Pat Singer still remembers the smells. Oil. Mildew. Mold. The air was thick as she canvassed buildings to assess the damage. Three weeks after Superstorm Sandy, Singer says the usually vibrant Brighton Beach community felt post-apocalyptic. Although she had lived there for forty years, in the bleak hours after Sandy had struck, she could barely recognize the sand-filled streets. The sidewalks that normally hosted market displays of fruits and vegetables were instead lined with “a police tower, army jeeps, and soldiers,” meant to guard the unprotected banks. After waiting for weeks for the restoration of vital infrastructure and services, it appeared that Brighton would never be the same.
Today, the streets bustle with the sounds of honking horns and the subway passing overhead. Vendors once again display products outside their shops, giving the appearance of normalcy. It would appear, on the face of it, that Brighton Beach is back, that the recovery that seemed so far-fetched is real. But the community, still trying to heal its five-year wounds, wrestles with a growing sense of fear and uncertainty as a new hurricane season approaches.
Brighton Beach sits on the Coney Island peninsula. Nestled between Coney Island and Manhattan Beach, Brighton, long known as “little Odessa,” boasts eastern European charm coupled with a quiet mile-long beach and boardwalk. Its location can be both a blessing and a curse. While it creates a perfect atmosphere for visitors and tourists looking for a sunny getaway, due to its geography, beachfront neighborhoods on the peninsula are left extremely vulnerable to storms and hurricanes. Superstorm Sandy, for example, attacked the peninsula from three different fronts: the beachside to the south, Coney Island Creek to the north, and Sheepshead Bay to the east. This trifecta resulted in the overwhelming devastation that haunts residents to this day. Adding to their apprehensions, many government programs designed to help rebuild more resilient communities have fallen short of their goals.
After Sandy struck, federal, state and local governments launched efforts to help their citizens recover and rebuild. FEMA has famously drawn criticism for its failure to act quickly; New York City’s Build it Back program, launched almost immediately following the superstorm, faced similar criticism. According to Yelena Mahknin, Executive Director of the Brighton Business Improvement District, Sandy’s victims could not afford to wait for the government to help, and “spent their own money to renovate.” In 2014, after a two-year delay, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced an overhaul of Build it Back. His decision came after a report pieced together by William Goldstein, the city’s Senior Advisor for Recovery, Resiliency, and Infrastructure acknowledged certain failures in the program’s implementation.
The report reinforces Mahknin’s assertion that the two-year delay in allocation of resources forced victims of Sandy to rebuild alone: “Many homeowners, frustrated by the delay and needing to return to their homes and make them livable, started work on their own, at their own expense.” The decision to rebuild on their own came with at least one consequence that has become even more relevant five years later: instead of redesigning structures to be more resilient, owners reconstructed their buildings as they had always been. In short, although progress has been made in the restoration of Brighton Beach, the community remains ill prepared for another storm like Sandy. “If something happens tomorrow,” Mahknin says, “we’re going to flood the same way.”
With a new hurricane season underway, seeing the devastation caused by Harvey and Irma in Florida and the Texas Gulf coast and after Maria laid waste to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, residents of Brighton Beach are more concerned than ever. Many still face challenges as they attempt to restore their lives. The relaunch of Build it Back was specifically designed to address the challenge of building resiliency, and several nonprofits have stepped in with the same purpose. SBP USA, a national organization founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, established a satellite office in Rockaway Beach following Sandy. Originally named St. Bernard Project after the parish it helped rebuild in New Orleans, the organization’s stated goals are to help residents of impacted areas rebuild efficiently and, most importantly, effectively – creating more resilient neighborhoods. Evan Achiron, a representative from SBP, highlights the inefficiencies residents face when dealing with government agencies. “Money ends up sitting for a very long time,” he explains, “and doesn’t get to people who need it.” SBP prioritizes clients who have low- to moderate income and are typically under- or uninsured. They, too, are concerned about the state of disaster recovery efforts: “I fear what’s going to happen moving forward.”
Despite the help offered by these programs, the Brighton Beach community remains skeptical. Buildings that were reconstructed as they were before are left with little to no protection in the event of another hurricane. Although José’s impact on the northeastern coast was minimal, residents tracked its path in fear – and felt unprepared to face its potential destruction. Especially antagonizing were the reports that Jose had regained its Category 1 status, making it potentially more dangerous than Superstorm Sandy. Singer reflects on her experiences both during and after the storm. “No one could have been prepared for what the night had in store,” she says. “I don’t think we could take another hit like that.” She and many residents easily recall the memories from Sandy and its aftermath. Five years on, their scars have not fully healed, leaving them with a sense of vulnerability as they face an uncertain future.