New York – Before Hurricane Sandy swept through the Rockaways last October, it was not as united community. Wealth inequality, drugs and mental health issues have plagued the troubled neighborhood for years.
“People didn’t want to be in Far Rockaway, Rockaways didn’t deserve to be preserved,” said Ciro Timmons, a resident, who evacuated when the storm hit.
But when Timmons came back the following day, he was touched. “When I went to my apartment, there was a bag of food hanging on my knob,” he said. No one knew who sent the food, but it was just the beginning. More and more volunteers, local organizations descended upon the area and offered help whatever they can. “At that moment, I had made the decision to stay here in Far Rockaway and build a community,” Timmons said.
The storm was particularly disastrous across the Rockaway Peninsula, which accounted for nine of the 48 total citywide deaths. Across the five boroughs, storm-related fires destroyed 200 homes and businesses, 175 of those were in the Rockaways. Overall, more than 15,000 people were impacted by the storm on the peninsula, according to the city’s Community Rebuilding and Resiliency Plans.
A year later on Oct. 27, about 3,000 Rockaway residents joined hands across the sand on Rockaway Beach to commemorate the anniversary of the storm.
The “Rockaway Rising” event, initiated and organized by resident Lily Corcoran through a Facebook group, is not only a chance to heal the storm-scarred residents, but also an opportunity to turn the devastation of the storm into a positive moment. “[Sandy] made us tighter and closer, like a family,” said Corcoran. “That’s why we can make it through the first year.”
The Rockaway Peninsula was one of the mandatory evacuation zones, however, many of the residents are elderly making evacuation difficult or didn’t have the resources to leave. For people who didn’t evacuat, they lived without heat and light for about nine weeks after the storm. “No Red Cross, no government,” said the resident Liliana Turner. “We got help not immediately I have to tell.”
“No body show up,” said Corcoran. “The only thing we can do is to help ourselves.” After the storm, Corcoran went to the disaster center several times a day, brought supplies and delivered them to seniors house. “Because I knew that they couldn’t get it by themselves.”
Not only the individuals, but also groups and organizations joined into the rescue. YANA (You Are Never Alone), a community-based organization became a hub for community recovery after the storm. The organization immediately collaborated with Occupy Sandy and Greenpeace, which offered solar power services to the neighborhood. YANA organized volunteers and other outside help to provide food, flashlights, batteries, coats, clothing and diapers. They even helped residents access alternative sources of electricity.
“We fed a thousand people a day,” said Salvatore Lopizzo, the Director of YANA.
One of the volunteers, Victoria Barber, came to the Rockaways from Florida 10 days after the hurricane to help her family and other residents rebuild the community. “The first place that I unloaded my truck was YANA,” Barber said. She got hot meals and other supplies from relief centers in Brooklyn and other areas of Queens, and brought them back to the Rockaways. “Whenever my truck was empty, wherever I went, it will be filled back again.”
Eight months later, Barber decided to stay permanently, buying a house in the Rockaways. “[Sandy] changed our decision to be closer to our family,” said Barber. “It also changed the way we felt about the community.” Barber felt that the storm erased the boundaries between the rich and poor. “People became neighbors in a way that they hadn’t been neighbors before,” she explained.
After the storm, some residents moved to other neighborhoods, however, the majority of residents chose to stay and rebuild their homes. “This is our first home, we worked so hard to get it,” said Liliana Turner, who came to the U.S. seven years ago and bought her first house with her husband on Beach 62St. When the storm hit the Rockaways, it was their first year living here. “Imagine, after you get what you want, you don’t want to give it away,” said Turner. “So, we decide to stay. We love Rockaway.”