Hit Hard: Russian Immigrants in Brighton Beach Begin Post-Hurricane Cleanup

Brighton Beach took a direct hit during Hurricane Sandy. (Photo: Aaron Leaf)

BROOKLYN, NY – Two days after Hurricane Sandy tore through the region, a dozen members of the Bratva Motorcycle Club chatted in Russian behind a row of parked Harleys. They were dressed in black leather embossed with their cross and skull symbol. It was their usual Thursday evening get-together except now their club-house, across from the Freak Show on Coney Island, was trashed.

The bar had been hit by the 7 foot high storm surge. While the bar’s owner, a Bratva member named Felix Gleizer, examined the damage inside, another biker named Oleg showed everyone cellphone photos of his devastated Staten Island neighborhood. One of the photos was of a boat from a nearby marina that crash landed into a neighbor’s house. Another neighbor, says Oleg, had spent 12 hours on her roof before being rescued.

Inside the bar is dark and wet, chairs are everywhere and a bottle of vodka, recently consumed, stands empty on a table.

“Devastated,” says Gleizer. “It has to be rebuilt from scratch.” Everything from the electrical to the furniture is wrecked and Gleizer wonders if he even has “the means to rebuild something so totally destroyed.”

“There are good days and there are bad days,” says Gleizer. “A motorcycle guy saying is ‘every day spent above the ground is a good day.’ Today is not a great day, but it’s a good day. Everybody’s healthy and except for material losses nobody lost anything significant.

Back outside I mention Gleizer’s worries and the crew dismisses it.

“Bratva means ‘brotherhood’ in Russian,” Oleg says. “Come visit us here in 3 months.”

Listen to Felix Gleizer:

Listen to Elizabeth Orlov:

Shopkeepers pumped up to seven feet of sea water from their basements. (Photo: Aaron Leaf)

At St. Petersburg, a Russian-language book and toy store, owner Elizabeth Orlov has torn out all the carpeting. (Photo: Aaron Leaf)

Businesses along the boardwalk, like this Russian cafe, suffered the brunt of the waves. (Photo: Aaron Leaf)

The beach is littered with pieces of front porches and people’s belongings. (Photo: Aaron Leaf)

Down the mostly deserted block toward Brighton Beach, America’s largest Russian-speaking community, many of the stores have piled their damaged furniture on the sidewalk. On Brighton Beach Avenue, shopkeepers are pumping the water from their flooded basements. Some have set up tables outside selling slightly damp discounted clothing, and Russian pastries—still dry.

At the St Petersburg Book Store, which specializes in Russian children’s books and toys, owner Elizabeth Orlov is pumping water out through the trap door in front.

“Everything in there is gone,” she says gesturing to the flooded basement. As a long-time place to go for Russian books and toys, the store is very important to the Russian-speaking community across the region. “We’ve had a lot of people passing by offering their condolences,” says Orlov. Staff are already back, tearing up soggy carpets and attempting to retrieve what they can.

When she first arrived after the storm on Wednesday there was six to seven feet of sea water in the basement. Her biggest worry then was to turn the electricity off before Con-Ed restored power to the neighborhood. Other local shopkeepers had not been so lucky and the return of power to the flooded block had caused electrical fires destroying nearby businesses including a beloved flower store.

The owner of Samit Liquor, a store specializing in Eastern European liquors and wines is also afraid of turning her electricity back on. She estimates six or seven stores had electrical fires when the power came back on. When she first got to her store on Wednesday, two cars outside were also on fire and the water in her basement was over her head.

At the far end of the block at Brighton Fabrics, Firouza, with the help of her extended family is busy cleaning mud off the luggage that they sell. The water line is clearly visible on the merchandise stacked against the wall. Because of Tropical Storm Irene last year Firouza didn’t expect the damage of Sandy. “It was very scary.”

She couldn’t get to the store for four days because it was impossible to drive from New Jersey where she lives. What she found was two feet of muddy water on the first floor and a basement flooded to the ceiling.

“The basement was full of merchandise,” says Firouza. “One hundred thousand dollars worth of items all damaged. Garbage.”

Firouza says that when she arrived in the United States from the former Soviet Republic of Uzbekistan her family gravitated toward the Russian speaking enclave she calls “Little Odessa.”

“In my country, Russian is our second language,” says Firouza. “It’s easier to communicate which is why there are so many Uzbeks here.” Her nephew runs a Russian-language magazine booth in front of the store and other relatives work at Uzbek restaurants in the neighborhood.

On the beach, the boardwalk is still there but the awnings of the famous Russian nightclubs have mostly collapsed. The beach is a full of debris: wooden decks from across the bay. Pieces of boardwalk and tons of trash.


Fi2W is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation with additional support from the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation and the Sirus Fund.


AboutAaron Leaf
Aaron Leaf is a writer, editor, and digital producer based in New York with a special interest in African politics, immigrant diasporas, and the future of cities. Raised in Canada, he has lived on four continents and has written for a wide variety of publications. Recent bylines include Al Jazeera America, The Nation, The Globe and Mail and The Guardian.