2013. Rockaway, Queens.
On October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy tore through parts of New York and New Jersey. One of the hardest hit areas was the peninsula of Rockaway, Queens. In the wake of Sandy, I spent time there pitching in wherever and whenever I could to help the neighborhoods impacted by that disaster. Many had lost everything. I don’t know what it’s like to not even have the most basic of human necessities and witnessing the aftermath of the storm and how it laid that part of town to waste was an eye-opener on so many different levels. Thousands of people, from New York and beyond, turned out to help. Some were neighbors helping neighbors, most were strangers helping strangers.
The following portrait essays are a collaboration with Jessie Adler, a photographer, who also spent time in Rockaway. Our overall intention was to capture the spirit and mood of the people from the different communities in Rockaway. Many of those folks are still getting back on their feet and these portraits are a way to thank them for sharing their stories but more importantly to give them a voice.
Dexter Archibald, Rockaway Beach.
It’s funny, the things we take for granted. Just to be able to turn on the faucet and have clean running water. To hit a light switch and here’s lights, to be able to cook and have gas. These are common everyday things that we do without thinking and when it’s taken away from you it’s really an eye opener. It was scary and it just puts things in perspective for me of how fortunate and lucky we really are. As Americans, and as New Yorkers, we’re really fortunate. Maybe we need to pay closer attention to these types of things, the type of services that we do have and the lifestyles that we’re able to live. To take hot showers every day. Just some basic stuff that a lot of us just don’t think about. We get so caught up in our day-to-day travels and we just don’t take them seriously, we just take them for granted.
Sandy impacted my life in a way that I cold never imagine. I couldn’t believe this was the place I’d lived in for over 30 years, I’d never seen anything like it.
I live on the eighth floor. My floor was dry but my hallway, foyer, intercom, lobby, and elevators, all that was destroyed. It was a complete mess. It took about 8 months before it started to take shape of what it used to be. The countless trips up and down the stairs to get clothing, cleaning out the refrigerator. I don’t now many times we climbed the stairs in the dark, using cell phones for light. That was scary. We had to make sure to exit the community before nightfall because without lights and no streetlights for the first time I felt unsafe in my own community. It was just a surreal moment. I just wanted to get my family out of here. To travel into Rockaway was challenging, to travel out of Rockaway was challenging. Gas was an issue. I spent many an hour waiting on long lines for gas.
I’ve learned to appreciate the smaller things. It’s different in the respect to where I now understand that today, everyday, is a gift. Every day that I’m able to go through my normal routine without interruption and have the things that I need to do what I need to do is truly a gift. So I’ll never forget that, so that’s what the storm did for me and I know of other people who are still feeling the effects of the storm until today. They don’t have solid place to call their own, a buddy of mine has 10 kids and is still looking for a home so I’m very appreciative for what I have. I feel lucky and blessed for what I have and just count my blessings.
Now more than ever there’s a community here. I look at the rebuilding of the beach, which is beautiful. My son and his teammates from Beach Channel Football graduated and because of Sandy, Men’s Warehouse sponsored the team and paid for their tuxedos for their prom and a lot of things were donated to them. It was a tremendous help at a time when the help was needed. So the community came together in a tremendous way.
Rockaway people are resilient. We will find a way to get through it. I watched this community when I moved here when I was five. It was predominately a senior citizen type of area back then, it was well maintained and it took a little dive but it’s now on the rise again. I love this place, I truly do. I love everything that it stands for. Just like every other area has its good points, it’s bad points, its highs and its lows. I can’t imagine living anywhere else. I am Far Rockaway.
Leah Joyner, Far Rockaway.
I lived on 42nd street right by the beach. I came back and saw the waterline, it was up to my neck. I lost most of my things, my clothes, everything. I also lost my job. I was working at my church in daycare as an assistant teacher and the downstairs area and everything got destroyed. For six months I was on unemployment and had to move in with my mom who lives by the bay and didn’t get hit as bad, and I’m still there now. I got money from FEMA but it wasn’t much.
It was really a growing experience for me. A lot of people think it’s a negative thing because they think of all the things they lost and all the things they can’t get back. Some people get depressed. I felt devastated. These were all my things, stuff that I can’t get back but then I reflected on it and said, “Well I’m still alive. I still have choices that I can make, decisions. I can make this into a positive situation, I don’t have to think negative.” So what I did was I kept trying to find work and get myself out there, and eventually I did a couple of jobs and then I eventually found Build It Back. I felt like, okay, I can help people who went through the same thing I went through, and I feel real good about it. I feel good that I can impact people.
A lot of people weren’t expecting Sandy to happen. Afterward, a lot of people came together and helped people gut out their house, clean up, things like that. I think it maybe made people realize we have to stick together rather than be separate. Dealing with devastation like that is really hard. A lot of people had to allow other people outside their family in just to help them out. I think it really made people see each other in a different way. It’s like okay, that’s my neighbor, we’re cool and we can work together, we should work together. This has impacted all of us, not just one. We are one but it impacted each and every one of us in a different way so why not just help each other. Do what we can do, it won’t be the same like it was before Sandy but it can be better. We can change it, we can make it better, but we have to stick together.
Nobody really knows about us, we’re out here in Far Rockaway. It’s like who cares about them, it’s just Rockaway. Nobody wants to come to Rockaway, forget Rockaway. But we matter in our way because we’re just like everybody else. We have our own communities, we deal with the same things they deal with, so why shouldn’t’ we matter just like everyone else? Who’s to say we can’t impact each other. We matter, in our own way we matter, even if no one thinks we do.
I try to stay positive about a lot of things and it’s really hard. But I’m just going to stay positive because good things come to those who wait and I’m waiting.
Vincent Haywood, Rockaway Park.
I was here the whole time. The morning after Sandy my neighbor and I took some surfboards that we have and went around helping neighbors out of their houses. We had a couple of neighbors who have diabetes and we had to half-float-walk down to help them get their ice because diabetics need to keep their meds on ice.
On my street the boardwalk had come down a whole block and half. There was no way to get out of the neighborhood. There was too much debris, too much sand. Nothing was open. There was no food, no electricity, no water, no phones. We were able to get our phones charged about a week later at St. Francis Church on Beach 129th. We didn’t get our electricity back for about 4 months. So that was a real struggle.
Our tax dollars were at work, a US Navy ship and the marines landed right around Beach 128th. They came ashore in some Humvees and set up an area in the basketball court across the street from the church. It was the most unbelievable thing in the world. It was really Kafkaesque because it was hard to believe there were marines and navy personnel on a ship bringing us aid. It really was like a suspension in time, like we were in another place, in another time. They set up an area in a basketball court across from the church. There was food and there were clothes, because people didn’t really have clothes. It was an unbelievable experience. For me it was really nice to see Americans looking out for each other.
It was probably one of the few times, and it’s unfortunate, that a tragedy could bring people together but it really did. I just wish that people could have that sense of selflessness and a sense caring about other people all the time. Maybe that’s asking too much, I don’t know. It was nice. I got a chance to meet neighbors I’ve never met. Because, unfortunately, Rockaway is a very strange neighborhood. It’s very click-ish. You kind of know who you know and who you don’t know, you just don’t know. I met people on my block that I’d wave to and they’d give a half wave and now they’re asking me to help them out to do things. So that was a good thing.
For me it was really an experience in what the human spirit can do if they see themselves as part of a community, and what they can’t do if they don’t see themselves as part of a community. So what I’d like to say is, I hope that the people of Rockaway, irregardless of their race, their politics, rational identification, their culture, and other issues that typically separate people – I hope they see themselves as one big community willing to work together. You see the bumper stickers that say “Rockaway Strong.” But Rockaway Strong for who? We’re not a united community and hopefully people will have a greater sense of community. You have Neponset, you have Rockaway Park, Roxbury, you have Riis Park, Arverne By The Sea, you have all these different disparate communities but there’s not a real sense of connectedness to the community because people just don’t feel it’s in their interest to be connected to people that they don’t know, that they’re not familiar with.
I love the ocean, it’s very therapeutic out here. I love to fish. I love to surf. I have a small garden where I grow my vegetables. I love the people out here. My blood pressure’s gone down about 10 degrees. Can we do this in the middle of Manhattan with skyscrapers? I could go on and on about what I like about living out here. But the main thing is, the peacefulness and being connected to the earth.
But once you do get to know people out here, you’ll find that people tend to be very connected but it’s just about breaking those barriers down.
Dora Helwig, Far Rockaway.
I look at it my life before Sandy and it was wonderful. I still think it’s wonderful. I still think that I’m very blessed. My life is no different. Except now, doing the work and getting the work done to restore my house.
There’s community here. It’s phenomenal. I have wonderful neighbors next door and they’re always bringing me magnificent Indian food, which I love. And we just go back and forth, hi – how ya doing? My other beautiful neighbor right next to me is almost my second son. He put up the backyard fence for me. If I have a problem, he’s here to fix it. I mean, I am so fortunate, it’s unbelievable. My neighbors across the street, they’ve been here as long as I have. I’ve seen their babies grow up and go off to college and marry and have their own children. You don’t get that much in other places. You certainly don’t get that in the city.
My family—that is the positive thing. We survived. Once Sandy was over, from that point on I said, I don’t care what you do – that house can float away, as long as I have my grandkids, my son and my daughter, and myself, of course, that’s it. So I still feel that way. This place is going to take a long time to restore but I’m not complaining. Whatever happens, even if I don’t have this beautiful, blessed paradise of Rockaway, as long as I have my family that will be enough. That’s my whole thing – my family. They are my love—that is THE thing.
Chanyute Oottamakorn, Arverne. Owner of Thai Kitchen By The Sea.
Since Sandy, I think we’ve gotten a chance to know more about the neighborhood and our neighbors. It’s a chance for people to help people. You stick your hand out and you make friends. That’s really great. You can show how you can help others. Whatever way you can there’s an opportunity to lend a hand.
We came to look at the houses around here in 2009 and saw a rendering of the Transit Plaza and thought it looked good. We thought maybe would could open a Thai restaurant. My wife always wanted to open a restaurant. When they finally finished the house in 2011, we moved in January 2012 and we started negotiating with the builder.
We were going to stay in our home even though they were going to evacuate the area but our kids begged us to leave. That day, in the late morning, we decided to go where my sister lived in Long Island. She also got hit.
We returned home but there was no power so we slept in the cold but we made it through. I ordered a generator but it never showed up. I used to go to work in downtown Manhattan. After the storm, I had to take a bus and change for a train in Rockaway Boulevard. It was so crowded, there were so many people trying to get on the buses but we managed. We were so happy when the A train came back.
We signed the lease for the restaurant after Sandy. We’ve always looked at the potential here and we saw high potential here. Before we moved here I told my friend we were looking in Rockaway and he said, “Ugh.” We came and looked and it’s not what so many people think. Rockaway has a lot of potential. The neighborhood is going to grow. Look at the beach, it’s so cool. My wife loves to walk and she’d take a walk in the morning and in the evening on the boardwalk. Now the boardwalk’s gone but she’s found another route. We have a lot of friends around our neighborhood.
Angel Reyes, Rockaway Beach.
I’m a Vietnam veteran and for a long time I was pretty unstable because I couldn’t refill my medications and I couldn’t get in touch with my doctor because there was no phone. Thank God for my landlord, he’s been a good friend. It was touch and go for me but his steady hand helped stabilize me. I thank God for that because I could have regressed. It was very disorienting. I’m looking at the situation as half-full now.
The clothes I’m wearing right now are donations from during that time. Except for my sneakers and my underwear. The most positive thing that opened up my eyes was the young people. Before any large relief agencies came, young folks were right here looking out for people, bringing in food, organizing themselves and helping out the community. I appreciate them a lot. To this day they’re still out there.
I think often that these young people, they’re maligned as loafers. To me, they’re pretty community focused and open-minded and helped us get up on our feet. I love this community, I think it was coming back before the hurricane. There was a lot of energy with the surfing community. The word was coming out that Rockaway was up and coming and making a name for itself. So this was a step back but there’s a lot of good energy here and in a matter of a few years it’ll be even better.
A lot of people lost everything, financially a lot of folks are still on their backs. But I think in a real sad way Hurricane Sandy is going to make this community even stronger and even better. I’m looking forward to those years.
Roma Ciofalo, Rockaway Beach.
I stayed by myself in my building during and after the storm, everybody else was gone. I saw everything through my window, all of the water that came through. I’ve lived here for 40 years, there’s never been anything like this. My family in Venice, Italy tried to call me. There was no phone. They thought I was dead.
There was so much paperwork afterwards. My neighbor who lived across the way, he helped me a lot with my papers, my social security, my insurance. This man for me, he was my friend. He helped me a lot. His daughter found him dead in his car, so now I have nobody. I cried for one month.
Volunteers brought me food everyday. I live on the sixth floor. They were very nice people. They brought me everything. They were a lot of help. They brought me soap, everything, I had nothing in the house. I can’t complain for nothing. A floor above, a Polish neighbor brought me food.
All the people complain about everything, but I can’t complain. I feel very sorry for people who lost their jobs. Over here in Rockaway, there are nice people. Everybody’s good. There are a lot of artists here.
In my building there are 12 families but everybody’s gone all day. They go to work all day and come home late at night. I’m alone but this is my home. To go shopping now, everything is still closed. It took three months to get the phone back.
On Sunday’s I have Italian cable television, I see the pope, my Italian pope. I see opera on my television and I enjoy it. I’m happy God has given to me everything I want. I can’t complain.
David King, Far Rockaway.
We’d stayed because we didn’t think it’d be that big of a deal. The water, it started to rise and it started to get higher and higher on the staircase. It was at our knees, our waist, and my mom said we can’t stay here because we’ll drown.
My adrenaline was really pumping. I was really in the mood of it. It made me scared. It made me really aware. It felt like I can’t get away from this, it’s like I don’t know what’s happening and it’s not like I can wake up from this.
Now, I feel okay because I’m a little older but it’s like a grudge because you won’t forget it. I cannot forget it. The storm, it’s like, I’ll always remember it. I remember all of the yelling. People, my mom, friends telling me pick this up, no put that down. Come this way, go that way, why are you crying, stop crying.
No matter how may years pass, it’s the scariest thing I had to go through.
Louisa Louis, Arverne.
Hurricane Sandy impacted us in a way that at first seemed to be a curse and then became a blessing. My husband opened a surf shop, Breakwater Surf Co, in July 2012. We lived in Harlem back then and we decided to move to Rockaway to be closer to the shop. We had a hard time finding a place, I was seven months pregnant and it was getting a little stressful. When it finally came time to sign our new lease, Sandy hit. We came back anyway to see what was going on and found there was a lot we could do.
We had a car. We found a lot of people getting together and since we had a car we were able to travel far and go door to door to hand out supplies, can goods, diapers, water. We couldn’t move into our new place because the building was shut down. After the storm we put the word out that we were ready to move here and we found a house, not an apartment—a house, and within a week we moved in.
I’ve never been happier. The store wasn’t so damaged. It had a little bit of water. What was a headache at the time turned out to be a blessing. If we’d moved to Rockaway when we were supposed to, we’d have been out of electricity for a long time. Now we have a house and there’s so much energy here.
My quality of life has gone up 100%. I am so much calmer. I’m from France and this is the lifestyle I’m used to. Wake up in the morning, open your windows, walk in your little garden, it’s the lifestyle I’ve been longing for since I’m pregnant. New York is great to hustle when you’re in your twenties and thirties. Personally, I need a better quality of life and Rockaway brings me that.
I see Rockaway as a blank canvas that’s just waiting to get painted. There’s so much that can be done. I’m studying photography and I have an idea to get to know your neighbors. I’d like to take pictures of this side of Rockaway and that side of Rockaway which are two very different sides and be like, “Hey we’re all in the same boat here, don’t judge until you get to know somebody.” If it’s taken in a different state of mind and not the way most of the way the world does things with casting, this could become a great community.
Of course Rockaway matters. It’s this beach that’s one hour away from 42nd street where you can surf, you can go in the water for free. It’s the A train, it’s right there! It could be the beach town of New York City. I’m French so when my friends come they say, “I can surf, I can go to the beach and go visit the Empire State Building on the same day, this is crazy.” It’s a big plus for New York.