From Rockaway Beach
Just like during Hurricane Irene, I was playing den mother for two crews from NY1 who were holed up in my house and filing report after report about the deteriorating conditions in the Rockaways as Hurricane Sandy approached. Irene served as a template for most of us who had covered that storm but the similarities between the two hurricanes ended when the ocean started gushing underneath the boardwalk at a terrifying pace.
As the waters began to rage, I began worrying about one of our reporters, Dean Meminger, and his cameraman, Mac Sillick, who were still out on the streets somewhere in their SUV, trying to get more footage of the arriving storm. I was kicking myself for letting them leave the house as the water level was rising. Finally, they pulled into the parking lot and began pushing through the water that was almost up to their knees. Seeing that they were fine was probably the last happy moment of the night.
Things rapidly got out of control. The river in front of the house became bigger and angrier, loudly snapping the fence in front of my house. Feeling like Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” I watched in shock as I could see the boardwalk get uprooted in the distance and then sent hurling down the street in front of the house like a whitewater raft.
Lights in neighboring houses and across the street flickered and then went out like malfunctioning bulbs on a Christmas tree. But even after we lost power, the phone was still working. I was talking to my boss, trying to sound calm, and giving him my mother’s phone number to tell her that I was ok — when the connection went dead.
We started moving things to the second floor of the house – including a bunch of boogie boards that I quietly imagined could be our last hope of escape if the water continued pouring in at its insane rate. Everyone stayed remarkably calm despite the fact that a raging ocean was suddenly in front of the house, lapping at the porch, breaking into the basement, and then climbing up the steps.
We kept trying to answer the big question: was the ocean still rising? How many steps had the water climbed up the stairs? Had it stopped? At a certain point, it leveled off. Finally, we figured out that high tide and the storm surge had both passed and the ocean wasn’t going to make it to the first floor. In the distance and in the darkness, the sky was turning orange – from the fires in Rockaway Park and Breezy Point that we would learn about in horrible detail later.
Despite the bad situation, it had clearly stabilized. We went to bed, knowing that it would be a tough day in the morning. But at some point — close to low tide at about 2 a.m. — I woke up to find that the water had somehow vanished. While the ocean was still roaring, it had retreated far back onto the beach. Left in its wake was a muddy, lunar landscape that I wandered.
With the help of a flashlight, I could see that an odd mix of trash was strewn around the front of my house, including a bicycle helmet, an Irish novel, and VCR tapes of children’s movies. Water filled my basement. No lights were visible in the other homes; everyone was asleep or quietly freaking out in the dark as a burglar alarm wailed in the distance.
We worried what would happen when high tide returned that morning but the ocean never came back to our street. The days that followed were challenging for everyone in our neighborhood; we had no heat, hot water or power and our basements were trashed. The boardwalk – our familiar point of orientation – was ripped up and scattered across our streets which looked like they had been carpet bombed.
We were lucky in my house. Because of our connection to NY1, we had an umbilical cord to civilization. Equipped with a generator, a satellite phone, a constant supply of gasoline, and reporters from the “outside” who were trucking in food, we were the peninsula’s One Percent. Sure, we were cold and often dirty but we never felt as totally abandoned as many of our neighbors did.
In the wake of the storm, the amount of support from people off the peninsula was truly staggering. From the weird mix of Sikhs and Mormons and the people who ran the ideological spectrum from the hippies in Occupy Sandy to the war veterans in Team Rubicon, the volunteer effort was often impressive to behold – even when it was filled with a lot of duplicated efforts.
As heartening as the rapid response was from everyday people, though, the Red Cross was a case study of what not to do in the wake of a disaster. My first sighting of anyone from their organization was not until three-and-a-half days after the storm surge – a painful eternity after Sandy.
While I could write hurricane porn all day, it’s important to realize that the cleanup – and the fantastic job by the Sanitation Department – was the easy part compared to what we’re dealing with now. Rockaway is involved in a very complicated rebuilding effort that could easily get bogged down in political squabbles.
Overall, the Bloomberg administration has done a good job with coming up with a detailed blueprint for the peninsula’s future. But it’s clear that Rockaway is just a small community on the frontier of a massive city. It has often felt that while we’re told our input is important, the solutions to our problems are just being shoved down our throats by a wellmeaning but semi-competent colonial government that’s headquartered in a faraway land.
I’m convinced that the massive amount of effort and money being spent in Rockaway – our own Marshall Plan — will make the peninsula a far better place than it was a year ago. But births – and rebirths – aren’t always easy things. We still have plenty of issues to settle, including making sure that rising insurance rates don’t skyrocket everyone out of the neighborhood. Over the last year, the storm has served as a constant reminder that we all live in a special place. It’s a place worth fighting for.
Bob Hardt is a Rockaway Beach resident, Political Director at NY1 and posted an important blog in the weeks after Sandy.