Pinny Dembitzer bounced his SUV past the “For Sale” signs lining Sea Gate’s Atlantic Avenue, slamming his way through potholes in this gated community on the western tip of Coney Island.
Dembitzer apologized for the rough ride. His car, like most cars in the neighborhood, replaced one that was destroyed in October 2012, when Hurricane Sandy pushed monster waves through Sea Gate. He seemed resigned to the beating the road was giving his shocks.When the water flushed out of the neighborhood after the storm it took with it the sand underneath the streets, opening sinkholes and shuffling the sewers. A mile and a half down the road from Nathan’s Famous and the Cyclone rollercoaster, Sea Gate’s pavement is as rough as a dirt track.
It’s not the roads, though, that are troubling Dembitzer. A leader of the Hasidic community here and a former president of the neighborhood association, Dembitzer is more worried about the waves. A year after Hurricane Sandy, Sea Gate has yet to rebuild the sea walls washed away during the storm. The neighborhood is less protected than ever.
“I don’t think a day goes by people don’t worry,” Dembitzer said. “Right now, if… [the] water goes up a little bit, the water goes into Sea Gate.” In part, that’s Sea Gate’s own fault.
Surrounded on three sides by water, Sea Gate is privately owned, with a wall separating it from the rest of Coney Island. When it was offered federally funded storm protection in the 1990s — as long as it was prepared to open its private beach to the public — Sea Gate chose to keep its gates shut.
Today, the city wants Sea Gate to reconsider a large-scale beach reinforcement project. Sandy, however, doesn’t appear to have changed the neighborhood’s mind. All that’s changed in Sea Gate is the carpeting in the basements.
“We’re a private community,” said Barbara Garofalo, a life-long Sea Gate resident who serves on the board of the association.
Orthodox Jews make up a tenth of the population in Sea Gate, but their presence feels larger than that. Hasidic families can be seen strolling on the beach and sitting by the water. A shirtless, tattooed man looking out over the ocean from his second-story porch said that when an apartment was open in his building recently, it was mostly Orthodox men who came to inquire about renting it.
When Dembitzer moved to Sea Gate as a newlywed in 1980, there were just 100 ultra-Orthodox families living on this narrow point sticking out into Gravesend Bay. Today, there are 300 such families and seven shuls. Dembitzer, whose red beard is graying at the end, is a member of the Boro Park-based Bobov Hasidic sect. He owns a store in Boro Park, but seems to spend much of his time dealing with the business of the neighborhood out in Sea Gate.
The Sea Gate Association, which collects dues to pay the neighborhood’s private police force and to maintain the roads and sewers, is largely controlled by the Hasidic community. Russian Jews and non-Jewish old-timers live here, too, but Dembitzer has rotated in and out of the presidency for years, dropping out when he hits the term limit and jumping in again after a break. The governance structure is byzantine, involving a board and a nominating committee and an annual meeting at which members of the nominating committee are elected. Hasidic representatives attend those sparsely attended meetings armed with proxies from hundreds of their Hasidic neighbors, using their organizing prowess to exert heavy influence on the election process.
In October 2012, when the city gave the order to evacuate, half of the people here stayed put. In 2011, many had left to escape Hurricane Irene, which turned out to be a dud. The second time around, people figured evacuating wasn’t worth the effort.
It’s a mistake they won’t make again.
“At about 8 o’clock in the evening, the water from the ocean just decided to invade us,” Dembitzer said. “I was standing outside and just all of a sudden we see the waves coming in and the water went from zero to about four or five feet in no time.”
One Hasidic man, walking near the entrance to the community, climbed on top of a garbage truck and stayed there for five hours.
“The waves coming they say were about 32 feet,” Dembitzer said. “The water’s just coming and pulling out all the foundations … the houses were collapsing.”
The power was out and the neighborhood was dark. The streets were flooded until after midnight. The next morning, residents stepped outside in raincoats to see what had happened.
“Everybody’s house was damaged,” Dembitzer said. “I don’t think anybody was spared in Sea Gate.”
The streets were covered ankle-deep with sand. Sidewalks were gone. Flooded cars were wrapped around trees. The entire contents of the first floor of one seaside house had floated out through a busted bay window. Down by the beach, the whole side of one house on Beach 47th Street was gone. Water seeped through basement walls. All of the cars were totaled. Pieces of buildings were strewn all over the streets. Men and women walked down Atlantic Avenue, looking at what was left. If they were lucky, the water in their basements was knee-deep. If they were unlucky, their basements were underwater and their ground floors were ruined. The unluckiest lost entire homes.
It took the city sanitation department a month to clear the streets. Electricity took a few weeks to come back. The sewers, despite ongoing work, are still clogged with sand. They work, but just barely.
“There are many, many sewers that are literally, instead of having a twelve inch pipe, one or two inches of water are able to pass,” Dembitzer said. “There’s so much sand in there.”
Whatever the inconveniences of living in the remotest corner of Brooklyn, the benefits are obvious: East Hampton views at Staten Island prices. Plus, a private beach, a gate, and a private police force to keep everyone else out. For Hasidic Jews, it offers a semblance of the sort of inexpensive seclusion available in remote upstate Orthodox enclaves like Kiryas Joel. For everyone else, it’s a beach town within commuting distance of Manhattan.
That privacy, however, comes at a price. In 1991, a storm swamped the bulkhead at the neighborhood’s far end, tearing a wide gap in the wall and letting seawater into the streets. A few years later, in the mid-1990s, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced a project to fix the problem: a massive reinforcement initiative for the whole of Coney Island, with wider beaches and a protective sand barrier that would mitigate the impact of future storms.
For Sea Gate, however, there was a catch. Federal law prevented the Army Corps from doing work on a private beach. In order to participate, Sea Gate would have to allow the public past its gates. Sea Gate opted out.
“People will forever have second thoughts about that, and there are clearly multiple sides of the story,” said Jack Suben, a homeowner and board member who is now renting in Midwood after his house was washed away by the hurricane. “I would say that, by virtue of the fact that we are a gated community, it would not have been appropriate to open up our beaches.”
According to the Army Corps, the 1990s reinforcement project did its job elsewhere on the peninsula. “Yes, the Coney Island peninsula was impacted by the storm, but it would have been a great deal worse had the project never been constructed,” said Chris Gardiner, an Army Corps spokesman. The reinforcement project stopped the surge coming from the ocean, Gardiner said. “That’s why the boardwalk is still there.”
While the project helped most of Coney Island weather Sandy, it may have actually hurt Sea Gate. In the years after the project, the Army Corp’s work created massive erosion on Sea Gate’s end of the beach. The Army Corps promised to build groins on Sea Gate’s beach to stop that erosion, making an exception to its rule of not working on private beaches because, corps officials say, the project will mostly serve to reinforce their work elsewhere on the peninsula. The Army Corps had not gotten around to building the groins yet when Sandy struck.
“Had the beach erosion project been completed before Sandy… I would absolutely have to state that the damage would have been less,” said Suben, who works as an architect.
The Army Corps is slated to start that project in early 2014. It will provide some new protection to Sea Gate, but won’t stop the next flood.
Weeks after the storm, Sea Gate’s administrative offices moved to a trailer with a banner on the side reading “IT CAN BE DONE.” Behind Dembitzer’s desk is a painting of the neighborhood, a small strip of houses with the Verrazano Narrows bridge in the background and a yacht just offshore. Next to the desk are heavy steel samples for a notional new seawall.
The absence of protection along the shore hasn’t kept most Sea Gate families from returning home. Along the water, however, the neighborhood is a ghost town. On the inland side of Atlantic Avenue, homes look like they did the day before the hurricane. On the ocean side, most homes are for sale. A cold-calling real estate agent knocked on one door with no “For Sale” sign up yet.
The real estate listing aggregation site Trulia shows 79 homes on the market in Sea Gate. If accurate, that would comprise nearly a tenth of the properties in the neighborhood.
At the end of Beach 49th Street there’s a scrubby, sandy expanse that was a playground before the hurricane. “We had grass here, we had a kiddie park,” Dembitzer said, standing on the windy point. A piece of green metal poked through the sand; Dembitzer said it was part of an old swing set, now buried. Where the park once met the water, the waves splash against a tangle of cement and rebar, the remains of the old bulkhead.
In a report issued after the storm, the Bloomberg administration called that bulkhead “substandard.” In addition to the Army Corps’ pre-Sandy plan for fixing the erosion problem, the mayor’s report called for a major new study by the Corps that would essentially implement in Sea Gate what the neighborhood chose to skip in 1990.
“We can’t leave Sea Gate itself as an open vulnerability,” said Dan Zarrilli, the city’s director of resiliency. The city’s broad plan for mitigating floods in South Brooklyn can’t just skip over Sea Gate, Zarrilli said. A gap there in protection from the sea might leave other neighborhoods vulnerable.
The city hopes that the Army Corps will look at Sea Gate as part of an ongoing study due to be presented to Congress in 2015, said Zarrilli. Any actual work would then require Congressional approval — and approval from Sea Gate.
Dembitzer declined to say whether he would support opening the beaches if the city were to put the question to the association board. Others, however, said they would not.
“We would never open,” said Garofalo.
The growing power of the Hasidic community here, drawn in part by the promise of seclusion, could bolster opposition to the reconstruction deal. “I think the Hasidic community has more investment in that gate than anybody else,” said Suben. “I do believe that you’re going to find that community is going to fight more strenuously than any other element of the community.”
In lieu of fast action from the city on a new protection plan, all that Sea Gate is doing is building new sea walls. Engineers are working on proposals right now, according to Dembitzer.
Even when the new seawall gets built, Dembitzer knows it won’t keep another Sandy from wiping out the neighborhood. The seawall built by the association will only protect portions of the neighborhood’s shoreline; the rest would need to be built by individual owners. And the walls, as Sandy showed, can’t protect against the most powerful storms.
Next to one missing house on Beach 47th Street, the shirtless man on the second story porch watched the waves. The road, which now ends in front of his home, used to extend another 50 feet toward the water. His house had five feet of sand in the basement after the storm and had to be entirely rebuilt. The man said that he rented his apartment, but that the owner and her family had been there for generations.
“When you grow up like this,” he said, gesturing out towards the Verrazano Bridge, “where do you go from here?”
Josh Nathan-Kazis is a staff writer for the Forward. He covers charities and politics, and writes investigations and longform.