On the news yesterday morning, angry Rockaway residents berated Mayor Bloomberg during his tour of the area. I thought, "the poor tired Mayor, he’s doing everything he can, jeez, give him a break, everyone is suffering here."
And then I went to the Rockaways.
The degree of devastation is astounding. It is as if someone turned this bit of Long Island peninsula utterly inside out. And although hurling f-bombs at the mayor certainly isn’t going to help, their anger is understandable. The chaos is everywhere – they have been without power for a week while most of the city’s electricity has been restored, official agencies are barely visible, it’s getting cold, and the media seems to have already moved on.
And the place is a wreck. (The pictures here don't even being to show how abysmal it is.) Imagine scenes of a dramatic blizzard, and then replace the snow with sand – that’s the situation right now on this stretch of land within the borough of Queens. Sand everywhere. Plowed into mounds to make the streets passable, it remains in mountains eight-feet high. Just unbelievable amounts of sand. Passageways are carved out of the new dunes to allow weary residents and volunteers, shod in rubber boots and donning facemasks, to shuffle their way back and forth between piles of sand and piles of debris, adding to each as they clean out their wrecked homes.
The heaps of detritus lining the streets and sidewalks compete in height with the sand mountains. Giant confused stacks of water-ruined appliances, boxes, clothing, books, toys, holiday decorations, photo albums and all the regular trappings of a home…dirty, muddy, sandy, drenched, destroyed. The wreckage pulled from homes mingles with huge ragged hunks of boardwalk and debris washed in with the water from who knows where.
Fleets of dump trucks trudge through the sandy streets picking up loads of debris before heading back to a mile-long ribbon of trucks waiting for their turn to dump their cargo, before returning to the streets for more. And the site where they are dumping the rubbled remains, the massive and usually-pristine parking lots of Jacob Riis Park, have instantly grown into an ersatz landfill that looks as if it has been collecting rubbish there for decades.
Cars are tossed about like toys, atop one another, crushed, forced into odd configurations with fences and posts, tangled up with stoplights and streetlamps. Open trunks of overturned cars spill forth emergency kits and tool boxes. Cars are stranded in odd places with doors open, frozen in time and motion, like stills from an apocalyptic horror film.
The once-broad boardwalk now consists of naked concrete pilings stripped of each and every board, lending the appearance of a strange Stonehenge-like spine that snakes down the beach for miles. The boards of the walk, are now in massive piles knotted up with phone poles and power lines, giant slabs of broken asphalt, twisted cars, and bits and pieces of random playground equipment.
There is, of course, no power yet. The stoplightless intersections are verging on anarchy…sanitation men seem to be stepping in to direct traffic. And oddly, there is no mainstream media to be seen. No television crews, no reporters, just a few of us with our phones and cameras snapping pictures between delivering goods and shoveling sand.
The only bright spot amongst it all, as has been such a huge story throughout this disaster, is the strength and spirit of the survivors and the efforts of the volunteers. FEMA and the Red Cross haven’t been very visible in some of the hardest hit areas, and the higher-level relief and volunteer organizations seem to be so overwhelmed with volunteers and the logistics of it all that they are turning people away left and right.
But the people wanting to help have not been deterred, and incredible acts of guerilla volunteering and DIY relief efforts are being realized. Bars, churches, galleries and private homes have become giant clearing-houses for donated supplies, stuffed to the rafters with dropped-off donations from regular citizens.
There is no public transportation there. Gas is nearly impossible to obtain – lines are miles long at the few stations that do have it, and the police presence and tempers are flaring – so people are riding bikes, dozens of miles, with backpacks and trailer wagons filled with supplies to the Rockaways. Much like thousands of would-be marathon runners descended upon Staten Island via the ferry and ran supplies to people hard to reach otherwise. People are hiking in supplies. SUVs packed from window to window with diapers, water, canned food, flashlights, and blankets are stopping on the corners and opening their doors to people in need. Drivers stop in the middle of the street and open their trunks filled with brown bag lunches to hand out to instantly formed lines of grateful residents and volunteers with shovels in their hands. Tables are set up on corners, overflowing with giant cartons of hot coffee, sandwiches construced in church basement assembly lines, and random platters of food made in kitchens across the neighborhoods lucky to have power.
Guerilla, pop-up disaster-relief stations are boosting morale and saving lives.
The destruction is unspeakable, and it’s nearly impossible to fathom how long it will take to recover. Staten Island looks like it tangled with Godzilla, and other areas are in similar states of devastation. Flooded Red Hook, Brooklyn still has no power, and this is just in New York, not even touching upon New Jersey and other affected areas. And as everyone in the rest of the city is getting their power back and people are starting to feel like recovery is official and it’s time to “move on”… we need to remember that moving on is easy when you’re warm and cozy and your lights work.
Let’s not forget the people who are shivering in the shelters, who can’t get past their front walkways because of the sand banks, and whose homes are condemned, if not washed away entirely. And with a new storm on the way? They need us now as much as ever, if not more.
Sign up with Occupy Sandy or "like" them on Facebook for real time information and exactly what you can to do to help. (You can also buy a "wedding present" at the Amazon Occupy Sandy Wedding Registry if you'd like to help get supplies there quickly.) As for me, I'm off to make a few tons of hot macaroni and cheese...there's a sandy street corner waiting.