When Rabbi Avremel Okonov arrived Tuesday morning at the school he co-founded 10 years ago in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, the water in the basement had already receded from the high water mark. It only came up to his knees.
Everywhere he looked around his school, Mazel Academy, there was destruction. On the walls of the school’s lower level, which sits several feet below the street and just blocks from the Brooklyn waterfront, he could see the mark where the water level had risen. It was at head level.
Four pumps had run for several hours to rid Mazel Academy of water. On Wednesday, as the cleanup effort began to make headway, several puddles of water remained and the stench of seawater was inescapable. Hundreds of waterlogged prayerbooks were laid out on tables in the vestibule and piles of black trash bags lined the sidewalk filled with papers, books and other supplies destroyed by the surge of Hurricane Sandy.
But it was in the main sanctuary of an old synagogue now used by the school that the most poignant image was on display. Six Torah scrolls, stored during the storm in a safe on the lower level, were fully unrolled to dry, their parchment blotched and black lettering distorted by the floodwaters.
“We’re drying them out,” said Okonov, the school’s executive director. “But I’m looking closely – a lot of these pages, it’s not reparable. This is just heartbreaking to look at.”
Across southern Brooklyn on Wednesday, residents took stock of the devastation wrought by the most destructive natural disaster in memory to hit New York. Downed trees blocked countless roads, and the sound of generators powering pumps could be heard on virtually every block in Brighton Beach as residents labored to dry out their basements.
Without electricity to power signal lights, traffic was perpetually snarled. And with temperatures predicted to drop with the sun, residents were bracing for another cold night without heat.
In the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood of Manhattan Beach, where the storm had left streets covered with sand and thick black muck, a lone worker shoveled water and debris from the entryway of Temple Beth-El. Across the street, an elderly rabbi who had taken shelter during the storm with a family member was discussing the cleanup with a contractor.