Until @robicellis tweeted a disturbing first-hand account of Sandy’s effect on the Sheepshead Bay area last week, I had honestly never heard of Gerritsen Beach in my life. After spending the past two days in this tightly-knit waterfront community, watching people try to clean up and begin the process of rebuilding their lives in the wake of the storm, I feel like I have been missing out on a really special part of Brooklyn.
Gerritsen Beach is a tiny enclave tucked between Sheepshead Bay and Marine Park, just north of the Belt Parkway. About 5,000 people live here, in houses built close together on a grid of narrow streets named in alphabetical order (Aster, Celeste, Bevy, Dictum, etc.) If you’ve seen She’s The One, that 90s movie with Cameron Diaz, Ed Burns’ dad lived in Gerristen Beach. The community is largely Irish-Catholic and working class, and everyone seems to know each other. By the end of the weekend, I felt like even I was starting to recognize people. It’s just that kind of place. Put it this way: the only remaining volunteer fire department in Brooklyn, an outfit everyone affectionately refers to as “The Vollies,” is located here. Last week, the Vollies were faced with a task they could never have anticipated: rescuing their neighbors from 6-8 feet of flood waters that caused severe damage to almost every house in the community.
Because Gerritsen Beach was protected by the Belt Parkway, it was designated as a Zone B area and no one evacuated. Based on what Sandy did here, however, this is about as Zone A as it gets. As far as the eye can see, the streets are lined with piles of warped furniture, waterlogged books and photo albums, abandoned toys, now-useless appliances, and jagged chunks of drywall and insulation- all saturated with filthy water and awaiting the arrival of the rare sanitation truck that isn’t already full. Cars that floated in a river of brine on Monday night now rest awkwardly against each other, inoperable scrap metal that no one has even had time to think about yet. On Saturday, my sister and I delivered supplies we picked up at a donation site in Sunset Park to Resurrection School on Gerritsen Avenue and as soon as we saw the scene we knew we had to go back and provide some manpower. It seemed that until this weekend, the people here had been doing all of the cleanup by themselves, a stark contrast to some better-known neighborhoods that had hordes of volunteers show up first thing on Tuesday. There is still no power in Gerritsen Beach (some people said they have heard rumors that it will be back mid-week, but others have heard far less optimistic predictions) and very few houses have water or gas for cooking or heating.
Sunday morning, we enlisted some friends, picked up donations at St. Bernadette’s Church on 82nd and 13th Ave. in Dyker Heights (this, by the way, is the most organized relief operation I’ve seen yet and I highly recommend it to anyone who can get there) and headed back to the volunteer firehouse in Gerritsen Beach. We wandered around a bit looking for ways to help and ended up spending a few hours cleaning out a flooded basement apartment in a house on the corner of Seba Ave. with the owner, Ro, and her best friend and next-door neighbor, also named Ro. The waterline was at about eye-level on the wall and nothing was salvageable, but the Ros were cheerfully cracking jokes, telling us stories about the neighborhood, and chatting with all their friends who passed by on their way to pick up hot food, trash bags, or batteries at an impromptu relief center set up around the corner. Lots of people told us they were OK and didn’t need help, but suggested that Carol-Anne or Mike down the block might. It was almost impossible to believe how good-natured the Ros and everyone else we met were considering the hell they have all been living through for the past week. At one point on Sunday, everyone stopped working and gathered to watch the local kids march down a muddy main drag in a belated Halloween parade, complete with donated candy. One grinning twenty-something appeared in head-to-toe rainbow clothes and, like the Pied Piper, led the kids to the park for a magic show.
Luckily, it seems like word has finally gotten out that the people of Gerritsen Beach need help. Most of the flooded homes have been emptied of their contents by now, and the people who live in them are waiting patiently for the FEMA, ConEd, and National Grid personnel to get to their name on the list. (Incidentally, a National Grid worker came to Ro’s house at one point to turn on her gas and she screamed and hugged him. He told me that even though he lives on Long Island and knows that his own basement was flooded in the storm, he still has not been home since Sandy hit. Instead, he’s been sleeping in his truck and working 20-hour shifts. At that point, I wanted to hug him too.) As of Sunday evening, the main need seemed to be for volunteers to help sort through the massive amounts of clothing, food, and supplies that have been donated over the weekend, which is an encouraging problem to have. Nonetheless, fatigue is beginning to set in and there will be a lot of work in the days, weeks, and months to come, especially as the shock wears off and the psychological effects of this disaster take their toll. If you want to help people who have been hit hard by Sandy, there are obviously plenty of places to find them. Keep in mind though that there are some parts of Brooklyn like Gerritsen Beach, Sheepshead Bay, Coney Island, Seagate, Manhattan Beach, and Brighton Beach that have had less help than others so far.