2005-09-09 / Columnists

From the Editor’s Desk

By Howard Schwach

Nearly 20 years have passed since Rockaway was hit by its last significant hurricane. That storm was Gloria and the year was 1985.

We have been relatively safe from the disastrous storms since then, but there are experts and pundits alike who say that it is only a matter of time before Rockaway suffers “the big one,” the 100-year-storm that will drive Rockaway into Jamaica Bay and most of the south shore of Long Island out of service as well.

I have no doubt that they are right. So what!

While we have learned lots of lessons from Katrina, there is not much Rockaway or any other community on the water for that matter, can do if a category five hurricane hits except for the proverbial placing our heads between our legs and kissing our you-know-what goodbye.

Channel Five News did a stand-up report from The Wharf Restaurant on the bay at Beach 115 Street last week. The reporters stood on the deck and questioned Rockaway residents about the chances for a hurricane such as Katrina to ravage the peninsula. Basically, the two or three people who were interviewed all indicated that they understood that such an event could happen and that they weren’t going to worry about it very much until it came.

The fact is, unless people evacuate the peninsula days before the storm strikes, there is very little that can be done to get them to a safe place.

There are two designated staging areas – Brooklyn College and Aqueduct Raceway. There are signs that direct people on the peninsula over the Marine Parkway Bridge, the Cross Bay Bridge and through Route 878 to Nassau County.

Sounds like a plan, but so did the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center until tens of thousands of people got there and found no food, water or supplies waiting for them.

And, like New Orleans, what happens to the people who have no transportation to get to those sites? Where do they go?

We learned a lot of lessons from Katrina that might ameliorate the suffering should a category four or five storm hit the peninsula.

First, don’t put a guy who spent his entire career running the Arabian Horse Association in charge of the lead federal agency tasked with emergency management, rescue and recovery.

Brown was so far over his head in this situation that he didn’t even know enough to cover his back. When, on Monday, he said that the federal government did not even know that there were people in extremis at the Superdome, the nation gasped. How could they not know? The story had been on television for days. Is it possible that every viewer in the nation knew but FEMA did not? I don’t think so.

The President, who appointed him because he gave a large chunk of cash to the Bush campaign, said that Brown was doing a good job. The new Secretary of Homeland Security said that Brown had “learned on the job” in the last year and that experience was not necessary for the FEMA job.

Who do they think they are kidding?

The second lesson is that you stock a “shelter of last resort” with everything the expected population will need for several days. I guess that the New Orleans officials guessed that the people in the two shelters would be there a day or two until the storm blew over and then they would to go home. They stocked some food and water for a day or two, but no more. They guessed badly. The two shelters turned into death traps.

Neither Brooklyn College (I assume they mean to use the gymnasium, which is way too small) or Aqueduct (an open air venue at best) is adequate to take the 110,000 people on the peninsula nevertheless the people from Howard Beach and other areas that will have to evacuate as well.

In fact, there is no place in New York City large enough to take the masses of people who don’t have the wherewithal to get themselves far enough inland to escape the devastation.

Those who know the peninsula well understand that the evacuation routes to those shelters are a joke. Once the storm hits, there will be no escape as even moderate rain floods some of the marked escape routes.

So, the experts say, get out early. As the New Orleans experience proved, that just ain’t gonna happen. People are not going to leave their homes to looters and other predators until they are sure there is a compelling reason to do so.

There was once a novel that posited a nuclear bomb in New York City. The plan was for bus drivers to drive evacuees to the northern suburbs, turn around and drive back to pick up more people. In the book, they picked up their families and some passengers, drove the bus to a safe area and left it there, running for their lives. That is the reality of what would happen in New York City should a category four or five hurricane threaten.

Those without private transportation would be stuck in Rockaway just as the poor and disabled were left behind in New Orleans.

There are those who argue that there is no way out and that building on a barrier beach such as Rockaway should be restricted. I don’t believe that for a minute.

We all live at the mercy of Mother Nature. The south and the Atlantic coast have hurricanes. The west has earthquakes. The central part of the nation has tornadoes. The answer is not to pack up and run away. It is to plan a sufficient, realistic response and then chose not political hacks but real experts to carry out those plans. They know what to do.

Michael Wyllie is the meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service’s Long Island Office.

“We’re only ten years into an active, multi-decade cycle that will probably last at least another ten years,” he says. “Most likely we’re going to be hit with something [big] in the next several years, if not this year. Our time is coming. I’m not trying to be an alarmist; I’m trying to be a realist.”

What are Rockaway residents to do? Just what we have always done. Be vigilant. Take the weather warnings to heart. Be adult and be aware. That is all we can do unless we want to run to Iowa, where there are not hurricanes and all we have to worry about are tornadoes.

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