It might have been a scene from post-Katrina New Orleans. U.S. Army Humvees and reservists patrolled the streets; people without homes or electricity huddled in need of food, water and blankets; residents siphoned gas from destroyed cars to power generators.
Others looked at the destruction wrought from the storm and couldn’t recognize their own home: Not New Orleans, but the Rockaway peninsula, Queens.
“It’s just unbelievable, unbelievable,” said Elease Oakely, 60, on Saturday as she stood on the shattered concrete of what was once a recreational park and stared at the ghost of a boardwalk, now concrete pylons jutting out of the sea. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
While many New Yorkers will be taking subways to work on Monday morning and recovering from the chaos of superstorm Sandy, residents of the Rockaways are still in the dark and just beginning to dig themselves out of the rubble, while realizing that their community will be rebuilding for the coming months and even years.
“Apocalyptic” is the only word Steve Stathis, owner of Boarders Surf Shop, could find to begin to describe the situation. Stathis hadn’t even yet looked inside his shop on Beach 92nd Street and had just started gutting his flooded home with the help of family members.
“The amount of clean-up is indescribable,” he said. “This is years.”
Residents of the Rockaways shared a sinking feeling over the weekend that relief agencies were forgetting them. The National Guard made its first appearance on Friday night, they said, but few had seen the Red Cross or Federal Emergency Management Agency on the ground.
On Saturday, the city Department of Environmental Protection provided drinking water to residents through its Water-on-the-Go fountains, and Department of Sanitation crews continued to clear debris. But when Mayor Michael Bloomberg paid a visit appearance on Saturday for the first time since the storm hit, and found himself greeted by angry residents demanding aid.
“Seven million people visited here last summer,” said John Cori, an electrician and well-known community activist whose house was inundated by the storm surge and had a growing mountain of destroyed belongings outside of it. “Now we’re like the red-headed step-child of New York City.”
Peering down Rockaway Beach Boulevard, now covered with sand dunes, debris, and remnants of the boardwalk painted with a sign that said “HEY ANDREW HEY MIKE HEY OBAMA WHAT ABOUT ROCKAWAYS?”, Cori looked at two tractors pushing sand around and said, “Two tractors — are you kidding me?”
Where official agencies were not, a trickle of individuals and community groups moved in over the weekend to deliver emergency supplies to flooded homes as well as housing projects and high-rise buildings without electricity, heat or running water.
On the corner of Beach 96th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, Sikhs from temples around Queens served plates of Indian food across from a evangelical group handing out diapers and clothes. Transportation companies like Liffey Van Lines and Logan Bus brought in food and delivered it to high-rises residences along Shore Front Parkway.
The Rockaways public housing buildings and high-rises, however, posed particular challenges for relief efforts. Seniors and the disabled were unable to walk down flights of stairs to access food, water and other aid or travel to the two FEMA locations reported by Queens Community Board 14, at Beach 116 Street and Beach 95 Street.
FEMA “was here for five minutes and then they went onto the next place,” said Vanessa Robinson, 31, who lives in a New York City Housing Authority building near Beach 80th Street, where a crew had worked until 2 a.m. to fix the building’s flooded boiler. “They stacked everything in front of the building and a lot of people couldn’t come down to get it.”
Residents of the 12-story Dayton Tower high-rise co-op on Shore Front Parkway developed a system to deal with the lack of elevators by deputizing younger residents as runners to communicate with the elderly and infirm.
“We run up and down the buildings and ask people what they want — milk, toilet paper, water,” said Kevin Garcia, 15. “The first day we were pushing cars out of the sand.” Garcia expected to start school on Monday but wasn’t sure where because he’d heard his high school was being used as a shelter.
The parking lot and first floor of Dayton Towers were flooded. On Saturday, some residents were siphoning gas from cars to run a single small generator to power a light in the laundry room, which had become a relief aid distribution point to housing projects in the surrounding area.
But at several housing projects at the eastern end of the island, residents reported not seeing Red Cross, FEMA or any relief since the storm hit and were hoping that flashlights, food, baby supplies and blankets would reach them.
Others said by the weekend they were done waiting for electricity to return. Tanya Jackson, 52, and her husband had taken buses to John F. Kennedy airport, rented a car, and were planning on going to Boston until power was restored — if they could siphon gas from her destroyed car to help them get there.
“We have no gas, no electricity, no food,” she said. “It’s horrible. I thought things would get better.”
Down the road, John Foley, a construction worker with a residential management company in the Rockaways, warmed his hands on an Army-issued MRE and said they were still pumping water out of the high-rise’s boiler room six days later.
“We’re on the doorstep of the most important city in the world,” said Foley, 39, with disgust. “And Bloomberg’s mentioned us, like, once?”
Some business owners assessing the damage to their stores were almost speechless. After opening the door to his pizza shop on Rockaway Beach Boulevard several blocks from the ocean, Frank Amato gaped. He saw a five-foot water line on the walls and upside down refrigerators and pizza ovens. “This equipment is 1,000 pounds,” he said. “It’s not like they’re toys.”
But asked if he would reopen the store with his brother and partner Tony, he didn’t hesitate. “We have 30 years invested,” he said. “That’s without question.”
This story was originally published by the New York World.