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Brooklyn stories from Superstorm Sandy, 10 years later

October 29, 2022 Mary Frost
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The nonprofit Waterfront Alliance brought together members of coastal communities from across New York City and New Jersey on Wednesday for a Superstorm Sandy 10 Year Anniversary Boat Tour.

Courtesy of New York Cruise Lines, the ferry made stops at Hoboken, South Street Seaport, Staten Island and Red Hook, where local officials, business owners and community members boarded and told their stories of living through the storm, lessons learned and plans for the future.

The storm marked a before and after moment in the lives of many Brooklynites. In New York City, the disaster killed more than 40 people. Yet Sandy also brought together communities and highlighted the importance of “social infrastructure.”

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Mike Stamatis, President and CEO of Red Hook Container Terminal and Waterfront Alliance board member, remembers the day Superstorm Sandy hit Red Hook and the profound impact it had on Red Hook and the entire city. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Mike Stamatis, president and CEO of Red Hook Container Terminal

One of those who rode out the storm was Mike Stamatis, president and CEO of Red Hook Container Terminal. Stamatis started there as president in December 2011. “And less than a year later Superstorm Sandy took all of us by surprise,” he told the crowd.

Stamatis lives in New Jersey but he decided to stay in Brooklyn during the storm, “In case I couldn’t get back to New York, if the bridges were closed from the wind and so forth,” he said. “I just got Netflix and I was watching Columbo reruns. I told my wife, ‘Everything’s fine, I’m just going to hang out.’ So I’m sitting there with my feet up on my desk, and all the sudden I get a call from the Port Authority police telling me, ‘We are coming right now to get you out. The terminal is flooding.’

“I couldn’t see that from my office because it was dark. So the Port Authority police came to my office and told me to get in their brand new truck. By the time we got from my office to Pier 7, which was the only place we could go that had a higher elevation, the terminal was completely underwater. The truck actually died as we pulled up in front of Pier 7 because the engine had filled with water,” he said. 

“We went inside the building, which at that time happened to be Phoenix Beverage beer distributor. The owners of Phoenix Beverage and myself witnessed all the flooding come in until the power went out. Their building — which was 300,000 square feet of beer and kegs stacked in pallets floor-to-ceiling — was swaying, the flood waters were running through it like a river and we were basically running for what we thought was our lives,” Stamatis said.

“The owners had just spent millions of dollars installing a co-generation plant to supply power to their new facility. We were trying to put sandbags around this brand new power plant and I’m going, ‘Man, we are standing in waist-deep water with the power plant.’ I’m worrying about getting electrocuted. We did whatever we had to do just to keep safe, but the point is I never could have imagined what I was witnessing.

New York Cruise Lines provided the boat for the Waterfront Alliance’s Hurricane Sandy 10 Year Anniversary Boat Tour on Oct. 26. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

“When daylight came, 5 a.m., we started looking around the terminal and it was complete devastation,” he recalled. “Containers that were on the terminal had washed overboard into the river. Some of them were on Governors Island, some of them were floating down the East River. … All of our cranes, all of our equipment was destroyed. The entire Port of New York and New Jersey was completely flooded and decimated.”

“I quickly saw how entrenched the local community was in terms of mobilizing and getting back to work,” Stamatis said. “I went from just being a guy that worked here to becoming the fabric of the community. This is when I realized what a special place this is, the port being a part of the community, being a part of the fabric. Sandy really pulled all of us together, even the folks that work at the terminal, our International Longshoremen and women, everybody really dug in deep. 

“I’ll tell you we got no insurance money, that was denied,” he said. “So all of our equipment was underwater, destroyed. Most people would have said it’s scrap. Our labor said, ‘No way, we are going back to work.’ We fixed the equipment, fixed the cranes; we had to find generators down in Alabama at a huge cost. But our people, the local community, everyone demanded that we get back to work. 

“Despite all the challenges of the last ten years we are still here and I can honestly say we are actually doing now better than ever,” Stamatis said. “When I first showed up here, everybody told me, ‘Eh, Port Authority is going to close the terminal.’ They just needed me for a year. Honestly, that’s what I was told … Now, a little bit down the street, we are going to be building our offshore wind port, the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal.” The new facility will create hundreds of jobs, he said. 

“Being a part of the community is something that’s really important for us,” he said. “I operate terminals in New Jersey, Texas and Maryland, but nothing like this. It is my privilege to be here working every day in Red Hook. I have an office at Port Newark, which is about 20 minutes from my house, but I choose to sit in traffic and come to Red Hook. People tell me, why do you go to Brooklyn? I say, that’s where I want to be.”

Cortney Koenig Worrall, president and CEO of Waterfront Alliance.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle


Cortney Koenig Worrall, president of Waterfront Alliance

“Waterfront Alliance represents all of the communities that surround us in this harbor,” said Cortney Koenig Worrall, the organization’s president. “There’s a difficult road ahead. We have to recognize that there are many neighborhoods that are extremely vulnerable right now and there are no significant plans to protect those neighborhoods yet. Those tend to be the neighborhoods where people have the least resources to respond to major climate impact. So our big push to the city and the states of New York and New Jersey is to put the funding, the money and the effort into planning, and ultimately into plans that will attract federal and state funding so that we can get implementation of projects going.”

Worrall spoke to the Brooklyn Eagle about the upcoming massive reconstruction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE).

“Change is coming from Mother Nature,” Worrall said. “We have a choice. We can either allow that change to happen to us in ways that are haphazard and unplanned, or we can be a part of that change. So how can Brooklyn, in particular, grow our appetite for looking at how neighborhoods need to change? How is the BQE going to have to change?

“The capacity of the BQE is really important in consideration of the way that New York City is going to get its deliveries from the increase in packages and things that we are ordering online,” she said. “We don’t want to create a situation where there’s even more truck congestion or backups in parts of the city that aren’t actually designed for that.” The highway reconstruction requires “a very complex set of solutions that look at everything including car traffic, truck traffic, deliveries, shipping, etc.”

Worrall also wants Brooklyn residents to be aware that there are parts of the borough in low-lying waterfront areas that have been rezoned to allow for changes in the height of buildings and in the way neighborhoods are designed. 

“This is to allow for buildings to be elevated or for critical infrastructure like the heating system, the cooling system, the electrical system to be elevated to the next floor. And so those height requirements allow for much higher building heights, which is a major progress,” she said.

“There is the need to advocate for sources of funding [for people] to be able to invest in their homes, their buildings or properties in order to take advantage of those changes in the zoning right now,” she said. 

Councilmember Ari Kagan is chair of the Council’s Resiliency and Waterfront Committee.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Councilmember Ari Kagan (Coney Island, Southern Brooklyn)

Councilmember Ari Kagan is chair of the Council’s Resiliency and Waterfront Committee. 

“I call myself a Sandy Survivor,” he said. “I lived in an apartment on the second floor in Brighton Beach, and the water almost started to flow inside my apartment. I managed to bring my family to the sixth floor. The very next day I was in Coney Island, and I can tell you it was a terrible scene. Everything was destroyed, people lost a lot of things and some people lost everything. And government was nowhere to be seen, by the way — not federal, not city, not state.” 

“When FEMA people finally showed up, they were from North Carolina and they had no idea where Coney Island was located. They had no idea that not everybody speaks English in the south of Brooklyn,” he said. “Why didn’t they hire anybody from New York City?”

Kagan said he was headed to a hearing which would look into the problem of what has been done or not done to prepare for future storms. “It’s not just hurricanes and storms. In New York City at this point, heavy rain is an absolute disaster. It’s mind-boggling that rain is a disaster.”

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was a participant in the hearing because they came up with the resiliency plan, Kagan said. “Or I would say they came up with an amount of money to spend, $52 billion. But one of the questions is, “How are you going to work with the community? Are you going to talk to the Waterfront Alliance? Are you going to talk to community boards, local community organizations, environmental groups?”

The resiliency project will takes years, Kagan said. “First they need to come out with a plan, then they need to start hiring consultants. The process of just hiring consultants could take two years.”

NYCHA is still unprepared, he added. “They still didn’t finish Sandy resiliency projects, there is still tons of work to do. That’s a perfect example. They got the money, and they are only about 50 percent done. So money is important, but it’s not all. You have to push and push everything.”

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (Staten Island, Bay Ridge, left) and Waterfront Alliance President and CEO Cortney Koenig Worrall. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (Staten Island, Bay Ridge)

“Staten Island was truly devastated by Hurricane Sandy. That was my Assembly District at the time; I was a freshman Assemblymember,” Rep. Nicole Malliotakis told the crowd. “If you look at my district map, it was the FEMA flood map.”

Malliotakis spoke about the progress of the Staten Island East Shore Sea Wall project. “The seven-mile wall will run from South Beach Boardwalk all the way up to Great Kills Harbor. This project has been decades in the making even before Hurricane Sandy struck. Hurricane Sandy made us realize there was a real urgency to build this wall,” she said. 

Malliotakis also represents several communities in southern Brooklyn, including Bay Ridge.

“I was one of the 13 Republicans that actually supported [Biden’s] infrastructure bill to help it pass.  That was incredibly important legislation and a very important funding stream for New York City,” she told the crowd. “There’s opportunity for a lot of these coastal resiliency projects that we are talking about today. Not just coastal resiliency projects, but things like hardening the infrastructure for our ferries, for our ports, and sewer infrastructure as well.

“That bill in particular is supposed to bring at least $100 billion into New York, and it might be more than that, over the next several years,” Malliotakis said. “We’re really hopeful that the city and state will use that funding stream the correct way for things that we truly need.”

The working waterfront at Atlantic Basin in Red Hook. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Karen Blondel, Red Hook leader

Karen Blondel is the founder and executive director of the Public Housing Civic Association in Red Hook.

“I was sitting in my apartment when the surge came in and our power was knocked out,” she said. 

The next day, the first person Blondel saw was Judge Alex Calabrese, presiding judge for the Red Hook Community Justice Center. She helped the judge charge his phone, which had gone dead. “Then he was able to activate the reserves, and get lighting and power out to us during those first days when traffic couldn’t get to Red Hook.

“Red Hook, being an isolated area for many decades, has relied on each other,” Blondel said. “If I got a loaf of bread, everybody got a slice. I think that Hurricane Sandy was that pivotal time when we took something that a lot of people say was meant for bad — that Robert Moses design was meant to segregate — but we took something bad and made it good. We were able to connect across our diversities, across our community, into the Industrial Business Zone, across the manufacturing areas, and across our residential. 

“We are hoping at the end of the day we are a model for other communities on how to build this kind of social infrastructure,” Blondel said. “Because it is really, really important to have a social infrastructure where you know where the people who need the most help are, and who’s going to actually go and help them.”

Tim Gilman-Sevcik, Executive Director of RETI Center. Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Tim Gilman-Sevcik, Executive Director of RETI Center 

Red Hook’s RETI Center stands for Resilience, Ecology, Training and Innovation, said Executive Director Tim Gilman-Sevcik.

Before Superstorm Sandy hit, Gilman-Sevcik put all of the family’s precious photos and memorabilia on the top shelf of his basement in Red Hook. But that wasn’t enough.

“When the water came in, it went past the 3-foot mark, it went past the 6-foot mark, it went up my chimney and kept going and when it came down it brought the wall with it. So my house had a lot of damage,” Gilman-Sevcik said.

Half of his daughter’s childhood was spent displaced from the storm, which was a topic she wrote about on her college applications, he said. “From the age of seven to the age of 13, we lived in seven different places waiting to rebuild and elevate our home to the new flood standards.”

Though his family was able to eventually build back, “There’s so many people who weren’t able to do it because they couldn’t be heard and they couldn’t get the help that was needed,” he said. “80 percent of our neighborhood lives in a public housing project, and the city is still trying to do things and fix it up.”

“We can’t fight climate change, it’s bigger than we are. All we can do is try to work with it,” he said. Rather than focus on “hardening” the city, Gilman-Sevcik believes we should soften its edges. 

“There’s no such thing as a hard edge in nature. Everything is an area, a zone, a border and it’s all living and reactive,” he said. “What happens when you spend all that money on just hardening the edges? Red Hook becomes an incredible bathtub, and what’s flowing to fill the bathtub is the sewage and the runoff from up the hill in Park Slope and Carroll Gardens.

“New York City Harbor is the sixth borough, and the sixth borough is rising,” he said. “It’s becoming a part of all the other boroughs as the edges disappear. We need to restore these soft natural edges for equity, economics and ecology.”

Georganna Deas, administrative director, Coney Island Beautification Project.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

Georganna Deas,  administrative director, Coney Island Beautification Project 

Georganna Deas is a Coney Island resident and advocate who lives in the Gravesend Houses on Kaiser Park.

“Eureka, ten years later and we as a group are here today to talk about it,” she told the crowd.

“My job title at Astella Development Corp. was economic development specialist or something. What does that mean? That means that anybody who walked in that door, I had a smile on my face, I asked them what is the situation, and whatever the situation was I attempted to help them,” Deas said.

“I live right on the creek of Coney Island and I did not evacuate, I didn’t listen. I lived on the seventh floor, and looking out my window, I saw the creek rise,” she said.  “And the next day we had to figure out how to go and service the people of the neighborhood.

“People had been hurt, people had been killed, Coney Island looked different than it looks now. There were a lot of basement apartments where the water burst into the doors and flooded people’s apartments,” Deas said.

After the storm, the community was flooded with people who only came for the money, she said. “They said they came to help with the mental problems or whatever.” The group had difficulty getting money from the Red Cross, but eventually “the Red Cross finally contacted us and trusted us, because we have been in the community for 37 years. And we got the money and we said, ‘How are we going to distribute this money?’ We knew that people were trying to get food so we took that money and divvied it up to 121 businesses, and we gave each business along the commercial strip $500. $500 doesn’t seem that much but the $500 was enough for them to get supplies and people were able to get milk and eggs.”

“We’re happy that 10 years later we are here and we survived, but we are here to teach our children and to force our political people,” she said. “For one thing, we’d like to let people know that when you talk to people and the communities, start off from the position that they have an understanding. They may not have the degree, but if you talk to me intelligently, I have intelligence to understand. 

“Secondly, be prepared for the next disaster, because there will be a next disaster. Don’t prepare for the past disaster. Think about what the future disasters are going to be and think outside of the box and beyond the line. And let us continue to fight the good fight.”

Laura McKenna, marketing manager at NHS Brooklyn.
Photo: Mary Frost, Brooklyn Eagle

 

Laura McKenna, NHS Brooklyn

Laura McKenna is marketing manager at NHS Brooklyn, a not-for-profit housing organization which provides home buyers and renters with education, counseling, and financial support. The organization opened an office in Canarsie after Superstorm Sandy, McKenna said. 

“Canarsie was left behind a bit after Sandy. We’ve done a lot of work with resiliency, and hold monthly webinars explaining flood insurance for homeowners, tenants and first-time home buyers,” McKenna told the Eagle. “Canarsie is particularly vulnerable. There’s a large Caribbean community and not too many community centers because it’s a bedroom community. 

“We work with officials and other organizations, including Southern Brooklyn Community Organizations Active in Disaster,” she said. McKenna facilitates Southern Brooklyn COAD’s meetings. 

McKenna’s own house in Brooklyn Heights was hit by Hurricane Ian, where water flooded her yard and got into the apartment. She recommends that people sign up for NYC Emergency Management’s (NYCEM) alert system Notify NYC, and she urges people with hurricane damage to report the damage and apply to FEMA.

“Get your Go Bag ready, plan where your family will meet if you cannot communicate, and get alerts on your phone from Notify NYC,” McKenna said. “We really push this.”

Editor’s Note: Sandy technically didn’t make landfall as a hurricane or tropical storm, according to The Weather Channel.

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Other participants:

Tyler Taba, Waterfront Alliance senior manager for climate policy, hosted the event in partnership with the Rise to Resilience Coalition. 

Robert Maher, managing director of New York Cruise Lines, which donated the use of the boat, food and coffee.

Mark Levine, Manhattan Borough President

Alia Soomro, Deputy Director of NYC Programs, New York League of Conservation Voters

Judith Weis, Professor Emerita of Biological Sciences, Rutgers University

Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, Deputy Speaker and Parliamentarian, New Jersey State Assembly

Ken Ferrante, Public Safety Director, City of Hoboken

Gwen Dawson, Vice President of Real Property, Battery Park City Authority

Claudia Filomena, Director of Capital Projects, Battery Park City Authority

Captain Jonathan Boulware, President and CEO, South Street Seaport Museum

Frank Avila-Goldman, Lower East Side East River Residents Committee

Aixa Torres, President, Alfred E. Morris Resident Association

Ayo Harrington, Co-Chair, LES Ready!

Amy Chester, Managing Director, Rebuild by Design

Kelly Villar, CEO, Staten Island Urban Center

Joe Tirone, Leader of Oakwood Beach Buyouts Committee

Carter Strickland, New York State Director, Trust for Public Land

Dr. Edward Williams, President and CEO, Regional Ready Rockaway


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