At his surf club on 87th Street, Brandon d’Leo, a sculptor who had worked in a studio nearby, had organized the most effective volunteer center I saw in the Rockaways. There was, despite everything, a certain majesty to Hurricane Sandy, and it appeared to have unleashed in d’Leo an almost religious energy. Some of the energy, he implied, was the after-effect of fear. When the storm hit the coast, he felt sure he was going to die. When I met him he was in a state of crisis arousal, searching for a way to make sense of what had happened. His eyes were sunken from lack of sleep and from his woolen cap sprouted a tangle of copper- and ink-colored hair. With his partner, Davina, he had supervised the canvassing of a fifty-block area, ascertaining people’s specific conditions and needs. The information was carefully recorded on various-sized scraps of paper. (Representatives from the Global Health Initiative, Doctors Without Borders, Occupy Sandy, and other organizations would later make use of his “data.”)
Donations were pouring in and it was remarkable to watch d’Leo, ten days after the storm, dispatching more than five hundred volunteers to the homes of the afflicted with supplies, shovels, and detailed instructions. He knew what was in high demand (size-five diapers) and what wasn’t (used clothes). “People dump their sorriest crap on you. They clean out their closets and tell themselves they’re doing a good deed. I was raised on welfare. You can’t throw these rags at people in distress.”
D’Leo and Davina were living in a state of deprivation themselves. The beachfront apartment they rented was badly damaged. His sculpture, which used carefully balanced steel assemblages, and his “shop” and all the work in it had been destroyed. Although he was diligently helping people to register with FEMA so they would be eligible for financial assistance, he had yet to enter his own name into the system.
Three weeks after the storm, he did finally register and was given a voucher to stay in a Bronx hotel for fourteen days. He called the hotel but they had no vacancies, “though I wouldn’t have gone there if they’d had one.” When I spoke to him shortly after this, he seemed on the edge of an abyss. “We’ve lost our minds. We’ve had our breakdowns,” he said. He wasn’t sure how he and Davina would survive the winter.
Yet they continued to run their relief effort as if it were the only thing that concerned them. Their current struggle was to recruit volunteer electricians and obtain hot water heaters and boilers for their neighbors. In the time I spent at the surf club, I saw only one storm victim sent away empty-handed: a woman seeking hair dye and perfume.
Amid the general chaos rumors were flying. One rumor had it that the city and real estate developers would use the disaster as a pretext to bulldoze single-family homes and turn Rockaway into a luxury resort. Another rumor alleged that FEMA was planning to establish a refugee camp at Floyd Bennett Field, the former municipal airport and naval air station on Rockaway inlet (it is now a park). “Once people are moved there they’ll become officially homeless,” a young resident told me. “They’ll be relocated. Their homes will be razed, just like what happened in New Orleans after Katrina.”
Though there was no evidence to support the rumors, the lack of reliable information about the fate of the Rockaways allowed them to take on a multiplying life of their own. Nothing seemed implausible. As of November 13, the electrical systems of 29,000 homes—a huge percentage of the housing stock on a peninsula whose total population was 130,000—were in danger of being deemed beyond repair. By the end of November many of those homes had their power restored, but that was no guarantee they would not be condemned. Even with electricity restored, the return of basic amenities remained in doubt. Tens of thousands of boilers and hot water heaters had been destroyed. Mold had set in and hundreds of buildings had suffered structural damage. The cost of renovation, in many cases, would be greater than the value of the houses.
Moreover, the Long Island Power Authority, which serviced the Rockaways, was in a state of collapse, beset by incompetence, subpar power maps, and customer outrage. Governor Andrew Cuomo did little to assuage local fears when he announced, “There are some people who are not going to get their power back because it is not a power issue any longer, it is a housing issue.”
In any event, the pressing question facing planners was less that of real estate development than of the future protection and habitability of the city’s coastline. Geologically, Breezy Point is no more than 150 years old; it was created by a sand drift in the late nineteenth century. How would the most fragile parts of the city endure rising sea levels and increasingly destructive tropical storms? “Defend and Retreat” is a slogan one hears often when planners speak of the threat of rising water.
Currently, every manner of solution is under discussion: movable sea walls, mammoth sand dunes, wetland edges, artificial islands capable of cushioning storm surges, densely clustered “barrier” buildings, just to name a few. Huge flood projects will surely have a major, and necessary, part in New York’s future. One can be equally sure that, in the coming years, the social and physical fabric of the Rockaways and other coastal areas will radically change. Edward Thomas, a former FEMA official, has predicted that flood insurance, which is usually provided by the federal government, will soon be mandatory for home owners and will triple in cost. Stricter and more expensive building regulations will most likely bar middle- and lower-middle-income people from living on the coast. Ronald Schiffman, a former member of the New York City Planning Commission, foresees “a massive displacement of low-income families from their historic communities.”
Officials have not made clear yet how, or if, the Rockaways will be rebuilt. Robert LiMandri, New York’s Buildings Department commissioner, told The New York Times he did not believe any “multiunit apartment buildings” would be demolished. This suggests that even if the peninsula is left to the weather, the housing projects and their inhabitants will remain.
Twelve days after the storm, I traveled to the western end of the peninsula, near Breezy Point, where the damage appeared to have a different cast. The lawns and flower beds and houses and trees were clad in a ghostly substance that resembled volcanic ash. Rockaway Beach Boulevard, the charming, two-lane street that runs through much of the peninsula, was rumbling with armored Humvees, camouflaged transport trucks, Red Cross disaster relief vans, construction vehicles of every shape and size, garbage and fire trucks, police cars, ambulances—a ragtag convoy that scattered sandmud through the air like swarming mites.
Entire blocks had burned to nothing from fires ignited by soaked electrical boxes and tipped-over candles. With water rising to seven feet in the streets, firefighters had been unable to get in. The buildings were so crumbled that what was left of their bricks looked like charred biscuits that had been gnawed at and tossed to the ground. Three Sikhs stood in front of the wreckage ladling homemade soup. Evangelical philanthropists from a Filipino church in Queens distributed care bags amid blaring hymns. A neighborhood girl held a tinfoil-wrapped sandwich aloft hoping some hungry rescue worker would accept it. A group of nine- or ten-year-old boys played touch football, wearing masks. It gave me a pang to see my former synagogue sealed shut and deserted, while a few blocks away the church of St. Francis de Sales was teeming with relief workers.
My former block, 147th Street, had the alien familiarity that “home” sometimes takes on in a dream: a place you know intimately yet have never seen. The house I grew up in bore the unfortunate Department of Buildings sticker “Restricted Use,” which marked it, for the time being, as unfit for habitation. The other houses on the street bore the same scarlet sign. Small bulldozers raced about, digging out the sandmud, like miniature cars in an amusement park. The stone beach wall that had withstood every hurricane for the past seventy-odd years had been toppled with such violence that slabs of it had cut through the sidewalk. What was left of the wooden jetties looked like crooked rows of molars peeking out from the surf. To the east, the boardwalk, which had been rebuilt a few years ago, was gone. Only the cement mooring remained, gouged and snapped off in places like vandalized statues. On the beach mechanical excavators ponderously picked out street lamps and uprooted poles.
I continued west, to Breezy Point, which was enveloped in a smoldering pall. More than a hundred houses there had burned during the storm. At the entrance, a guard stopped me. “Residents only,” he said, just as when I was a boy. I penetrated Breezy once during the fifteen years I lived nearby, when my only Irish friend brought me to his house. His father decreed that we should test ourselves in the boxing ring in the basement. The gloves were too large for our hands and had to be held in place by an extra length of string, which cut off our circulation. When his father shouted “Go!” the boy punched me hard enough to make my head ring. A few seconds later, I caught him square in the mouth, after which we fell into a clench, our hearts pounding, unwilling to go on.
I turned back around and wandered into Jacob Riis Park, a minimalist Robert Moses gem of the 1930s, where my father played handball on summer mornings while I set out beach chairs and umbrellas for day-trippers from Brooklyn. Growing mountains of debris from all over the peninsula filled the vast parking lot. Eventually the debris would be tugged to Albany on barges. From there it would be trucked to the Seneca Meadows landfill in Waterloo, New York, where a significant portion of the Rockaways will be laid to rest.