SANDY WAS HERE
The storm, like no other, happened mostly at night, after the power went out. There are grainy, yellowish videos and photographs of ocean water turning streets into fierce and foamy rivers but pictures don’t quite show what happened in the dark, when the sea invaded Rockaway.
We are mostly left with personal stories and the surreal aftermath when our own eyes tried to make sense of what happened in the dark.
And people died. Homes were destroyed. Financial devastation occurred. So much was lost. But people died. Sandy was wide and awesome and savage and it was deadly. That has to be said first about the storm that changed everything.
In Rockaway , we remember people died on 9/11. And we remember people died when Flight 587 crashed. It should not be forgotten that nine people died the night Sandy rolled across Rockaway.
The deaths are part of the story that is still being patched together. Some people stayed in oceanfront homes and were terrified, in literal fear of dying. Waves, some as high as rooftops, crashed against houses. Some houses disappeared, pulled out to sea. Some people were stranded in homes that became like open doll houses as ocean white caps came at them. They lived through the horror until the tide subsided.
For others, the storm was a growing menace. People made honest but futile attempts to hold back the water. They tried using towels and boards to block water from coming in windows in the basement until they realized they better retreat upstairs.
And for others still, they faced the unexpected: the fires.
In all the talk about evacuation no one ever said fire was a possibility. Or if someone did, they weren’t heard. As it happens, although surrounded by water, Rockaway has had its history carved by fire. Grand hotels, seaside amusements, bayside docks, and the entire neighborhoods of Seaside and Arverne have fallen to fire. This time, Rockaway was under water – and yet fire still carved out its piece.
More than a hundred and twenty homes burned in Breezy Point and more than two dozen homes and businesses burned in Belle Harbor and Rockaway Park. No one died in these fires, largely because heroes emerged. To get people to safety, both uniformed and off-duty responders and civilians did what they could to get through surging, chest high seawater in the dark. They used surfboards and kayaks and pulled together makeshift lifelines out of extension cords.
Even people blocks away from the fire were terrified. It was nearly impossible to gauge just how far away or on what block the fires were raging. You couldn’t go out and inspect. There was four feet of water or more in the streets. With all that water, how would the fires ever be stopped? Fire engines and trucks couldn’t get to them.
And for this storm, many people had such experiences because they stayed rather than evacuate.
Sandy was a meteorological freak. The hurricane formed late in the year, though still within official hurricane season. The storm turned east and was in effect blocked by a weather front. It rolled in at high tide on a full moon. All these factors came together at the same time making Sandy a storm for the ages. Sandy registered a 32 foot wave at a buoy in NY harbor – an astounding seven feet higher than the top wave of Hurricane Irene, the year before.
After the terror of the night there was the reality of the next day. The ocean was resting; fires still smoldered at midday. People were stunned with good reason. The boardwalk, almost five miles of it, was everywhere but where it was supposed to be. On Beach 92nd street a long stretch of it settled in the middle of the street as if it belonged there. You could only walk down the street by walking on the boardwalk. Unreal.
Cars were piled on top of each other. Trees were hanging on wires or strewn across streets and avenues. Sand was hip high on some streets. In Belle Harbor and Rockaway Park, more than twenty houses and at least a dozen commercial buildings were as good as gone, consumed by fire. Breezy Point, well, Breezy Point was like no other place in the storm that stretched for hundreds of square miles. Sandy ‘s surge flooded homes, knocked many houses off foundations and then triggered a fire that would wipe out more than 120 homes. If Sandy had a Ground Zero, it might have been Breezy Point.
Of course power was out. Blackouts are not that unusual in Rockaway and are usually just an inconvenience but this was wrought with anxiety. This one, people knew, would take weeks to fix. No power meant, for most people, no heat or hot water. It meant refrigerated foods would soon spoil. It meant not being able to charge cell phones. It meant no news from TV or radio stations. And it meant little could get done late in the day as darkness fell.
Descriptions of what the eyes beheld were lacking. The most common phrases you heard were “total devastation” and “like a war zone.” And they were apt enough but some of the real devastation was out of view, in the homes of the people of Rockaway. The contents of so many homes were ruined. And in the contents were keepsakes and personal treasures— now washed away.
The outside devastation was remarkable but not in full bloom. When people started dragging their furniture and broken picture frames and the kids’ stuffed animals to the curb, the ruination and heartbreak piled high --and then higher-- was often too much to take.
There was an intense desire among many for information in the days immediately following. Where was FEMA? Everybody knew them from Katrina. But didn’t the City have OEM? The Office of Emergency Management. Didn’t they handle, well, emergencies? Where were they? Red Cross, are they anywhere?
The lack of information helped create an unreliable grapevine. Looters were in this neighborhood or that. The army is going to come in and order everyone to leave. You heard all sorts of things.
The New York City Marathon was scheduled for the coming Sunday. Mayor Bloomberg said as a sign of New York’s resiliency the race would go on. People here, and as we would later find out – in other devastated areas – were outraged. Locals talked of dropping their shovels and making their way to the Marathon route to disrupt the race. Common sense, however, took hold in City Hall before any Rockaway civil disobedience was enacted and the marathon was cancelled.
Bloomberg was derided for some of his storm management but his Sanitation Department came and started to make a dent in the seemingly infinite debris. When people looked at the mountains of sand and wreckage, there came the simple question, where do we start? Sanitation had the answer.
They came, they hauled, they conquered. And they came, again and again. They took garbage and brought hope.
While Sanitation was at work, there were other signs of orderliness. Relief centers sprung up; FEMA arrived, and cell service improved. Cops, firefighters, the National Guard, and even traffic agents were pitching in. Generators powered relief centers and a growing number of homes and businesses. Volunteers poured in. The kindness of strangers left an imprint – while not as visible as Sandy – at least as profound.
Halloween was lost; a nor’easter with snow blew in just a week and half after Sandy Power; a Presidential election was held and daylight savings made darkness fall early. Getting gasoline became a chore and challenge. You could wait on a line for hours or hope you had enough gas in your car to drive to New Jersey to fill up.
That’s if you had a car. Thousands of people lost their cars to salt water.
And yes, it got dark. Early. With no street lights and most homes dark and without power the night was inky black. If you were heading to Brooklyn or somewhere for the night, you drove in a darkness that was unfamiliar and unsettling. Emergency lights on a truck or set up at an intersection would blind you just as well as shine a bit of light. Until you crossed the bridge, you drove expecting the car to run over debris you couldn’t see.
There was no uniform story or plan for people in the months that followed Sandy. Some people squeezed in with family elsewhere. Many others found apartments in Brooklyn or Long Island. Some people were put in hotels. Some people stayed. Some people, particularly older folks, left for good.
Sandy did its damage and cast an uncertain future on this sliver of land on the Atlantic but it sparked civic commitment, started friendships, and drew attention to a place that needs so much.
And the storm had another unexpected outcome.
The common greeting for months when people ran into friends they hadn’t seen was: How’d you make out? And stories would be swapped. A lot of times people talked about their luck. If the basement was flooded they said they were lucky it wasn’t the first floor. If their first floor was flooded they said they were lucky their house didn’t burn down. If their house burned down, they said they were lucky to be alive.
Sandy didn’t beat them. It made them feel lucky.