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Down and Out at Rockaway Beach

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Posted on Nov 6, 2012
Emily Bolevice

By Alexander Reed Kelly

NEW YORK CITY—Life lurched back into motion as power was restored to all but 5,800 Manhattan residences and businesses over the weekend. But prospects for a return to normalcy after Hurricane Sandy remained dim for many in the Rockaways, a peninsula community in the southernmost area of New York City that is part of Queens but that juts into the Atlantic facing the open sea. The peninsula took one of the worst poundings from the storm.

The Rockaways are home to roughly 130,000 people, many of whom live in tall public housing complexes that line a stretch of land only a few city blocks wide. Subway service on the A line had yet to be restored, so I took a series of shuttle buses from the Broadway Junction stop in Brooklyn down to Rockaway Beach. Traffic ground to a halt in the Jamaica Bay community of Broad Channel, where passengers had ample time to gape at large and growing piles of debris outside homes while police officers ushered cars around large boats marooned in the road when the storm waters that had inundated the area receded. Residents of one home took the defense of what remained of their belongings seriously. A warning, “Looters will be crucified – God help you,” was scrawled on a sheet of plywood that was leaning against an open garage.

This was my first time on the peninsula, so I didn’t have a good idea of where I was going. After leaving the bus, I walked toward the ocean and what seemed to be a residential neighborhood. I spotted a man in his mid-20s with a beard, a dark cap, mud-splattered clothes and a utility belt. He was pushing a bicycle along a sidewalk, which was strewn with loose electrical and telephone cables. I guessed that he was part of the relief effort. When I caught up with him, he told me I was heading toward the volunteer site for the Rockaway Beach neighborhood. I turned down a residential street piled high with more of the kind of debris I had seen in Broad Channel. Two men in jeans and dirty sweatshirts labored to haul a washing machine onto a sidewalk.

After a ways, the street opened up to what was functioning, in the aftermath of the hurricane, as a town square. I walked past the NYPD’s 100th Precinct, where a number of officers on break were sipping coffee supplied by a truck loaded with refreshments and snacks. Just beyond, a vast parking lot situated between a large apartment building and a row of homes and businesses was teeming with people. A thick layer of sand covering the pavement was being kicked around by hundreds of people poring over scattered heaps of clothes and nonperishable food. Others crowded around generators, charging their cellphones and laptop computers as they endured a series of muffled explosive sounds emitted by the machines.

At the edge of this human jumble were a number of tables serving hot food. As I browsed the offerings, a man in a turban handed me a Styrofoam plate loaded with rice, beans and vegetable biryani.

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With food in hand, I returned to the crowd. The place had the energy of an open-air market. People moved with determination to get the supplies or help they needed, but there was no sense of panic. Moving further into the parking lot, I came across cars that had been picked up and smashed against one another in the storm surge and flooding. Just beyond them were huge machines pushing all manner of debris into what were becoming small mountains.

I eventually came to a beach. Had I arrived a few days earlier, I would have been looking at a famous boardwalk. Now I was staring at the concrete pylons that remained and a string of merchant and military vessels bobbing on the horizon. Wondering where the wooden walkway had gone, I looked around. An intact section measuring a block wide was resting against a house, its wooden benches still bolted in place. Planks that had splintered off were among the debris being gathered in the parking lot. Huge chunks of the shattered boardwalk were clogging a street and in some sections covered the road entirely. Children played on them as their parents and others hauled more debris out into the road. Tattered American flags fluttered from the porches of most of the surviving homes on the block.

Having finished my food, I began what would be rightly called an absurd search for a garbage can. After walking a ways down the street, a woman wearing gloves and a machinist’s apron nodded that I could throw the leftovers onto a trashpile in front of her home.

I spent another half an hour wandering around. There were computers, record collections, jewelry boxes and sofas—everything people owned that was caught at ground level at the time of the flood. Many residents didn’t heed the warnings to evacuate ahead of Sandy because when they fled last year during Hurricane Irene, the promised destruction never came.

I came across more people serving food. Church groups and local restaurants led these efforts. The people looked dirty and tired, but they soldiered on. They simply carried whatever needed to be carried and offered crackers and bowls of soup to anyone who passed by.


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