Last night after the sun set, residents of Rockaway Park had a small celebration of all the hard work and progress that they have led with assistance from members of Occupy, Greenpeace and numerous dedicated volunteers.
Make no mistake, you will see no “Mission Accomplished” banner hanging above Beach 113th Street anytime soon–there are still many people in need of serious assistance and a massive amount of construction and cleanup needed before Far Rockaway looks anything like it did before Hurricane Sandy tore the area apart. Disturbingly, we’re hearing reports of body bags being quietly pulled from buildings where disabled and elderly folks have been left isolated.
But after two weeks of relentless hard work, there has been undeniable progress. There has been a reliable source of cooked food, water and supplies thanks to the work of rapid responders. For the last week we have seen the establishment of a stable clinic for doctors and medics to administer aid and organize outreach to ill residents stuck in their homes. The clinic is so successful that FEMA is referring residents to it.
Rockaway is still a disaster zone, but the people here have shown amazing resilience and determination, using incoming resources to meet the immediate needs of their neighbors. Last night, we finally reached a point where the community felt they could pause to celebrate their accomplishments and socialize with volunteers who have worked at their sides for two weeks.
And it felt really, really good to celebrate.
About 25 of us piled planks of wood from the destroyed boardwalk on the sand, lit up a bonfire and cracked open some cold drinks. People took the opportunity to learn about each others’ lives, the community of Rockaway, and the stories of responders who came in from around the country. There was a lot of laughter, a few honest tears, and some wonderful stories.
Campfire talk: Residents and Responders Share their Stories
There is a lot of poverty, homelessness and mental illness in this area, which frequently influences the stories told to me by Rockaway residents. They carry a strong sense of place, continually impressing me with accounts of the history, culture and diversity of the area as they know it.
A local man named Sweet explained some of Rockaway’s history to me. Apparently, the famous Rat Pack (as in Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., Dean Martin and co) still has a large parcel of land set aside in Far Rockaway for Casino development; casinos are not legal in New York, so the lot has been expectantly vacant for decades. Before Sweet moved to the area about 35 years ago, he explained how a couple freak storms and the development of housing projects in Far Rockaway led to an exodus of wealthy white people and an influx of the notably diverse community that now exists.
I talked with Benny, who has been instrumental in keeping the YANA (You Are Not Alone) community center running, about the birth of his second grandchild two weeks ago, about our religious convictions, and his necessary transition to survival mode after Sandy hit. Benny opened up about his own life in between cracking jokes that kept everybody smiling. He’s an amazing person, and there is no doubt that some survivors here are alive because of his tirelessness.
There are others I should mention who have also kept people alive. There’s Jessica, an anti-fracking, climate justice activist who has been a key player in the Rockaway recovery effort. There’s Sophia, a member of Occupy Sandy who was one of the first people here helping once the ocean receded. There’s Sal, who provided the enormous service of donating his building to become the original YANA.
I won’t mention everyone but scores of other people deserve recognition for their incredible work in Far Rockaway. These remarkable humans are heroic, though they do not see themselves as such and would never ask for such recognition.
True heroines and heroes never do.
Rockaway Residents Want Clean Energy
As we learn about what Rockaway Park is and what Rockaway has been, the people here are also telling us what they would like Far Rockaway to become.
The presence of our solar generating truck, the Rolling Sunlight, has got a lot of them thinking about how clean, renewable electricity could change the area in a great way. Beyond reducing Rockaway’s dependence on energy from fossil fuels contributing to climate change, a decentralized energy structure could increase the resilience of the community now that it is recovering from a disaster that scientists say was intensified by global warming.
Because of this potential, Greenpeace is working to bring more solar power to the Sandy recovery effort as I type. We’ll be sure to update you when it is established.
Until then, here are some shots of a few more community members and volunteers we’ve worked with on this incredible cleanup effort:
And while we have all found our moments of fun and humor, the reminders of the destruction are inescapable. Here is a short clip of the massive landfill where ruins from Sandy are being piled: