A Do-It-Yourself Sandy Response in an Isolated Corner of Brooklyn

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Photo: Richard H. Cohen/Corbis

“The city forgot about us,” said Chris Gari, a resident of Gerritsen Beach, the tight-knit community between Sheepshead Bay and Marine Park that is home to Brooklyn's last remaining volunteer fire department.

Gerritsen Beach is in Zone B — the Belt Parkway was supposed to act as a buffer. It didn't, and Sandy's huge storm surge (13.8 feet at the seawall, nine to ten feet when it hit people's homes) caught residents essentially unaware. "People were really, literally, running for their lives," said Assistant Fire Chief Doreen Garson, who went house to house with some of the other volunteers in canoes and on foot. In the older parts of town nearest the beach, she said, “the water was literally over my head so we couldn’t go in. We were telling people to go to their top floor and stay there until the tide goes down. Nobody was going in to get them.”

The closest official city evacuation point was distant, and most everyone's car was dead, so when residents escaped from their flooded houses that night at low tide, or the next day, about 100 people flocked to an unofficial shelter at Resurrection Church: the most prominent church in the community, which luckily was on high ground. “The distance between where they are down there to where they want them to go to a shelter is ridiculous,” said Joe Lynch, Resurrection’s custodian and de facto manager of the shelter.

Before the storm, the Vollies, as the volunteer fire fighters are known, posted on Facebook and did their best to spread the word about the church. “We were telling people if you are scared, and you have to get out, you need to come up to Resurrection,” said Garson. At 8 p.m. when the surge hit, refugees started coming in droves, either on their own or escorted by the Vollies who’d dragged them out of the muck. One church employee had to jump out of his window with his kids. “People didn’t know where to go,” said Lynch. “People were in wheelchairs, there was people in oxygen down here.” Dogs filled the hallway, and mostly got along, except for one troublemaker pit bull whom Lynch had to sequester with his family in a gated area. “I told them, ‘Oh you guys get the penthouse,’” he said.

The only official help came from State Senator Martin Golden, who visited Resurrection and called in the Office of Emergency Management when 911 said there were no resources left. “City response?” said Garson. “Without Senator Golden there wouldn’t have been a city response."

Lynch was so busy that he couldn’t leave until low tide at 2 a.m. to check on his own house: a low-lying bungalow where his cat, Jump, was still trapped inside. He opened his door to find his refrigerator floating, along with his television and kitchen table, and Jump alive but sopping. “I lived there since I was a kid,” he says. “It’s terrible. Yesterday, I was fine, but today I went and took pictures for FEMA. I said, ‘Oh man, my grandmother lived there.’” He’s going to try to make it livable again: “My biggest concern now is where are me and Jump going?” For now, he’s living in the rectory.

Garson emerged to find her office flooded, and her real estate business in ruins. “It’s going to take a long time to rebuild this neighborhood,” she said. “It’s in really, really bad shape.” National Grid shut off the gas, the electricity was down and no one knew when it would come back. People were cold, and not a single traffic light in town worked. As for the Vollies, their one fire truck was in okay shape, but their ambulance was “putt-putting,” said Garson, because of salt water. The entire firehouse was flooded and then looted; they’d had to leave the doors open to get the truck out and couldn’t close them once the water came rushing in.

By late Tuesday afternoon, Resurrection was completely empty again. All the refugees wanted to go back to their homes to protect them, along with elderly neighbors who were being preyed upon by some jerks knocking on doors pretending to be Con Ed employees. The volunteers had their own ruined lives to get back to. An NYPD officer stopped in to check if Garson needed anything. She had the cop's cell phone number. “It’s not working,” he said, laughing; no one's was. “Ah no kidding,” said Garson. “That’s why I have to go home because I have to use my good old-fashioned kitchen phone for the emergency phone.” “Your kitchen is the command center!” the policeman declared.