The Power of Sports

The storm struck on a Monday night and along with the countless homes, endless garbage and unsuspecting automobiles, the rush of water eroded away any sense of normalcy for those in its path. In Long Beach, the westernmost of the outer barrier islands off Long Island’s South Shore, the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the community was swift and lasting. Recovery is ongoing though one year later, the impact that sports has had on the city’s healing process is salient.

“When everything was down, sports and activity among our citizens was without a doubt the common bond that brought everyone together just a little bit,” said Bob Piazza, commissioner of Parks and Recreation for the city of Long Beach.

Sports are nondiscriminant. Within the realm of fandom or participation, they can transcend race, religion and socioeconomic class – it’s an equalizer, and especially in times of hardship, sports can facilitate a common bonding among the community.

“There is a tendency for people to be inclined to gravitate to sports in a time of crisis because it’s something familiar,” said Jon Spaventa, a sports psychology professor at UC Santa Barbara. “It is something familiar that we know, it makes us feel good and provides a balance to the chaos that surrounds us.”

In the direct aftermath of the storm, sports were hardly on the mind of Long Beach residents. Locating loved ones and acquiring power, food and running water lingered as the primary concerns among the community for several months.

“It was just so sad here,” said Eileen Morris, a 17-year Long Beach resident and mother of four children. “It was extremely tough for each of us individually but we also knew we were not alone.”

Nestled onto the coast of Long Beach Barrier Island, just south of Long Island, the Long Beach boardwalk was ravaged by Superstorm Sandy (Photo by Tisi-Kramer)

Nestled onto the coast of Long Beach Barrier Island, just south of Long Island, the Long Beach boardwalk was ravaged by Superstorm Sandy (Photo by Tisi-Kramer)

Almost two weeks after Sandy hit, power was restored to many homes that remained salvageable. The Morris family, more fortunate than most, was able to return to its home in six weeks. Schools opened roughly three weeks later, and most kids were back in class within a month or two. The boardwalk, along with virtually every athletic facility in the city, was destroyed – save for one. An ice skating rink remained intact, and was consequently put to good use.

“We melted the ice on the rink down and converted it to a donation center,” described Piazza. “People were bringing goods to donate, FEMA set up shop on the second floor, it sort of became our city hall for a time.”

Other facilities were also put to good, if untraditional, use. Long Beach had lost a hospital close to the ocean, washed away in the flood. Described by Piazza as “surreal,” the community’s baseball fields soon became a makeshift, army-style hospital as helicopters whirred by continuously, landing with supplies for months.

As he watched his job description evolve into a provider and facilitator of urgent care and aid to his constituency, Piazza still returned home at night and couldn’t help but look to the future, when it would soon be time to slowly rebuild the community through parks and recreation. Piazza, a lifelong Long Beach-er who began his career at the city’s recreation department in 1978, understood where priorities subsisted – 13 of his 17 full-time staff members lost their homes – though longed for an impending return to normalcy.

That moment came when, more than three months later in mid-February, Piazza was able to organize sporting activities for the first time. The response was remarkable. On Sundays, hundreds of kids and parents showed up at the gymnasium, where basketball, dodgeball, yoga and various other activities were simultaneously conducted. Piazza greeted residents at the door, receiving hugs from those in the community, some of which he had never even met.

“It was very emotional,” said Piazza. “For a few hours you could kind of forget what happened, and just enjoy playing and each other’s company.”

The Morris family found solace in different ways: “You had a place to go, and the kids were having fun and laughing and doing something normal – just figuring out a way to deal. It was important for the parents too – it provided a break and a chance to talk about what happened, how they were dealing with their insurance company and how they were coping.”

The path for a return to normalcy in Long Beach was littered with efforts to restart and maintain its youth sports. In the high school cafeteria, volleyball and wrestling teams practiced, as the gymnastics team took to the hallway. Football teams were bussed around the city to usable facilities, and donations of new equipment poured in from former professional athletes. It was sports, by any means necessary.

A member of the Long Beach High School marching band prepares to march down the boardwalk during its reopening ceremony on October 25 (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

A member of the Long Beach High School marching band prepares to march down the boardwalk during its reopening ceremony on October 25, 2013. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

Now, a year later, most recreational facilities are up and running. Restorations to the local Long Beach high school are ongoing, though should be finished soon. The gym opened in February, which allowed older residents a chance to exercise again. Spring activities, including adult softball leagues and youth soccer, began a bit late, though were a success. Outdoor basketball hoops were ready in time for summer, and the pool and locker room were recently reopened in September, to great community response. The 2.2 mile-long boardwalk was repaired and officially reopened last week in what was a celebratory community event.

Though the majority of athletic facilities have been restored, the community at large is still recovering. Damages from Sandy have reached the billions and several homes in Long Beach remain uninhabitable. Concerns include a lack of insurance money for proper home repairs, endless paperwork and red tape, as well as the stress that comes with such a tragedy. The recovery process is incomplete, yet enduring. In the meantime, sports will continue to provide for a rebuilding community.