2013-04-26 / Front Page

Broad Channel Six Months Later

By Dan Guarino

In places in this island community parts of gangways and decks lay exactly where Hurricane Sandy carried them six months ago. A few shattered houses, some stretched out over the bay, still clearly show the marks of the storm’s passing.

Tossed boats can be found in Jamaica Bay, half sunken vessels poke out of the now calm water.

Elsewhere the town is determinedly coming back to life. Work continues on houses. When businesses reopen residents come out to support them. On Saturday, April 20th, the Broad Channel Athletic Club’s Little League Opening Day saw hundreds and hundreds of enthusiastic children and adults marching up Cross Bay Boulevard and through the town.

Many residents could hardly believe six months had passed since the hurricane. “Has it really been that long, are you sure?” said one Broad Channel man. “Feels like last week.”

Despite dire weather predictions and admonitions from the City in the days before the storm, many in Broad Channel did not consider evacuating.

Hurricane Irene, the year before, proved to be underwhelming. The warnings of yet another impending severe weather event, this one dubbed “Frankenstorm” by the media, did little to stir residents.

One older homeowner, attending a Broad Channel Historical Day, held at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall the day before the storm, added he also was not worried.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” he said. “In over fifty, sixty years, I’ve never seen anything that bad.”

Broad Channel, the last inhabited island in Jamaica Bay, had weathered heavy storms and Nor’easters, particularly in the early 90’s, but in fact the last devastating hurricane occurred back in 1938.

There was moderate morning flooding on Monday, October 29th. Some preparations like sandbagging doors or raising up some items a few feet were made, but most people went about their business.

Winds became increasingly strong later as the late October sun went down. As evening high tide began encroaching on the island, pushed along by the high winds. Before long, waves began rolling through the streets.

In many places, water began flooding into first floors and kept rising. Panic ensued as families hastily moved to upper floors where possible. Others barely escaped to neighbor’s homes. Twenty-four men, women and children found shelter in the old St. Virgilius Rectory. One woman swam to the deserted A train station.

For several hours nearly the entire island was covered by water.

Residents reported watching decks and other items floating by and saw boats float up the streets as if they were being piloted. Electrical circuits began to pop as water rose within houses and over outlets and switch plates. All power to the island went out around 11:00 p.m.

By flashlight, many checked and re-checked the tide tables in their BC Historical Society calendars. Finally, at 8:59 p.m., the water stopped rising and slowly began to recede.

The scene the next morning was described as “something out of a disaster movie.”

Nearly every single home, business and building was damaged. All but a handful of cars, parked by the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, were destroyed. Some had floated away, but most were eerily lined up where they were parked.

The streets smelled heavily of oil and other chemicals. Nearly all houses lost heat and hot water as burners were flooded and oil tanks floated away. Propane tanks, which supply the island’s cooking gas, were scattered everywhere. The possibility of fires was of great concern.

Overnight, the community had become totally cut off from the outside world. All power, phone, cellphone, radio, television, cable, internet and wi-fi service would remain completely out for weeks, if not months, afterward.

Within a week New York and New Jersey would also face a storm related gasoline crisis, further cutting off residents.

Those who finally traveled out, often hitching rides with new friends who did have cars and gas, were shocked at the incredible devastation in Rockaway and Howard Beach.

Within Broad Channel, residents found debris everywhere. Streets where covered in it. A large boat, one of several, lay in the middle of Cross Bay Boulevard. Weeks later someone humorously spray painted “S.S. Minnow” on its hull.

According to the MTA about 40 boats were found scattered on the A train tracks. Track beds were completely washed away, electric relays were ripped out and even the tracks were torn and twisted in places.

Bus service was out and bridges into Rockaway were also closed.

The American Legion Hall on Cross Bay Boulevard became a central meeting point. Alerted by word of mouth, Channel residents walked there the afternoon after the storm and stood in the cold parking lot. Civic Association President Dan Mundy and others gave updates on what was being done. Several hundred people would gather the next day inside the dark, barely mucked out hall to hear from elected officials and police.

The general feeling was that there was a noticeable lack of outside help directed toward the island.

Hand painted signs like “Broad Channel- The Forgotten Town’' and “FEMA Help Us Now” would shortly begin to appear. Community members, however, didn’t wait and began to work together.

In short order, the Legion and the Broad Channel Volunteer Firehouse became distribution centers for food, water, hot meals, clothing and information. The Vollies, on duty during the hurricane, lost nearly all their equipment. One fire truck burned while the storm raged.

The VFW became a makeshift “supermarket,” completely organized by private individuals.

Though badly damaged, both St. Virgilius Church and Christ Presbyterian by the Sea Church also offered help.

And even though they had been washed out themselves, neighbors set up tables with hot coffee, sandwiches, homemade soup and other food. Others put out goods with signs reading “Take what you need.”

Neighbors often gave whatever they received to others. One man put his largely intact furniture on the sidewalk with a note. “This is undamaged. If you can use it, take it. God bless you.”

Continued next week.

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