Six Months Later
October 29th may not be a date that people want to remember, but like September 11th, it is a date that will stay with residents forever. It’s hard to forget about it, even for a few hours, as residents are given daily reminders that Rockaway is not the same place it was before, whether it be from the lack of walls and floors in their homes, or the lack of the iconic boardwalk along the beloved beach.
Everyone remembers what they were doing on the day of October 29th. Some spent hours filling bags of sand to block entrances to their homes. Some took in or tied down items that might blow away in case the winds got too strong. Some spent their day in the stores, stocking up on last minute essentials—batteries, food, water, and other items that they’re told are necessary for a big storm.
Yet these preparatory steps would be in vain as no one could have predicted the nightmare that would occur that night and no one could imagine the devastating scene they would wake up to the next morning.
After Hurricane Irene struck in 2011, many weren’t convinced that Sandy would be as big as the media was making it out to be. Some who evacuated during Irene chose to ignore Mayor Bloomberg’s mandatory evacuation order for Sandy.
“Rockaway people don’t evacuate,” Bryan Bernath, the owner of Bryan’s Auto Shop said. “We didn’t evacuate. We didn’t think anything of it after Irene.”
On October 29th, Mother Nature took the ocean, beloved by many, and turned it into a weapon of mass destruction under circumstances that created what meteorologists called “a superstorm.”
Many watched as the ocean flowed down their streets. They saw their cars turn into boats. They watched the boardwalk float past their front lawn. They saw their basements become indoor pools and watched their bedrooms and apartments turn into aquariums. Suddenly Sandy wasn’t a joke anymore.
Those who decided to stay headed for higher ground or to a neighbor’s house. Upon looking out the window, residents saw another unexpected sight. The sky was glowing and smoke filled the air. Rockaway and Breezy Point were on fire as the peninsula filled with water. Like a scene out of a movie, it felt like the apocalypse had come early.
In the days following Sandy, those who came back after evacuating found a different neighborhood than the one they had left behind. Residents roamed around the streets with tears in their eyes and mouths hung open. Some found their homes and businesses gone, or destroyed beyond repair, whether it was due to fire or extreme water damage. Strips of boardwalk lined the streets and decorated properties. Along with heaps of trash and debris, several feet of water still lingered in basements. The term “war zone” seemed to fit best.
After surveying the damage, many residents were just grateful to be alive and well. Not everyone was so lucky. Eight residents became casualties of Sandy due to drowning or injuries they sustained. Rockaway lost Rick Gold, 67, David Gotthelf, 72, William McKeon, 78, Albert McSwain, 77, Nancy Sorensen, 50, George Stathis, 90, Henry Sullivan, 57, and 58-year-old Eden Toussaint.
Residents were overwhelmed, shocked and defeated following Sandy, but those feelings had to be put on the back burner as there was plenty of work to be done and no time to be wasted. Neighbors quickly became closer than ever as they shared tools, water pumps and generators when the initial work began.
After a few days, outside help started pouring in. Relief stations were set up and volunteers came from near and far to bring supplies and to lend a helping hand. Residents welcomed strangers to turn their houses inside out as flooded items needed to be discarded in a race against mold.
Volunteer groups popped up all across town. Students, hipsters, the Amish, Mormons, Sikhs, Jews, Islamic and Catholic charities all joined together in the effort to help people they had never met before. Groups like Occupy Sandy and Team Rubicon provided manpower and meals.
The only ones that didn’t seem to be helping were those that residents were depending on. Millions of dollars were donated to the American Red Cross from people around the country. By December, the group had raised $188 million, but the Red Cross, which is supposed to show immediate emergency response, seemed to be missing from the neighborhoods of Belle Harbor and Neponsit. Reports from other neighborhoods were no more flattering. A few weeks after the disaster, an occasional truck would roll by with volunteers handing out meals. Some residents were lucky enough to get a polyester blanket with the Red Cross logo plastered all over it or a bucket with a few cleaning products that had been available to residents at supply centers since day two.
The City of New York and Mayor Bloomberg seemed to be missing as well. After all, there was a marathon coming up and the subway system and electricity needed to be restored to Lower Manhattan as soon as possible. After taking a tour of the damage in Rockaway on November 3rd, and being heckled by angry residents, Bloomberg seemed to get the hint. On November 9th, he announced the Rapid Repairs program.
Through the program, close to 10,000 residential units in Queens received repairs on the government dime. While the program may not have been so “rapid,” it allowed many residents to return to their homes with heat, hot water and electricity.
Others turned to professionals as residents became frustrated without these essentials, preventing them from getting work started on their homes. As Belle Harbor resident Rob Allen, who owns Servpro of Northwest Brooklyn noted, some outsiders took advantage of the situation. “Contractors price gouged some people and looked the other way,” Allen said.
Allen spent the past six months answering thousands of calls and cleaning up dozens of houses on the peninsula that sustained water damage and mold outbreaks. He did this while working to repair his own home, which his eight-month pregnant wife, Marie and his three sons had to evacuate by kayak as nearby houses went up in flames on the night of the storm. After being displaced in Brooklyn, his family including his new daughter, were able to return to their home in February.
Instead of remaining defeated, residents started to appreciate the small victories. The moment when you pumped out your basement for the final time and the water didn’t seep back in. The moment when you realized that a personal keepsake wasn’t actually destroyed. The moment you were officially done throwing out all the junk. The moment you were able to take a hot shower in your home. The moment you flipped the light switch and the light actually came on and the days of an 8 p.m. bedtime were over.
These small victories got many through the larger headaches like having to worry about looters in the dark, getting denied by FEMA, battling with insurance companies that refused to give funds because the damage was “caused by flooding,” trying to figure out who was responsible for demolishing the remnants of a house with half of the foundation gone and how to get rid of a downed tree on your property or the mold inside your house.
Some of these battles are ongoing. Yet progress has also been made over the course of six months. The massive heaps of trash are gone from streets, due to the Sanitation Department working long hours, day in and day out. Many homeowners have moved on to or beyond the rebuilding stage. Local schools, some offices and some businesses are back open with many more like the Bungalow Bar, Thai Rock and Connolly’s promising to be back, in some form, by summer.
Even though the businesses are back, some people aren’t. Bernath was able to get two of his three auto business locations open, but he only has about 65 percent of the business that he had pre- Sandy. Other local business owners he spoke to are seeing similar numbers due to so many residents still being displaced.
“We need people to get back to the neighborhood. We need people to start shopping again. We need everyone’s lives to get back to normal to get local businesses back to normal,” Bernath said.
One business that has been booming is real estate as more and more properties go up for sale, though many at prices considerably lower than they were pre-Sandy. Real estate agent Robin Shapiro said most of them are being sold by elder residents who decided that they’ve had enough.
The City and local politicians hope that summer will boost the activity and the economy on the peninsula. That means bringing the beach back. The Parks Department has promised that the beaches will be open by Memorial Day weekend and they’ve been working around the clock to make boardwalk islands for the concessions and pricey lifeguard stations.
The MTA is also working to restore service to Rockaway’s only train. Without the A train, residents are currently dealing with long, crowded commutes on alternative transportation, but the MTA says it hopes to have the A back up and running sometime in June.
One thing that doesn’t seem to be a priority is protection. Officials recently announced that one million cubic yards of sand will be replenished from Beach 89th Street to Beach 149th Street by June and another 2.5 million cubic yards will be added along the entire beach starting sometime in August. Baffle walls with four feet below the sand and four feet above ground are expected to go up from Beach 126th to Beach 149th Street and jersey barriers will be set up along Shore Front Parkway, but a date has not been set for either project. There is no set date for jetties either, which Senator Chuck Schumer said would be coming as well. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must complete a study to evaluate what forms of protection would be most effective.
On top of this, residents are now being hit with the question of whether or not all of this will be worth it as FEMA put out flood maps in January which suggest that property owners would have to elevate their buildings or face high insurance premiums of about $9,500 a year. Challenges such as these may be enough to make residents jump ship, putting Rockaway’s future up in the air. However if residents continue to fight and call their local politicians and representatives, change is possible. FEMA recently announced that they’re revising the flood maps again and more favorable requirements may be released in May.
Rockaway isn’t back after six months. Looking at New Orleans, which is still recovering from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, it will take years for the peninsula to get back to normal. But if the resilience of the Rockaway residents is as strong as it has been over the last six months, Rockaway will be back and it will be better than ever.