The Rockaways. To New Yorkers that live outside of this 11 mile long peninsula in the southernmost part of Queens, it’s a no man’s land. When I tell someone I live out here, the usual reaction is “Dude, you live out in the boondocks!” Yes, I do. It’s quite the mission for you to get out here. To us, the hour and a half long train ride to and from the city is routine. To you, it’s the never ending journey.
Regardless of it’s inconveniences as well as it’s many annoyances, growing up in The Rock is one thing I would never change. I mean, who gets to say they grew up on the beach?!! Spending summers jumping off the pier on Beach 8th street, playing handball at the many courts throughout the peninsula, the rivalry between Far Rockaway High School (Go Seahorses!) and Beach Channel High School (Dolphins. BOO!). Kicking back on the lifeguard chairs at night is still one of my favorite things to do. A place where just about everyone knows each other and gossip spreads faster than wildfire. Houses remain in the same families for generations, and regardless of economic class, a sort of camaraderie exists here. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re all jammed together into a small strip of land that tends to bring people together. Whatever it is, living here has prepared us for what was to come. The test has begun.
Prior to Superstorm Sandy, the area was designated as Zone A, an area with mandated evacuation. My family and I evacuated, never knowing that the next time I’d sleep in my own bed would be about two weeks later. After staying at my sister’s and later my uncle’s (where I was thrown back into the dark ages due to his refusal to get internet service or even basic cable), we finally returned home with trepidation. While the building had power thanks to generators, individual apartments had none. Extra long extension cords came in handy, but they ended up disconnected regularly by the security guard doing his rounds. I tried to keep a positive attitude about the situation. I even posted a pic of myself streaking in the dark (pic available upon request).
While I could see the damage done to my immediate neighborhood, the news and images coming from a mile away told a tale of complete devastation. It was only until recently that I decided to see for myself what the newscasters were talking about.
To call it a hair raising trip would be an understatement. I drove past mounds of sand that was brought in by the surge, 3 to 5 blocks inland! Wrought iron fences lying on the ground, cars overturned, and houses completely pushed off their foundations. At Riis Beach, the parking lot has been turned into a landfill with 3 story high mounds of what used to be families possessions; furniture, appliances, and other things that turn a house into a home.
I returned to the handball courts where I spent much of my youth in and I suddenly found it very difficult to keep my composure. For the first time in my life, I had to look at street signs to see where I was. Mountains of rubbish stood as silent witness; when you looked closely, you can see the benches and the chess tables, now turned into mere rubbish. The boardwalk on which joggers ran daily, bikers cruised up and down the peninsula and young lovers strolled hand in hand, completely torn off its foundation, exposing its supports. Its wooden planks now forming part of the mounds of rubbish that have suddenly become a part of the local landscape.
Throughout my entire tour, I saw no tears. No one was hanging around. Everyone was moving about with purpose. Dust masks and work boots on, everyone was helping each other clean out homes, repair faces, hang carpets out to dry. Groups of volunteers were everywhere, among them, “Habitat for Humanity”, with brooms and work gloves cleaning streets. FEMA and housing inspectors speaking to homeowners, trailers from various insurance companies setting up shop in parking lots to process claims and both faith based and secular groups handing out food, water, clothing and cleaning supplies.
All these images reminded me of a text message I received from my Titi Lioni from PR the other day; “Como todo, despues de la tormenta viene la calma, y pronto todo pasara” (“Like everything, after the storm comes the calm, and soon all this will pass”). Watching my fellow Rockawayites come together to put back the pieces that Sandy tore apart, I have no doubt that Rockaway will go back to becoming that place we all love to hate and hate to love. It’s tough out here sometimes, and it’s annoyances sometimes makes you want to rip your hair out, but it’s home. Just when you think you’ve had enough, you sit on one of those lifeguard chairs and watch the sunset and you remember why it’s so difficult to just pack up and leave. Sandy may have done her worst, but she has definitely brought out the best in those that were caught in her path.