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Being a small piece of paradise for those living in New York City, Rockaway Beach, Queens is a lively and tight-knit community on the outskirts of the city noise. Year round, regardless of the temperature outside, the small town is always bustling with locals and fellow New Yorkers. Once it becomes warm and sunny, the long stretch of beaches fills with tourists and locals the same, trying to enjoy their tiny piece of the sun. The city escapist neighborhood is a surfer’s paradise and an artist’s heaven. The main attraction, the boardwalk, lined with old wood and rusty nails, is also lined with bars, restaurants, art exhibits and beyond. Because many of the businesses are locally owned, the owners are proud of their livelihoods and their community. Unfortunately, in the tail end of October 2012, this quiet city was engulfed by a super storm, destroying much of what the locals knew as ordinary. Hurricane Sandy was a colossal interference to the everyday lives of Rockaway Beach’s residents. Houses were torn apart, waves were reaching more than five feet above sea level, animals and pets went missing, their beloved boardwalk – destroyed. Everything these citizens knew and loved about their town was either long gone or currently floating away. I will be investigating the on-going reconstruction and rehabilitation of Rockaway Beach and surrounding areas of Queens, New York post super-storm Hurricane Sandy, along with the solidarity and progression the citizens made to rebuild their town.
More than four years after super-storm Hurricane Sandy, residents of Rockaway Beach are still in the recovery phase. Homes are still evacuated, citizens still displaced in motels and government housing, and widespread damage has rattled neighborhoods, leaving massive debris in streets, parks and public facilities. When the storm finally finished its rage, the destruction was widespread throughout the entirety of the area. Businesses and homes completely ruined with many of the pieces scattered around the town itself, and many were forced out of their buildings, left to fend for themselves. With no electricity, heat or hot water in any of the ones that were lucky enough to continue standing, it was completely inhabitable. Patrons were forced to come together to solve what may be the biggest challenge Rockaway Beach has faced – recovery. Although already a city devoted to its neighbors, residents had to break out of their comfort zone and voice their unity on the determination to rebuild their beloved community. Solidarity waved through the citizens and new community groups, activism and economic progression emerged from a disaster that ravaged their town. In 2016, I volunteered throughout April with AmeriCorps and St. Bernard’s Project to help the reconstruction of homes in Rockaway Beach. I was able to familiarize myself with the hardships and disaster that the residents were experiencing. As the years pass, less and less volunteers come to help the cause, as most would assume there is not any work left to do. The neighborhood, Rockaway Beach, was a tight-knit, quiet and peaceful community, consisting of people who have lived and grown in the same home. Stories I heard on my trip always began uplifting and warm-those of memories on the beach, the boardwalk and all the family-owned stores lining the busy streets. These stories, unfortunately, ending with horrifying tales of watching cars float down roads flooded with eight feet of water, houses with water rushing through the windows, and hundreds of people swimming with their family and what belongings could stand to get soaked. Years after the storm, the boardwalk still remains in pieces, hundreds of residents still displaced yet paying rent/ mortgages on their homes, people still walk the streets and businesses and storefronts are abandoned. Homes and buildings are not rebuilt out of fear of another storm, thus the local economy suffers, drawing even more potential buyers away.
I returned to Rockaway Beach on April 28th, which was a rainy day and not quite warm enough to attract beach-goers. Before my visit, I had received contact information for the supervisors and coordinators I had worked with in the past. After contacting them, I was able to set up appointments to meet them at their headquarters. Unfortunately, only one was available for an interview on the day that I came. Zach Chaney, who is the volunteer coordinator of Friends of Rockaway, was available and allowed me to pick his brain for a couple of hours. He was fantastic to speak with and very knowledgeable about the history of Rockaway Beach and its citizens. He also, coincidentally, is a resident of Rockaway Beach himself and lived there though the storm so he was able to give me a first person account of his experiences. Since I was unable to speak with others from the organization, I was only to get one point of view of their workings. Along with his point of view, I have a very sharp recollection of my time working there and what my experiences were with the local citizens and businesses. Much of the damage was very memorable and moving to experience first-hand.
Rockaway Beach is particularly a low-expense place to live, with rents averaging lover than those in more expensive areas (like Manhattan), and allowing the opportunity to live in a house. While much of the population is Caucasian, the unemployment rate can range from two to fourteen percent. This may be because the median age is approaching fifty, assuming many of the residents are retired or disabled and cannot work (Nycopendata.org, 2013). Many older people migrate to a town like Rockaway Beach to open small businesses and live a relaxing life. Since the storm, the population has decreased, the median age has decreased and the unemployment rate has nearly increased by a third (Nycopendat.org, 2015). “Previous to Hurricane Sandy,” Zach Chaney recalls, “was a lively and bustling place. Artists loved it here. A lot of scenery to absorb, and there were always people out to talk to. The winters were quieter, but you never felt lonely.” The construction of the buildings and boardwalk were old and decrepit, but that did not deter tourists and residents from enjoying their time in the neighborhood. Many people living in the neighborhood were either uninformed or could not afford it, but most residents did not own flood insurance before 2012. Most assumed that federal disaster aid was able to distribute money incase of a natural disaster. Unfortunately, this is usually never the case. Federal aid is often in the form of a short-term government loan that the homeowner is completely liable for (FEMA, 2014). Not anticipating the hurricane at the velocity, it took owners off guard and many did not have time or money to buy expensive insurance (not to mention the 30-day waiting period after paying for the policy).
When Hurricane Sandy came, many of these homes and businesses were ruined. The storm disrupted the peaceful life many people who moved here strived for. Causing millions of dollars in damages, many were forced to contest with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, in hopes of repairing or replacing what they had lost. Many citizens have been renting apartments month-to-month in hopes that their permanent homes will be funded and reconstructed. When I returned to Rockaway Beach, I walked around with my interviewee and we discussed the outcomes of the storm. He reassured me that even after a natural disaster and multiple deaths, the community stayed strong. He felt there was never a loss of hope or change in overall attitude of the residents. People were still visiting the beach, although covered in debris, and still walking what was left of the boardwalk. Citizens would gather on their porches and in public areas to discuss the future and their hopes for the neighborhood post-disaster. When Hurricane Sandy storm finally finished its rage, the destruction was widespread throughout the entirety of the area. Businesses and homes completely ruined, and many of the pieces scattered around the town itself, many were forced out of their buildings and left to fend for themselves. As of April 2017, much of Rockaway Beach has been restored. For years, homeowners and businesses struggled to keep their doors open and avoid displacement. Almost two years post-disaster, homes, storefronts and the famous boardwalk continued to be broken down and in need of reconstruction. Due to complex and extensive governmental practices, the paperwork to repair these buildings can take a long time and be delayed by other small instances. While the city worked their hardest to keep the community a whole, it was hard, and the citizens have been frustrated since. Almost three years after the storm ravaged, there continued to be widespread rubble, collapsed homes and areas of Rockaway Beach still untouched by FEMA or the local government. Walking through the town gave me an eerie feeling, almost as if the storm just happened yesterday. Only some restaurants active, parks were still empty and covered in ruined playground equipment, and locals looking gloomy.
Patrons were forced to come together to solve what may be the biggest challenge Rockaway Beach has faced – recovery. Although already a city devoted to its neighbors, residents had to break out of their comfort zone and voice their unity on the determination to rebuild their beloved community. Solidarity waved through the citizens and new community groups, activism and economic progression emerged from a disaster that ravaged their town. Annually, Rockaway Beach holds a Hurricane Sandy recovery walk. This walk helps to raise funds to assist the city and state in repairs due to the storm. Every year, since 2013, the walk has raised thousands of dollars that continuously goes to help neighbors and public facilities. Families and friends of those who were lost or severely injured during the storm mostly participate in the walk. It is dubbed the “Remembrance and Recovery” Walk for Sandy (Ross, Slattery 2016). When I returned to Rockaway Beach this month, I was astonished. The community was bustling with people and the boardwalk was crowded again. Strolling down the boardwalk, I noticed that the empty businesses and shattered windows were all repaired and the sites filled with new local-owned businesses. Coffee shops, cafes and art exhibits lined the boardwalk again. There were bright, colorful lights along the buildings and intricate art pieces representing their strength and solidarity through such a difficult time for their community. There was no longer a gloomy, eerie vibe in the town, but a loving, hopeful and exciting one. Most of the town looked restored and either completely or in the process of reconstruction. There were still crews lining the streets fixing lights, telephone poles and continuing to repair the boardwalk, but significantly less than a year previous. I returned to the location I worked in 2015, on the corner of Beach Channel Road and Beach 91st street. The improvement that has been made was remarkable. Homes were completed being raised and repaired, the roads and cul-de-sacs cleared of debris and rubble and the wall protecting the tides from reaching the land was built taller, stronger and donned a sea-themed mural painted by the community. Zach said to me, as I was leaving, that his community and patrons are strong. They gathered to demand the most out of their government and city. He attended multiple town hall meetings directly after the storm and told me that their neighborhood was insistent on helping everyone out of their own disaster.
In the years past, many people are still struggling, four years later, to rebuild homes. Many are still displaced and unable to pay for the damages to their properties, but are still being charged and taxed on unlivable homes. Organizations, such as the one Zach represented, work day in and day out continuously to help to fund and assist the residents in whatever reconstruction needs they have. All residents, if they live in a high-risk area of Rockaway Beach are now required by New York State to own flood insurance (Floodhelpny.org, 2016). Even through all of this, Rockaway Beach as a whole has united in fear and disaster to keep their community as connected and lively as it was in the past. Hurricane Sandy put a terrible damper on the economic, political and social aspects of this part of New York City. Many left busier boroughs to relax in the Rockaways, but unfortunately, it is not always that easy. Residents are now required to have a vast array of insurances and coverage to avoid the lack of FEMA assistance in another situation, unlike with Hurricane Sandy. Although many residents are now resettling back into normalcy, the effects and distresses caused by Hurricane Sandy will always loom the community and keep them on alert. This disaster showed the determination and whole-hearted solidarity of the citizens of Rockaway Beach and how they are able to consolidate their efforts and fight back.
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