In the early days after the storm, my street off of Beach 69th Street in Arverne looked like everyone else’s in Rockaway. It looked like a war zone. Everything was covered in muck, debris blocking the way, people wandering, listless and troubled by the enormity of the mess. Before Sandy, Burchell Avenue had been unofficially presided over by a 74 year old, devout Catholic woman named Indiana Koenig. Indiana moved to Rockaway from Jamaica more than forty years ago, with her Austrian husband Peter. When I moved here two years ago, I wasn’t sure about how we’d get along. She often stands at her front gate and tells people her opinions on the goings on in the neighborhood, whether you want to know her opinion or not. I could tell she was a force to be reckoned with and I was shy around her. I lived here a year before we had a substantive conversation. It was a few days after the storm, when I saw her standing at her gate unsure of what to do next, when we finally started really talking. I told her where to get blankets and supplies, and we drove together to the Beach 67th Street FEMA emergency center to collect food and water. Slowly over the coming weeks, we built a friendship that has become deeply meaningful to me. We dug out Indiana’s basement, made sure she’d be warm for the coming winter because we all knew she wasn’t leaving her home. We found that in talking, neither one of us was alone here in this bleak place we were trying to salvage. That week was the start of a very long year for all of us. Roughly six months later, after the winter had passed and we were all starting to feel warm, Indiana’s home caught fire. She and I held each other, from my stoop as the house she’d protected through this cold winter burned. She still hasn’t left our neighborhood. She’s renting a house a few blocks away, until the house can be restored.
I’m sure we’ve all had tough years. All of us have lost loved ones, watched our families struggle, fallen victim to some strange turn life dealt without warning. Many here endured the trauma of 9/11 in such an unspeakably personal way, it is just not possible to mention difficult years here in New York without acknowledging that great loss. And now, we’ve all gone through a year of previously unfathomable challenge together. An entire peninsula, thousands upon thousands of us digging out our lives, digging out our neighbors, the long, cold months filled with nightly walks past the piles upon piles of debris while we were just trying to get home from work.
We cried for those that lost everything to fire and water, those who lost their lives, for those who watched businesses their parents founded decades ago just wash away. If someone had asked me a year ago, what life would be like today here in Rockaway, there is no way I would have known how changed we would all be.
We all somehow stood up, picked up shovels and cleaned. It seemed as if the demolition and cleaning, the piles of wood and soggy insulation would keep coming forever. Slowly they dwindled, the brown film along the streets washed away, the A train came back online, the plants we thought we had all lost to the storm bloomed again. The sun came back and as the spring and summer warmed us, the concessions opened, New Yorkers came and visited and we continued to work on our homes.
The familiar refrain at the few gatherings we could all muster up would overwhelm us…”How’d you do in the storm? How is your house? Are your neighbors back?” We’re still asking and the answers are still often hard to give and hear. The stress remains of our storm stories, insurance claims, building codes, lost savings and the long to do lists overwhelm.
We were not only inundated by water during Sandy. We became inundated by the aftermath. We were in for a process of recovery that is still very much ongoing. Until every neighbor is back home, every home repaired, every business restored the stress of those to do lists will tick on, even as we take our daily break to go see what the waves are doing or to watch the sun go down out at the beach.
This peninsula has made great progress. It was heartening to run into neighbors and friends at the boardwalk ‘islands’ and the PS1 Dome in the spring, to see the landscaping and the efforts to get the beaches fortified with more sand, the Surf Club, Uma’s, Saya’s and Playland open up.
Every point of progress is a moment that we all can take comfort in, rejoice in. Yet I am struck by how long it will take for this community to become truly healthy. Until our business owners can find the grants to recover, the last nail has been hammered, every renter has found a place they want to call home, until every person who endured the stress of seeing this community ripped apart by Sandy, the storm will remain part of our everyday lives. And while that’s a difficult reality, every day something else gets repaired, someone plants a new garden, someone opens up about the mess that we’ve all been through and we become closer as a community.
My neighbors all moved here decades ago. We live in the old section of Arverne, by the bay. They came from Jamaica, the West Indies and Brooklyn, all attracted by the ocean. They love it here and many still cannot come home. They wait for their homes to be repaired, to be raised. They wait to return to the place that makes sense to them in this world. This peninsula is a huge, diverse group of people bonded by a love of the sea. We are drawn to live at the water’s edge. I remember soon after the storm, speaking to one friend in Belle Harbor, a firefighter who raised his children here. Mike Redpath told me that he could not imagine being anywhere else, that he has ‘salt water running through his veins’. Whether you’ve lived here your entire life or just a few years, living by the ocean becomes the only way of life. You learn to understand the tides, understand that each wave has its own peculiar way of falling, left or right, dumping or standing up. It depends on so much; whether there’s a storm brewing far away, the wind, the moon, how entire seasons leave their imprint on the waterfront. These are factors we become intimately acquainted with. We grow closer to the natural world, while we also stand as proud New Yorkers, city dwellers.
We understand the challenges of city life, we understand the challenges inherent in living by this powerful
Atlantic, we understand and take it on because we are in love with this place. It’s a bond, more so than I imagine most New Yorkers might experience in their own neighborhoods.
One year on and I see a place full of people that have not rested, need rest and time together to grieve their losses, to dream about the future here and to continue to rebuild after almost everyone else has forgotten about the storm and what it did here. We are still at the beginning. There is much more to do and we will continue to do it together, connected by our collective sense that each day gets a little better and that we are all in it together.
Jen Poyant lives in Arverne and is a Senior Producer at WNYC-Radio.