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At a Jewish Senior Center in Brooklyn, Anxiety Looms a Year After Hurricane Sandy

Life is back to normal, but for elderly residents of Brighton Beach, the storm was a reminder that nowhere is totally safe

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(Tablet Magazine)
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For the people who eat lunch each weekday at the Senior Alliance Senior Center in Brooklyn’s Manhattan Beach, recent history can be divided into two periods: Before Sandy, and After Sandy.

Before Sandy, there was a feeling of comfort at the center, on the ground floor of a weathered eight-story building two blocks from the ocean. Every day, elderly people would come in for hot lunches, recreational classes, and field trips. No one had anything particular to talk about, so they talked about everything: politics, the temperature of the room, recollections of days past. Conversations about the cabbage soup just dished out would seamlessly become debates about Dancing With the Stars. No one seemed to mind.

After Sandy hit, on Oct. 29, 2012, that sense of security vanished. Like everything else around it, the center—which is run by the Jewish Association Serving the Aging—was totally exposed to the storm’s 90-mile winds and 14-foot waves. Sandy left the senior center without power or heat until January. None of the center’s clients were killed in the storm, but everyone was acutely aware that half of the people who died in the storm were 65 or older.

In Sandy’s wake, the streets around the center were littered with debris. “Little Odessa” was turned into a ghost town. The Russian groceries were closed, and the outdoor produce vendors were missing, along with the shoppers inspecting bruises on marked-down fruit; bakeries stood shuttered, their doughy aromas absent from the air. Three weeks later was not very different from three days later.

Today, the neighborhood is bustling. Starbucks is open, and so are the banks. Musicians play in the street, and the subway is packed. But Annmarie Thomas, the center’s community aid, explained to me what I could already see when I stopped by earlier this week: The storm may be a distant memory, but the fear it instilled in those most vulnerable to its havoc still lingers, almost tangibly, in the air. Though repairs have been made and life more or less restored to normal, anticipation of the next storm still looms like clouds on the Atlantic horizon, and anxiety lurks below the surface cheer.

***

On Nov. 1, 2012, without a house of her own to return to any longer, Sheila Galvez, the center’s director, reopened for business. The building had no power, heat, or telephone service, but Galvez knew her clients needed her. “I was able to sell my house and move, but for the seniors it was even harder,” Galvez says now. She was only able to open the center because of a serendipitous coincidence: A few weeks before Sandy, Galvez closed the center’s in-house kitchen and hired a glatt kosher catering company in Cedarhurst, just east of the city, which still had power after the storm. As long as the delivery trucks could get to Brooklyn, the staff could still serve lunch. So, just three days after the storm hit, a small paper sign went up on the front door that read “OPEN FOR LUNCH.”

The center anchors a vertical village of elderly Jews. The seven floors above it serve as housing for low-income seniors, apartments with little balconies separated by garish red panels. Out front, under a flying mid-century-style archway, is a drop-off point for minibuses that ferry seniors who can’t make it on their own. Inside, a security guard sits in the small, bare lobby. The lunchroom is on the left; the walls are off-white, the tables are round, and the large windows let the sun shine in on nice days. It usually smells like family dinner.

When the center first re-opened after the storm, the room was cold and help was scarce. Elderly clients arrived, looking for food or company or both, but there were no volunteers and no government workers or Con Edison representatives or anyone else with authority to fix what was wrong. “Nobody came,” lamented Jolanta Tomaszewski, a social worker at the center. Tomaszewski, who has worked at Senior Alliance for five years, was worried. “For the elderly people it’s been hard to survive,” she said. “There was a big FEMA truck by Coney Island, but none near here.” The staff received next to no information about the status of their power, and what little they learned was unreliable. The center’s hours were shortened. The classes were canceled or temporarily halted. “Even in the cold we were here,” Tomaszewski told me. “We are alone and we do our best.”

Galvez, who has bright blonde hair and a thick New York accent, patrolled the lunchroom making sure her clients were fed, but her presence was fleeting as she retreated to her office to check on the power, and to juggle her own problems. She lost her home in the storm and was living on her brother’s couch. Like others I spoke with, she was open and happy to talk before Sandy, but afterward became more reticent, like she needed all her energy to deal with the challenge of getting back to normal. Any mention of the situation brought down her mood.

It took a month for the center to get its lights back, but Thanksgiving came and went without heat or a working phone line. The lunchroom stayed cold, and the conversation over meals stopped drifting: Everyone wanted to talk about what they’d lost and how difficult life had become in the aftermath of the storm. Some of the regulars stopped coming—no one knew why—and many of those who did appear had a different attitude.

When I first visited the center, a few weeks before Sandy, Frances Gerber was a cheerful member of a regular foursome I came to think of as “the Brighton Beach Girls.” Every day, they sat together, like a golden-years version of the popular table in the high-school cafeteria. They discussed politics and the transformation of their city in the last 50 years. They discussed television programs they enjoy and they discussed their haircuts. They laughed while they spoke to each other and, often, over each other. They explained the importance of the lunch they share: After the van picks them up, they return to empty apartments where they are unlikely to have any more conversations for the rest of the day.

During the storm, Gerber was stuck in her apartment, on the 19th floor of a building in Brighton Beach, without power or heat. “The ocean rose up over the boardwalk,” she told me in November. “The streets were flooded like a river. The garbage piled up like ants.” With just crackers and peanut butter to eat, Gerber became very weak. She went to Beth Israel Medical Center with heart palpitations and spent four days in the cardiac unit with many other seniors, all of them suffering storm-related stress. After discussing her plight for 10 minutes, Gerber said she’d had enough. It was time for her to eat, and this conversation, she told me, was upsetting her and her tablemates. One of them, Shirley Simon, gently told me she was sticking to advice from her deceased husband: “He told me to never look back.”

***

When the senior center finally got its heat back, in January, it seemed like the place was returning to normal, but the elderly clients were not bouncing back accordingly. Their minds are a little fuzzy, and Sandy’s chaos only amplified this fuzziness. Their daily routine ultimately changed only slightly, but even a small change is dramatic for them.

One of the things that was disrupted after Sandy was the weekly creative writing class that Howard Lieberman, a retired lithographer in his 80s, used to hold at the center on Wednesdays in the sunroom, a couple doors down from the lunch room. After the storm, that room was filled with big boxes of things that were ruined or moved indoors, and Lieberman moved his class—down to five people from a dozen or more—to a corner of the dining room. Undaunted, Lieberman tried to recruit participants. He worked on Frances Gerber, but she declined because the bus was coming early to take her home: After the storm, the bus schedule changed, picking up riders before noon, instead of at 2 p.m. But because the buses still arrived at the center around 11 a.m., they were rushed through lunch and had little time for luxuries like classes, Gerber said.

Now, a year later, things are finally getting back to normal inside the Senior Alliance center, just as they have done outside. The garden is re-opened and the power is back. A group of regulars, working with a muralist, created a mosaic that will be installed on a fountain on the Coney Island boardwalk. But the emotional recovery teeters. While the staff is more willing to talk and the seniors are less likely to talk only about the storm, the lunchroom is emptier. Earlier this week, a group of 12 women joined a morning Tai Chi class, making slow, deliberate moves in the lunchroom. The Brighton girls are back at their usual table. But Howard Lieberman sits alone. I asked him if life had gotten back to normal since Sandy. “Little by little,” he responded, with a thin smile.

***

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At a Jewish Senior Center in Brooklyn, Anxiety Looms a Year After Hurricane Sandy

Life is back to normal, but for elderly residents of Brighton Beach, the storm was a reminder that nowhere is totally safe