Until the beginning of the year, I knew very little about the Rockaways. I spent October 29th, 2012 in the comfort of my apartment in Somerville, MA, safe from the vicious winds outside. I read some news reports online and watched a few videos of the situation in the New York area. My focus, however, was on my midterm assignments at Harvard and I was grateful that classes had been canceled so I could work on them. It wasn’t until January, 2013, upon reading the New Yorker piece “Adaptation,” which discussed the implications of Hurricane Sandy and climate change that I truly learned about the peninsula and the devastating effects of the storm on its communities.
This article prompted me to register for “Creating Resilient Cities: Disaster Field Lab,” a course offered by the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where I study urban planning. The class had a mix of planning, architecture, and design students and explored architectural, social, ecological, and other influences on the resilience of coastal communities, with a focus on Hurricane Sandy’s effects on the New York area.
We each pursued an independent research project on the storm as it related to resilience planning and design.
In February, the class traveled to New York where we attended lectures and visited Battery Park City, Red Hook, Brooklyn, and the Rockaways. In the Rockaways, landscape architect and activist Walter Meyer and several community leaders gave us tours of the peninsula, pointing out ecological conditions of the beaches as well as social and political conditions that affected local businesses and residents.
Originally I considered studying the recovery process in Coney Island, based on a lifelong love of the beach and boardwalks from summers with family in Delaware.
After the February trip, however, I was inspired to focus on the Rockaways. While researching over the next few months, I was fortunate to speak with Dan Guarino of The Wave and members of the Queens Library and Ocean Bay Community Development Corporation.
After coming through the harrowing week of the Boston bombings in April and the weekend of a city lockdown, I returned to New York and visited the Rockaways with more insight about what local communities had experienced in the wake of the hurricane disaster.
I became particularly interested in studying communication methods immediately after the storm, and their effects on residents’ abilities to reach shelters and services. It became clear that, on top of a lack of electricity and phone service, there was an absence of coordinated, trustworthy information sources to guide residents to local services.
Word-of-mouth, public spaces, community centers, and online social networking, for those with service, were the go-to sources in the immediate aftermath, and policy-makers and electricity providers must update systems in vulnerable communities to respond to these needs and trends.
On May 13th, the class presented our projects at Harvard, which addressed topics that included rapid emergency repairs, urban farms, and subway station design.
Students from the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance (RWA) also visited us and presented “Rockaway Stories,” a documentary in which local high schoolers eloquently expressed their reactions to Hurricane Sandy.
The presentation of a semester of research on resilience in the presence of residents who had lived through the storm and its aftermath reminded us to be mindful of the constant interplay of the theoretical and practical, and that we must understand not only complex ideas in design and policy, but also the lives of those who call these communities home.