Flags flew at half-staff at University campuses in the days following Hurricane Sandy, honoring three students and a recent graduate who were among more than 115 U.S. residents – more than 40 of them in New York City – who died during the superstorm.
Lauren (Lola) Abraham, 23, who had transferred to LaGuardia Community College from Lehman College, was electrocuted by a snapped power line as she went out to take photographs.
John Filipowicz Jr., 20, a baccalaureate candidate at College of Staten Island, died embracing his father as the tide surged through their home.
Jessie Streich-Kest and her friend since middle school, Jacob Vogelman, died when a tree fell on them as they walked her dog during the storm. She had graduated last summer with a master’s degree in special education from Hunter College’s Urban Teacher Residency Program. He was a second-year MFA student at Brooklyn College.
Chancellor Matthew Goldstein voiced his “profound condolences to the families and friends” of these four students, as well as his “deepest concern and strongest support for those who may have suffered personal or property loss during this difficult time.”
Speaking to the Board of Trustees’ Committee on Faculty, Staff and Administration on Nov. 5, the Chancellor said CUNY was “moving aggressively with all of our chief student affairs administrators on each campus” to reach out to the approximately 7,700 students and 1,200 faculty and staff who live in the city’s Hurricane Evacuation Zone A. This zone, which essentially covers low-lying parts of the five boroughs that are closest to the water, bore the brunt of the storm surge, flooding and power outages during the hurricane. “We’ll provide assistance very quickly at all levels that we can,” he said.
Two days before, he had joined officials of the Federal Emergency Management Agency to look at what had happened in the hard-hit Rockaway Peninsula. “I have never seen in my life such devastation: People whose lives have been terribly, terribly disrupted, lives really in shambles at this point – no heat, no electricity, houses ruined, cars ruined … no gasoline. People are really suffering,” Chancellor Goldstein said.
He praised staff at the 10 campuses that had opened their doors to evacuees from the storm. At the peak, there were more 2,000 evacuees in college facilities, with hundreds remaining at some sites for extended stays; at York College, for example, the last evacuees left on Nov. 18, three weeks after the hurricane. (Click here for details.)
“We have really stood up and said that a great urban university like this has many strengths and moral obligations,” he told the trustees. “It made me proud to see how effectively we have all worked together as an integrated university, when so many of our constituents have been so wounded by this terrible storm.
Each of the four students who died as a result of Sandy was the victim of a heartbreaking tragedy.
Lauren Abraham, 23, who was known as Lola, had transferred from Lehman College to LaGuardia Community College. Although she ran a home business as a makeup artist and worked for several professional agencies, she had hoped to become a teacher.
A friend, Elpidio Nunez, told The New York Times that she was passionate about cosmetology, especially making her friends look gorgeous before a night out at the clubs. “She was a beautiful girl, very carefree, she was never depressed,” he said.
Her boyfriend, Ernst Alvarez Jr., said that one of the last memories they shared was creating spooky face makeup designs for Halloween. “She was just one of those people who once she was in the zone, you couldn’t slow her down,” he told DNAInfo.com.
At about 8 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 29, when a neighbor said the weather was fierce and power was out, she left the home in Richmond Hill, Queens, where she lived with her parents. The weather was “fierce at that hour” and power was out, as the neighbor put it, Abraham walked down the rain-drenched street to take photographs. She appears to have come in contact with a downed power line, which was sparking and set her on fire, killing her.
More than 100 mourners attended her service at the Christian Cultural Center in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn, according to DNAInfo. “Most of us are either smart or creative,” her brother, Corey Abraham, said at the service. “She was fortunate enough to be both.”
Relatives told DNAInfo that Abraham had put her education on hold to pursue cosmetology. But her mother, Kim, said she was planning on ultimately becoming a mathematics professor like her idol and stepfather, who died in 2009.
Relatives described Abraham as devoutly religious and said she constantly nagged them to go to the non-denominational Christian church where her service resounded with gospel songs and poetry readings by her friends and relatives.
On Staten Island, John Filipowicz Jr., a junior at the College of Staten Island, died in the arms of his father, a retired corrections officer as water reached 10 feet high in the basement of their home.
“When I found them they were in an embrace,” John Sr.’s brother, Neil Filipowicz, said in a narrative here compiled from DNAInfo.com and dailymail.co.uk. “I crawled through a hole in the wall that the water had made. I shone my flashlight from right to left and then I saw a hand, to my left. I was praying it was a doll’s hand, but I reached into the water and grabbed it, and my nephew came up. My brother came up, too. He had his arm round the back of his head, shielding him. My nephew was holding my brother and my brother was clutching him into his chest as if they knew they were dying.”
The elder Filipowicz had stayed in the evacuation zone to watch over his house, as he had done after weathering Hurricane Irene last year and previous storms, the Daily Mail reported.
Neil Filipowicz related that John Jr.’s twin brother, Joseph, had spoken with his twin that day and “tried to get him to leave. He told him: ‘I’m not leaving Daddy.'”
“It was a bond how it’s supposed to be with your kids, between a son and a father,” Neil Filipowicz said. “They loved each other so much.”
Filipowicz, whom DNAInfo called a star athlete, and his father were big sports fans. They were buried wearing their Jets jerseys; John Sr. wore Joe Klecko’s #73, John Jr. Dustin Keller’s #81.
“I was just thinking how great they were,” said Kevin Martin, John Jr.’s uncle. “I was thinking I wouldn’t want them to die any way but hugging each other like they did.”
Jacob Vogelman and a friend from middle school, Jessie Streich-Kest, both 24, were in exactly the wrong place at the wrong time with her 2-year-old pit bull mutt, Max, which she had rescued from a shelter. As they walked through the Ditmas Park section of Brooklyn, hurricane-force winds toppled a tree, crushing them and sending the dog to a veterinary hospital with minor head injuries.
“A dog still needs to get out for a few moments, even in the midst of an unprecedented storm,” Michael Daly wrote in The Daily Beast. “If he had needed to tie his shoe or if they had not been able to find the leash for a moment, or if anything at all had delayed them or sped them up for just a second, [they] might very well have come home safe.”
The friends, who were not romantically involved, were buried in separate ceremonies.
Streich-Kest had earned an M.A. in special education last summer with a 3.9 GPA at Hunter College’s Urban Teacher Residency Program, a partnership with New Visions for Public Schools. She was in her first year of teaching at Bushwick High School for Social Justice.
Previously, The New York Times reported, she had done activist work with New Yorkers for Clean, Livable & Safe Streets and had protested the city’s horse-drawn carriages. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she had worked with Penn Haven, an anti-poverty student group that served Philadelphia’s homeless.
“Jessie was very friendly and laid back, but she was also driven,” Tom Salgo, who was Max’s normal dog-walker and had gone to high school with her, told the Times. “She went to school in Bushwick every day with students who were difficult. She had some sort of drive to help them, despite the obstacles in the way. She got along with anybody.”
The Ditmas Park Corner newspaper quoted college friends as saying that she had a “warm heart” and tried to leave a “positive mark on the world.”
They remembered her buying a homeless mother baby formula and diapers “out of the blue.”
In a blog post at my.hsj.org, John Faciano, her communication arts teacher at Murrow High School, from which she graduated in 2006, recalled her working on the yearbook and participating in the Senior Advanced Placement Seminar he ran. “Jessie spoke freely, argued logically, had strength and conviction in her opinions, yet never dominated a discussion. She viewed the class as a team working together towards a goal of understanding, and if there was dissension, as there often was, she argued her point patiently and confidently, and if others couldn’t be swayed, she valued and strove for consensus,” he wrote.
“She expected and often demanded the best of people, especially the adults in her life. She wouldn’t allow any of them to let her down — she wouldn’t give you the chance, and in fact, you didn’t want to. I knew I was in the presence of greatness when I was with Jessie, near to the best that is humanity, near the force and spirit that was able to bring out the best in me and others,” Faciano wrote.
Vogelman, known to friends and family as Jake, had earned a bachelor’s degree in theater design at SUNY/Buffalo in 2010. He had not let dyslexia stop him from graduating cum laude and was studying lighting design in Brooklyn College’s MFA program.
“Jake was a positive and upbeat student,” said Theater Department chair Kip Marsh. “He always had a smile on his face and enjoyed his studies and Brooklyn College.”
“He brought people together,” said Mary Beth Easley, one of Vogelman’s professors. “He was willing to show and teach others. He reached out. Everybody knew him.”
Vogelman was lighting designer for the play “The Altruists,” by Nicky Silver, and was scheduled to fill the same role for Rajiv Joseph’s “Gruesome Playground Injuries” later this year.
“He was an amazing individual,” recalled fellow MFA student Brian Kafel. “He was very talented and had big dreams.”
In an article about his death on the University at Buffalo’s website, a college friend, Erin Weaver, says, “It’s just amazing the overwhelming amount of love on his Facebook wall – everybody has a story with him. He was just one of those people who could have a great time with anyone.”
Another Buffalo friend, Nicole Benoit, recalled how he continued working on shows even when an injury temporarily caused him to walk with a cane. The injury “never impeded his agility or spirit – you would still find him in the depths of the jungle of a backstage props/scene closet or working on the grids high above the stages, joyful as always,” Benoit said. “Jacob was a truly vivacious spirit and will be missed by anyone whose path he cheerfully crossed.”