I made my way to New York’s Rockaway peninsula in early November, a week after Hurricane Sandy, and it was immediately clear that the entire eleven-mile strip had sustained a mortal, earthen wound. In the neighborhoods of Edgemere and Arverne, residents wandered the streets, dazed and broken, in mismatched boots, donated woolen overcoats, and hats with dangling ear-flaps. Some pushed what appeared to be all their belongings in shopping baskets and carts, followed by children and derelict dogs.
The usual conditions of existence had reversed: out of doors was where you now looked for what you normally found inside: hot meals, for instance, or relative dryness and warmth. The meals came from the many charities that had set up pantries in the battered lots that have been a feature of Rockaway’s blight since the city razed many of the old summer bungalows and rooming houses after World War II. Furniture lay on the street in soggy, reeking heaps—the pathetically intimate sight of defiled mattresses and stuffed chairs mixed with mounds of foam, roof shingles, Halloween decorations, and soaked, grease-streaked insulation. Groups of people waited in ankle-high puddles for buses that seemed never to arrive. Here was a drowned cat, there a pit bull with flaming eyes chained to a wrinkled Ford. “We Shoot Looters” read the sign on a house protected by a barricade of storm-mangled cars.
Families stood docilely in lines to collect basic supplies, such as baby food and candles. There were few words. A man in his forties, shivering in wet shoes, his lips chapped to the point of bleeding, told me, “I got a comforter, a blanket. It’s all good.” He lived in the Edgemere projects and was wandering the streets, gathering what he could, first for himself, then for the “shut-aways” who lived in his building.
An odor had crept into the air, working its way under the tongue, taking on the quality of something chewed on and swallowed. A breeze from the sea would disperse it for a while, but soon it would return: the wet sheetrock breath of the houses, the sump pumps weakly dribbling water from their basements, sewage, and decomposing food. What was worse, however, was the sandmud, as I thought of it, that lay on the Rockaways like a foreign skin. People shoveled and raked the stuff, building gray viscid piles on the street. It drained the spirit of those trying to clear it away, partly because it had such a revoltingly permanent quality, heavy and thick.
A resident told me it was the result of “the sonic swell” that the storm had blasted onto the land. He and others spoke primarily of the sound of the storm, describing it as unlike anything they had ever heard. Another resident recalled the “powerful sucking sound” when Sandy landed, “like being swept into a tube.” William Faulkner, in his novella Old Man, about the Mississippi River flood of 1927, writes of the water’s “subaquean rumble which sounded like a subway train passing far beneath the street and which inferred a terrific and secret speed”—the sound, in Faulkner’s words, of “monstrously disturbed water.”
During the critical days immediately following the storm, with Rockaway’s subway tracks washed away, gas shortages impeding road access, and the government disaster relief agencies still scrambling to find their footing, the main help came from local volunteers. FEMA, by its nature, is a medium-term emergency assistance unit. The task of delivering ambulances, supplies, and warming tents to a disaster area, as well as thousands of agents to interview victims and assess their needs, does not lend itself to immediate action. As late as two weeks after the storm, FEMA was referring sick residents to a ramshackle storefront on 113th Street where medical volunteers had set up a makeshift clinic. And members of the Red Cross were asking grassroots volunteers, working out of battered shacks and privately donated tents, how best to distribute food. The volunteers had become, a professional relief worker admiringly told me, “the main act.” It would be impossible to quantify how much suffering the volunteers alleviated. Two and three days after the storm, battalions of them began arriving from Brooklyn and elsewhere, corralled by a small network of Rockaway residents who instinctively understood what the disaster required. Some had been participants in last year’s Occupy Wall Street protest; others had “discovered” Rockaway during the past few summers, forming an attachment to the place, which, owing to its improvised, lost-in-time quality, had taken on a kind of vintage appeal.
Part of the allure was the equalizing effect of the disaster, the connections between people it provoked where economic and class resentments momentarily seemed to melt away. During the first blinding rush of need it was easy to believe that Nature was the common enemy, not poverty or bankrupt schools or crime. A few days after the storm, a graduate student from Columbia told me that she had spent eight hours with a volunteer work crew tearing out sheetrock and insulation from the basements of an entire row of one-family houses on Beach 108th Street. She was coughing and feverish, but seemed exhilarated by the hard survivalist labor. “No one knew my name,” she said. “We worked till dark and then quit because we were living by sunlight. National Guardsmen in Humvees would honk and wave at us as they drove by.” The National Guardsmen were there to carry away thousands of patients from nursing and adult health care centers whom the city had neglected to evacuate before the storm.
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.
Drawn from “Occupy the Rockaways!” an essay by Michael Greenberg that will appear in the January 10, 2013 issue of The New York Review.