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November 04, 2012

In Hurricane-Damaged Brooklyn, Volunteers Come to Help

by Carolyn Weaver

Hurricane Sandy hit hard in New York's coastal neighborhoods, including Brighton Beach, Coney Island and Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. A volunteer effort, Clean Up Sheepshead Bay, drew people from the borough and beyond who wanted to help. Daniel Rudoy, who lives in Sheepshead Bay, organized those who turned out on a bright, bitter morning.

“We'll be going to shelters, business owners, homeowners,” he told the first to arrive. “If there's more people here than we actually need, we're just going to go up and down the block and just offer help to anybody who might need it.”

The volunteers headed off, most to help at the Warbasse Houses, five high-rise apartment buildings that are home to about 6,000 people, including many elderly Russian immigrants.

Warbasse general property manager Thomas Auletti said about half the residents refused to leave before the storm, despite the city’s evacuation order. He estimated that more than a third are still there, living without elevator service, heat, power or water.

According to Auletti, the only help to arrive thus far has been local. “I need security,” he said angrily. “I've been asking for the National Guard since Tuesday, I've been told they are coming; they're not here. I've been unable to get Red Cross or FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] help. I've been asking, I put calls in - [and] no assistance,” Auletti said.

“The situation went from bad to worse, it's getting cold out there,” an organizer told the crowd. “A lot of people are unable to come down themselves. We don't know when that's going to happen.”

Volunteers received a hasty briefing and were sent in small groups to offer help to remaining residents on all 23 floors of each building. They climbed stairwells and knocked on doors in halls that were pitch-black and largely silent.

“There's got to be somebody here.  Who is that?  Do you need some help?” called out Anna Lederman, one in a group of three young women who spoke Russian. Residents in two apartments on the 15th floor thanked them, but said they would remain for now.

Lederman, a nurse, said she felt an obligation to contribute her time and energy to those in damaged neighborhoods, though she doesn't live nearby.

“I decided to come out here because I think, as young people, it is our duty, and we should walk up these stairs and find out what is needed. I would want the same done for me, I think, if I was in this situation,” she said.

On the 16th floor, Liana Nass, a Russian-born music teacher, invited the volunteers in. She said that a back problem made it difficult for her to walk up and down the stairs, and that she and her husband still preferred to remain in their apartment. They had nowhere else to go, she said, and they had enough food and water and blankets. But trying to study English at night by candlelight was difficult, she conceded.

Auletti and other organizers predicted that power and water in the buildings will not be restored for at least a week. They said that as temperatures drop and a possible new storm threatens New York, emergency aid and shelters must be in place for residents who choose to leave.