2012-12-21 / Letters

My View Of Rockaway

Dear Editor,

Ever since I saw the 60 Minutes piece on how the hurricane wreaked havoc and destroyed the Rockaways and specifically Belle Harbor I could not get the place out of mind. I could not believe how Mother Nature caused such damage and yet somehow did not dampen the spirits and resolve of the residents. I am not sure if part of it was the heavy Irish American population in Breezy and Belle Harbor that played a factor but when the one fireman said on 60 Minutes “if those walls could talk” regarding the total devastation that the storm brought to the Harbor Light Pub I somehow could relate to the pub and also the use of Irish humor to lighten the mood.

I was not sure what I could do to help but I knew I needed to do something. It was the Tuesday after the 60 Minutes piece and that morning I told my wife that we have to do something. I told my four kids ages 11 and under to get dressed and we are headed to the Rockaways. We went to CVS near our house and bought bottled water and diapers and we were off and I had no idea what to expect.

My kids were in good spirits and I think just happy to be out of the house. As we drove on Cross Bay Boulevard we started to see the destruction in Howard Beach. My kids as if on cue stopped their chatter about Katy Perry vs. Lady Gaga and their eyes were glued to the window and they could not believe what they were seeing as we entered Broad Channel. My nine-yearold asked: “Why is there a boat out in the middle of the road?” and when I explained that the water and winds moved it from the sea to the road she could not believe it and neither could I.

We drove along Beach Channel Drive and we turned on Beach 129 Street and parked the car as soon as I could. There was sand everywhere and again asked “Why was there sand on the streets?” and again I had to explain that the strength of the storm did this and they could not believe it and again neither could I. We actually parked the car by coincidence in front of the Harbor Light Pub and we could not believe our eyes and our noses as the smell of fire was still in the air. It was at this point I was wondering if bringing my little kids to the area so soon was a good idea. We got out of the car and headed up Beach 129 Street and we saw all the people in line that needed clothing, food and shelter and it was too much to take in. We donated what he had brought and as we were walking to my car and my 6 year old just grabbed my leg and said “oh Dad….”

I felt such a connection to this place and one week later I bought some more supplies at a local store and went to drop them off before work one day. It was 8 a.m’ and now the tents were set up at St. Francis de Sales. I saw a man there and he showed me where to drop off the supplies. He asked me if I wanted to see what they were doing and I told him I would like that very much. He showed me around the tents where about half dozen people or so were setting up food, coffee and supplies. The man asked me my name and I said Tony and he said his name is Brian and thanks so much for helping and that it is appreciated. I asked Brian for his cell # and he said absolutely although I was not sure I knew what I was going to do with it. We shook hands and he was off giving direction and he was walking with a purpose. I was about to leave when a man around my age came up to me and he introduced himself and said “Hi, my name is Jimmy.” He asked me what I was doing and I told him that I was just donating supplies and he was so thankful and he simply told me his story. He lived three blocks from St. Francis and water destroyed his basement. He considered himself fortunate as he told me he had friends that suffered far worse and in his words told me that Breezy Point was “a whole world in itself.” I continued to talk to Jimmy for a few minutes and we parted ways and his last words stayed with me “I cannot believe I am part of a natural disaster.”

The following week I sent a text to Brian and asked can I come volunteer one day. His simple reply was “yes be here at 8 a.m..” I had no idea what I was going to be doing and was not sure if I could help. (My wife says she married the only Irishman who is not handy.) I showed up and Brian told me I was going to be in charge of the back gate and I had no idea what that meant. I acted as a receiver of sorts and I was told that if anyone brings hot food that I should let them in no questions asked, otherwise I had to get the ‘ok’ from Brian or his counterpart Joe. The morning was kind of quiet and they told me it would get busy and did it ever. All of the sudden the FedEx man came and he said he had supplies to be donated. I got the ‘ok’ to let him in and he dropped off two pallets of clothing and supplies that kids had packed themselves from Georgia and as I was helping unload and organize I knew then why I was there. All day long deliveries came both large and small and they came from all parts of the country: Kansas, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania to just to name a few. It was getting towards the end of the day and two Asian men pulled up to the gate in a nice car and they said they owned a restaurant in Little Neck and they had food supplies to drop off. They were so humble and after we unloaded the last box from their car I reached out my hand and said thanks and they said “we just had to help” and I knew exactly what they meant.

The people of the Rockaways are very special and I thank them for letting me be a part of their community and I hope to see Jimmy and Brian when the Harbor Light Pub reopens and we can raise a glass.

TONY WHITAKER

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