From Relief to Recovery: Six Months After Sandy In The Rockaways

(This story was originally published on Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism JDrive.)

Hurricane Sandy devastated New York and New Jersey on October 29, 2012, leaving half of Manhattan and other areas in the dark for more than a week. Immediately after the storm, Rockaway was unrecognizable.

As the five-foot high floodwater receded, the damage could be seen. The boardwalk was torn apart by the storm, its pieces rested against buildings. Sand, inches thick, covered the roads. Cars were piled on top of each other, filled with debris, their windows missing. Buildings had burnt down, leaving only rubble behind.

After the storm, volunteers descended on the area, governmental and non-governmental, willing to help any way they can.

Six months later, the sand and piles of cars are gone. Construction workers dot the shoreline, working quickly to rebuild the boardwalk before the tourist season strikes again. People wait in line – no longer for their fair share of donations – but for the bus. Children ride their bikes, laughing. The infestation of volunteers has gone.

Even though Rockaway has been cleaned up and is slowly returning to a sense of normalcy, it has not fully recovered. People are just returning to their homes while others are still without power. Piles of rubble remain. Rockaway is still in great need of help, just not the way it was right after the storm.

“We’re really out of the relief portion and we’re into recovery,” Todd Miner, a Rockaway resident, said. Miner is the director of Friends of Rockaway, an organization community members started after the storm to “help restore the community of Rockaway and build back stronger than before,” according to the organization’s website.

Miner is also on the Steering Committee for the Rockaway and Broad Channel Long Term Recovery Group, an organization that gathers the volunteer groups still left in Rockaway and helps them to work together. The LTRG is run by residents and volunteers under the guidance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which helped to set up the group in December. They meet every other week in an upstairs meeting room in Battalion Church on Beach 67th Street.

As a Steering Committee member, Miner guides the LTRG in a direction to help Rockaway in the best and most efficient way possible while keeping the idea of long-term recovery in mind.

“As a Long Term Recovery Group, we’re all organizations that are specifically geared toward either restoring or replacing the services that were being provided prior to Hurricane Sandy,” Miner said. “We’re looking at things in the long-term.”

But getting Rockaway back on its feet may be easier said than done. While many North Eastern and Mid-Atlantic states suffered great amounts of damage, New York received the brunt of the storm.

Of the 159 direct and indirect deaths in the U.S. caused by Sandy, 48 of those were in New York, according to the National Hurricane Center’s report. Approximately 305,000 New York homes were damaged or destroyed, comprising about half of the total of homes affected throughout the U.S. The Mass Transit Authority declared the overall damage the worst disaster in the organization’s 108-year history, according to the National Hurricane Center.

With the help of the LTRG, Rockaway has been given a chance to heal, a chance to rebuild, a chance to overcome the statistics.

Instead of the volunteer organizations working independently of each other as they were in the beginning, the LTRG is divided into six subcommittees – construction; community assessment; case management; volunteer coordination; mind, body and soul; donations management – that help to organize the volunteers and streamline their services to make sure they are working in the most efficient way to benefit the community.

According to Shlomo Roth, a FEMA representative, there are approximately 70 organizations represented in the LTRG. These groups include the American Red Cross, various religious groups, Occupy Sandy and Project Hope.

“Some of our organizations are providing services that are very direct, that have a high impact on individuals,” Miner said. “That’s like Friends of Rockaway. We fix people’s homes, we take the mold out of their homes and put sheetrock and installation back up. But there are other organizations here representing the LTRG that are providing long-term assistance. There’s the case management subcommittee. They’re working with individuals and at a meta level they want to make sure that all the people that cannot provide for themselves are able to get the services that they need.”

For Jim Killoran, Habitat for Humanity of Westchester Executive Director and LTRG Executive Committee Treasurer, volunteers are the driving force of the recovery movement.

“Volunteerism is really part of the solution in a disaster,” Killoran said. He believes that the amount of volunteers is what is helping Rockaway the most right now.

As for the LTRG, he thinks the organization is working.

“This is a real modeling of agencies working together with residents and volunteers to help every family to get back into their home,” he said.

While the volunteer organizations provide a wide range of services – often ones that are very different from each other – there is one thing that bonds them together: community strength.

“A lot of people that have lived here in Rockaway have lived here awhile,” Marissa Bernowitz, Rockaways Free Flea Market director and a Rockaway resident, said. She organized the flea market a couple months after the storm when she realized there was still a great need for donations in Rockaway. Residents line up along the block waiting for their turn to claim items including clothing, food and toys – all of which are free.

“We’ve always connected and known you have to stand up for what you believe in in Rockaway and if we don’t do it, nobody else is going to do it,” she said.

It is this community bond that is keeping the recovery effort strong as the obstacles for Rockaway continue to grow.

“This is a big moment for us,” Miner said. “The spotlight is now turning away from us. But the funding needs are not changing; in fact they’re increasing. The further we get into this, the more difficult, more complex the problems are going to become, the harder they are going to be to solve.”

As relief turns into recovery and the problems grow, the normalcy of life in Rockaway is slowly returning. While the sound of construction can be heard through the streets, so can the sound of laughter. The residents of Rockaway have emerged from a long, dark and cold winter into the light and warmth of spring with the hope of being reborn stronger than before.

According to Killoran, “this is Rockaway time. This is a time to show the beautiful people that are here and the opportunities and the potential here. This is a great opportunity to rebuild sustainable, stronger and better than ever and help everyone to have an opportunity to have a better quality of life.”