Hurricane Sandy has come and gone, but not without having left countless stories in her wake. They vary from angry New York City Housing Authority residents left without basic necessities to President Barack Obama and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie uniting under a common cause. Some stories, like Occupy Sandy and the warming collectivism of neighbors aiding neighbors, warmed our hearts. Others, like a Staten Island man refusing to let a Mother and her two children in his home during the storm’s peak (resulting in the deaths of the 2- and- 4-year-olds), were chilling.
While much of the East Coast has recovered since the storm hit last month, the residents of New York’s Rockaways, a land strip nestled in southeastern Queens (pictured above), and its surrounding neighborhoods are still struggling to pick up the pieces.
You’ve seen the reports about the Long Island Power Authority leaving Rockaway residents in the dark, and you’ve probably heard about the looting that has plagued the area. But until you move over the Cross Bay Bridge and land on Beach 90th Street, you have no idea what these residents have experienced.
Photographer Reid Van Renesse (pictured right) left his two-bedroom home on Beach 91st street for his brother’s Flatbush home before the storm hit. He returned the Tuesday after Sandy to an unbelievable sight.
“I had the whole boardwalk –three large sections of the boardwalk — in front of my house, stacked up on top of each other in the street here,” Renesse said from his kitchen on a chilly Friday afternoon. “We had about two or three feet of sand in the street. The little alley between my house was filled with sand. Our basement got flooded up to the ceiling. The road was blocked from the boardwalk.”
It’s an image that is still shocking, even several weeks after the storm. But it’s not until Renesse takes a tour of Rockaway Beach that it sinks in that the effects of the storm look like scenes from a disaster movie.
Presenting a small piece of ramp that graced his door, Renesse shows all that remains of Beach 91st’s skatepark, which is now a barren field. There’s also the bike on his porch that he pulled from his friend’s basement apartment a block away, which was found in a gaping hole that reveals the apartment’s interior along with its pipes, wires, and a damaged boiler. Then Renesse goes to Beach 87th Street, where the boardwalk violently juts off to the right before bending down over the wounded concrete and beach. From that point through Beach 116th Street, only the support beams remain standing.
“Every morning I [used to] go up and sit on the boardwalk and drink my coffee and look at the waves,” Renessee reminisces. “The boardwalk is gone, so it’s a big adjustment for people to make. It looks like a bomb went off over there.”
A bomb the government initially did little to help clean up, according to Renessee.
“It seemed to be that the community and the people as a whole did what they needed to do to make things happen. And then later on down the road, you saw the organized government groups coming in. Cleaning up, it was about people taking their own initiative and making piles and putting stuff out on the street. And then it started to get cleaned up by government officials.”
A trip on the newly restored H train shuttle service takes you east of Rockaway Beach, leaving you in the less affluent, majority minority area that is Far Rockaway, where the situation appears to be better.
There’s little to indicate a major category 1 storm blew through here and left elderly people trapped in their housing apartments. There’s the Super Clean Laundromat at 25-15 Seagirt Avenue, which paraded as a donation area for victims right after the storm. Today it remains shuttered with small debris and a Red Cross ambulance parked out front. And even though a nearby shop has its entire canvas ripped off, Far Rockaway didn’t seem to suffer the same amount of damage its western, more prosperous sister endured — or at least it appears that they are recovering faster.
“Far Rockaway was hit really bad,” said a nearby resident who requested anonymity.
“Especially down there, 116th street. Coming towards the 90s and the 80s was hit really bad. Down this end, Beach 17th Street and Beach 19th Street was hit pretty bad. But the Wavecrest area did not get hit at all with any water. We lost power, but we did not get hit with any water. A lot of the people who was living in the 60s got flooded out by the bay and the ocean together.”
Another anonymous resident who was out of town when Sandy hit described what he saw when he came back. ”Everything was flooded. The basements were all messed up. The power went out. The boilers in the basement, it[sic] was finished. You didn’t have no heat or nothing. I live in a building, so it wasn’t really like that.”
After all the agony and frustration about power issues and safety, is it safe to say that the Rockaways are starting to make a comeback?
Two literal signs in both Rockaway Beach and Far Rockaway seem to indicate yes. One boarded apartment entrance across the street from Renessee’s house reads, “Rebuild The Rock!” Another, posted in the window of an Associated Supermarket near the Beach 25th Street subway station is more blunt: “We are Open For Business.”
Maybe this story will have that long-cliched Cinderella ending after all.