on the Young Israel building were miraculously minimal, with virtually no flooding or other damage. Rabbi Wakslak had remained in Long Beach, despite numerous offers of temporary relocation out of town, and sent out a number of messages. Amazingly, the shul did not miss a single minyan during the storm “due to the dedication of many individuals.”
I was not able to return to Long Beach until Wednesday. I traveled with two friends. By that time the streets were passable and there was access via the two main bridges leading to the barrier island (the third bridge, connecting the eastern end of the island to the Loop and Meadowbrook Parkways, was still closed). Many streets, intersections, and highway access ramps between Queens and southern Nassau County were blocked by police and utility vehicles, and therefore closed to traffic. After navigating through the Long Island parkway system we reached the local streets at Malverne. Some of the traffic lights were out and police were directing traffic. But it was once we passed through Rockville Centre and into Oceanside that we began to see the extent of the damage and destruction. Here, all the lights were out. Sand and debris were everywhere. Signs were blown down. Roofs and doors were ripped away. Many store and business owners along Long Beach Road had begun the arduous task of cleaning up, and they were piling much of their flood- and wind-destroyed property at the curbsides. Crossing the Long Beach Bridge, we could see a number of locals crouched on the sidewalk at mid-span, talking on their cell phones—it was the nearest place they could get a signal.
What I saw when I reached Long Beach was just as bad as the images I saw in the media—times ten. The first main intersection in the center of town, at Long Beach Blvd and East Park Avenue, was manned by police and the National Guard. It was easy enough to get around through the main artery, which was among the first streets to be cleaned and cleared. But once I began to make my way through the side streets, that’s where the full extent of the damage was revealed.
Sand and debris were everywhere, in the streets and sidewalks, on front lawns. Flood damage was evident on houses by the lines of mud on the walls, denoting the high-water mark; the closer you got to the water—ocean or bay—the higher the mark. Trees broken and collapsed into the streets. Cars, cars, more cars, strewn about like so many Matchbox toys, at crazy angles—parallel and perpendicular to the sidewalks (or on them), acute and obtuse angled to the curbs, swept onto the formerly grassy medians separating north and south lanes in the boulevards. Doorways and garages with sandbags, piled before the storm in valiant but ultimately futile efforts to keep the rising floodwaters at bay, were now holding the waters inside rather than keeping them out.
The boardwalk—the icon of the city, its social meeting point and recreational venue—was in slabs and shards scattered throughout the whole city, blocks and blocks away from the shore front. Whole boardwalk ramps, railings still attached, washed inland, in streets, on sidewalks, and on people’s properties, forming barricades across thoroughfares.
The beach—which had been bulldozed into high berms before the storm in an attempt to keep the inevitable surges out of town—was flattened and its surface level actually lowered, exposing jetty-reinforcing bulkheads that had been hidden under the surface for years. It was as if the sheer force of the storm sheared the top layers of the sand off and then dumped them inland, mostly on Broadway, where the pavement now lay under several feet of former beach. Fire hydrants—those that were not completely buried—now rose to ankle height.
The residential streets were full of local citizens and their helpers beginning the dreadful process of returning home, surveying the damage, and cleaning up. There was water in the gutters—not left over from the actual storm surge, but rather being pumped out of people’s houses. The buzz of generator-powered pumps was everywhere, like a swarm of mad bees. Personal property—furniture, clothes, toys, appliances, keepsakes—all now saturated with a toxic compound of seawater, mud, sewage, and chemicals, completely unusable and unrecyclable, set out by the curbside for the sanitation department to cart away.
I returned to my home, which I share with one of the friends I traveled with that day. The main floor, where my bedroom is and where I keep my most treasured objects and important items, was dry, thank G-d. But the basement, downstairs, was flooded. I kept most of my clothes downstairs. My electric piano was downstairs too. They are gone, not worth any hope of salvaging.
I then went to my other friend’s house. She lives in a basement apartment. The water piled up at the bottom of the entryway didn’t allow us to even approach the door, let alone open it. We then knocked on the landlord’s door, upstairs; the landlord’s daughter was home, and she let us in to try to approach the apartment through the other basement entrance. Shining a flashlight downward, we could see that the water came halfway up the stairs. There was no hope of getting into my friend’s apartment until the water could finally be pumped. And even then, G-d only knew how badly we would find things.
What else could we do? We stood on the front porch of the house and cried. Yes, they were only things. And yes, thank G-d, we were alive and unharmed. But that is little comfort to someone who has lost everything, properties that hold memories, cherished and valuable and useful items that took a lifetime to accumulate and helped us live our lives. Yes, they are only material things, but in this world, we are material beings. And perhaps in the longer term we will get over the loss of these things and move on, but for the time being the loss is literally unspeakable. For how could we, standing on that porch amidst all that devastation, find any words?
We walked to Broadway at Edwards in the center of town, where earthmovers were hard at work clearing the sand out of the street. Fire engines from places we never knew existed stood guard in the intersection. We entered the apartment building where my friend from California’s brother lived. The door to the lobby of the building was wide open. The security guard directed me in the direction of the apartment I had indicated. The hallway was lit only by daylight streaming in from apartment doors that had been left open. I knocked on the door and asked for my friend’s brother by name. He opened the door; I identified myself and told him his sister had been trying to reach him. He was well and his apartment appeared undamaged. Thank G-d—at least I could report something back favorably.
We drove past the Mesivta of Long Beach, on Magnolia Blvd. There was nobody visible, and I remarked to my friends that the yeshiva’s administration was wise to send the students home on Friday, whether it was a scheduled “out Shabbos” or not. Later I heard that the building had sustained considerable damage and that the yeshiva’s operations had been relocated, possibly upstate.
We got to the Hebrew Academy of Long Beach, a/k/a HALB, my alma mater. It is perhaps the most unique Jewish day school in the country, situated as it is right up on the boardwalk with a spectacular view of the ocean from most of its classrooms. But today, we saw that it was precisely that uniqueness that was its destruction. The custodial staff was hard at work removing damaged and destroyed materials from the building. There had once been a cement block wall at the foot of the boardwalk, separating the schoolyard and property from the beach; the wall was all gone, completely washed away, with a clear view from the schoolyard to the surf. The boardwalk rail was now hanging off the side of the boardwalk into the schoolyard. The surface of the yard itself had been covered by several feet of sand, now being scooped up and piled against the fence by a phalanx of small bulldozers. The schoolyard gate was peeled back like the top of a sardine can, extending into the street. We were told by Chaim Hollander, the school’s assistant executive director, that the ground floor was unsafe and completely unusable, and he was unsure when or where classes would resume.
Our mission, such as it was, accomplished, we left Long Beach through its West End, which was perhaps the most devastated section of the city because it sits at the narrowest part of the barrier island. But its people are a tough bunch, and they were fighting hard to put their lives and neighborhood back together. Continuing through Atlantic Beach, the evidence of the devastation was not quite as obvious from the main artery, but side streets offered glimpses of it. Outbound traffic on the Atlantic Beach Bridge was smooth and fast; the authorities had no need to hinder people getting out of town. In the other direction, though, at the tollbooth, police and the Guard had set up a roadblock and were checking motorists’ IDs in order to keep out potential looters. You had to have a local address to get onto the island.
That evening I saw two postings on the Internet from Long Beach’s Jewish community. The first was a video about and featuring Rabbi Goodman, showing the camera the utter destruction of his home, where I had just sat singing zemiros and drinking a lechaim the previous Friday night. The video showed sefarim, furniture, his children’s toys, all waterlogged and strewn about the mud-covered floors. He told of how the lower floor of the Bach, his shul, which had housed the kitchen, bathrooms, and Kiddush/event room, were now under water. There was an appeal posted online for people to help Rabbi Goodman and his family rebuild their home and repair the damage to the shul; at last accounting, close to three-quarters of the requested total had been contributed, in large and small denominations, by donors from around the world. The other posting was a message from Rabbi Wakslak at the Young Israel, informing the community that the shul had arranged for food distribution that evening through Achiezer and RCSP. On Thursday, the Young Israel announced that “the magnitude of this disaster upon the Long Beach community is almost incomprehensible. At this time we need to join together as a community to support one another. In this spirit, all the shuls will be davening together at the Young Israel of Long Beach this Shabbos.” The Young Israel also arranged for Friday night dinner and Shabbos morning kiddush and lunch to be available and served at the shul at no charge. Umi ke’amcha Yisrael.
I spent the remainder of the week in Kew Gardens Hills. Time and again, I’d hear my name called as I was going about my business along Main Street, and there would be someone else from Long Beach who had taken refuge in Queens. Friday night, on my way from shul to a friend’s house for dinner, I met more “refugees,” people I recognized from the Young Israel. I remarked to my Shabbos hosts that the shards of the boardwalk had washed up all the way to KGH. We all seem to be bearing up well, despite some tremendous losses. But who knows what kind of dread and terror lurk behind the pleasant manners.
The authorities tell us that water may be restored at the beginning of this week, and power a week after that; as soon as I get the word that the utilities have been turned back on and the water is once again safe to use, I intend to go back. But after flooding such as this, in which foundations marinated in the toxic brew for days, structural and environmental problems will prevail for a long, long time. Engineers are going house to house, testing structural integrity and deciding which houses sustained lesser damage and which greater; which can be repaired, and which are to be condemned. FEMA is on hand to help residents apply for aid. Polling places are to be consolidated into several central locations so that voting will go ahead on Election Day. Meals, water and clothing are being distributed free of charge. And locals are placing improvised signs outside their houses, either warning potential looters away or bearing messages of hope such as “WE SHALL OVERCOME.”
Long Beach is not just another place to live. I am from there, and I am of there. I grew up, went to school and formed my first friendships there. So for me, the decimation of Long Beach is not something I can easily shrug off and say “whatever, I’ll just move somewhere else.” Barring the inevitable return that all Jews plan to Eretz Yisrael, this is the place I will be going back to once it becomes possible.
Alas, it takes disasters like Hurricane Sandy to bring all the various armchair pundits out of the woodwork, spouting theories about “why” Hurricane Sandy has happened the way it did. One person purporting to be an Orthodox rabbi made an appearance on a Christian television program, claiming that New York’s support for same-sex marriage was “the reason” why the city was hit by the hurricane. Another person, an Israeli rabbinical celebrity, has pontificated that Sandy was a message from G-d against Israel’s dependence on America. Lots of lesser lights have peppered the social media with similar views.
I have some words for all these people, great and small: Hurricane Sandy was a natural event, a storm like many that have brewed up in the Atlantic Ocean and carved out the shape of the East Coast throughout the millennia. Natural occurrences like these serve to show us G-d’s might—indeed, the blessing one is to make upon experiencing or witnessing such terrestrial phenomena is “shekocho ugvuraso malei olam”—that His might and power fill the universe. Storms like these do not distinguish between the righteous and the wicked, and must not be viewed as punishments for some deed or another.
We read in the weekly Torah portion on the Shabbos immediately following the storm about our forefather Abraham’s bargaining with G-d regarding the most wicked place on the face of the earth, the five Sodomite cities. Abraham argued that a righteous minority should not be destroyed with the wicked majority. G-d destroyed Sodom because a quorum of 10 righteous residents could not be found. However, in Long Beach alone there are more than 10 righteous individuals; multiply that logarithmically to cover the number of righteous persons in the entire New York/New Jersey region. This is not a case of a flood to wash away humanity’s sins, and is not a rain of brimstone and fire to destroy dens of iniquity. How dare anyone make statements to this effect.
There are no prophets among us, and no human being alive today has a direct line to G-d. Anyone inclined to such pronouncements would do best to heed our Sages’ admonition that silence is a fence for wisdom. There are whole communities of honest, faithful and hardworking people—including many, many religious Jews—who have lost everything and they don’t need to hear such unmitigated rubbish. No one can have the temerity to tell grieving families at funerals why their beloved is dead, and so no one can have the chutzpah to presume to speak for G-d’s intentions. These wannabe-pundits should get up from the comfort and safety of their living rooms and start helping storm survivors clean up and replace what they had lost. I invite them to come to Long Beach and get their hands dirty with actual work that has genuinely positive effects on people, instead of the pontification they so self-righteously peddle that benefits no one. And while they are here, I would like to see them look directly into the eyes of Rabbi Goodman or Rabbi Wakslak, or any resident for that matter, and repeat their comments with a straight face.
Similarly, there is a tendency, often by American-born Jews who have made aliyah, to self-righteously trumpet that the hurricane is a sign from G-d that all Jews must heretofore abandon all efforts to continue life in the exile and return en masse to the Holy Land (of course, no storm is required for this reaction; they say this whenever anyone in America sneezes). Perhaps they are unaware that natural disasters occur in Israel too (Carmel fires, anyone?)—will these people suddenly start expounding on “the reasons” for these disasters? Again, how dare they presume to tell us what G-d’s intentions are. Perhaps they believe that somehow living in Eretz Yisrael gives them this higher clarity of vision, but they are blinded by the light, so to speak—blinded to the pain that their brethren in all the house of Israel, in whatever place they are, are going through. To them I say: Preaching aliyah and Zionism to someone who has lost everything in a disaster is tantamount to kicking someone when they’re down. For that matter, preaching about anything in any sort of way serves to instill nothing but disgust, and it often accomplishes the diametric opposite of the intended goal.
Furthermore, I issue a challenge: If it moves you so much to bring Jews home to Eretz Yisrael, then put your money where your mouth is and sponsor an individual or a family. Not everyone is able to just up and leave, even if their most heartfelt desire is to move to Israel. There seems to be a mistaken impression that all Jews in America are rich and they could all move to Israel if it mattered to them enough. This is patently false. No small number of Jews in the US today, especially during this economic phase, barely make a living, going paycheck to paycheck. To you in Israel I say, if you want us there, bring us there. Because many of us can’t go there on our own.
The bottom line is that the righteous get their hands dirty while the self-righteous run their mouths. If someone is unwilling to actually do something to mitigate the suffering—whether helping rebuild homes and communities, or helping survivors relocate—then let those someones keep their damn-fool opinions to themselves.