Things Fall Apart: My Trip to Rockaway Beach After Sandy

Last week made a year since super storm Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard. New York City subways and buses were halted. Schools were closed. People boarded up windows with plywood. I was one of the lucky ones. I live in the Bronx, arguably the least affected borough of New York City. To be more specific, I live in the Northwest Bronx on a hilltop, essentially a hill on top of numerous hills. Nothing much happened: it rained, it was very windy, some trees fell down and crushed a few cars. But nothing too much out of the ordinary that a bad thunderstorm wouldn’t do.

For the past several years, my summer had never been complete without a day trip out to Beach 116th Street in the Rockaways. The Irish Riviera, some call it, is chock full of dive bars, gift shops, some little seasonal restaurants and of course, the beach. Never in my mind did I imagine that I’d come back three months later to find sections of blocks leveled, boarded up, or burnt. I wanted to do something to help. Because it is a peninsula and only accessible by a few bridges,  you can imagine that only emergency workers and residents were allowed access.

In November while looking at my Twitter timeline and falling asleep looking a pictures of the damage in various parts of New York and New Jersey, I came across an opportunity. MoMA PS1′s Klaus Biesenbach was offering a chartered bus leaving and returning from MoMA in Midtown to bring volunteers and supplies into the Rockaways. I was on it.

We arrived at the Rockaway Surf Club in early afternoon and began unpacking supplies. Gallons of water. Matches. Flashlight. Pumps. Bleach. We broke up into teams. Some worked in a make-shift supply room dividing donations. Others arranged and divided donations on the ground to be categorized. Some of the men brought pumps and shovels to help families dig out their basements or pump water. I and a group of about three other young women walked around door knocking making lists of supplies needed.

Some people told us that they did not want to be a burden and refused, later accepting, admitting it had been a very tough few days. Others broke down and cried as mud lined their floors and watermarks three feet or more stained their walls. We went back to the Surf Club where other volunteers acted as store clerks. We would hand them a “grocery” list, which they then filled and we’d bring the supplies back to the families. This went on until the sun began to disappear on the horizon. We could go home. They could not. Or at least not what was recognizable as home.