Disasterology 2: hard questions for Breezy Point homeowners a year after Sandy
For survivors of Superstorm Sandy in the U.S. Northeast, the Sendai tsunami in Japan and the massive earthquake in Chengdu, China, the scars of disaster are still palpable. I’m part of a group of journalists brought together by the East-West Center in Hawaii to see how the people and environments hit by these catastrophes are faring, one year, two years and five years later. We began our tour on Sept. 29. Here are the other posts in the series:
- Storm warnings that work — a lesson from Sandy
- Learning to shout after the Fukushima disaster
- Disaster Candy in Japan
- When the high ground isn’t high enough
- Signs of commerce return to “The Town That Disappeared”
- Earthquake-scarred Sichuan village reimagined as tourist hub, memorial
- A panda baby boom, five years after Sichuan earthquake
Breezy Point, Queens, New York:
Of all the New York oceanfront communities that Sandy devastated, Breezy Point on the Rockaway peninsula took some of the hardest blows. Breezy Point, a peninsula on the southern shores of New York City, suffered not just from rain and flooding from the storm surge, but also a fast-moving fire that destroyed 125 homes. The storm knocked down another 230. One year later, the neighborhood is struggling with the aftermath and hard questions about how sustainable it will be after the rebuilding.
On some streets, only the concrete foundations of houses remain. Others are completely gone, leaving nothing but weedy vacant lots in their place. This month, construction crews blanketed the neighborhood as builders put together new structures where the old one-story bungalows used to be.
Mike Schramm, editor of The Rockaway Point newspaper and a volunteer firefighter, recalled for a group of visiting reporters the hellish scene where firefighters were kept from the flames because the burning homes were surrounded by water four feet deep. “It was terrible to just watch it go,” Schramm told the visiting journalists studying New York’s recovery efforts.
The Rockaways have traditionally been home to modest one-story bungalows, and some survived Sandy. But those who rebuild on this vulnerable barrier island are building bigger, and building higher. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency requires new construction in this area to have living space 12 feet (almost 4 meters) above sea level, and the old homes sat on land about four feet above sea level, Schramm said. The new structures sit at the top of a flight of outdoor steps, with storage space and garages where the old front doors used to be.
One resident, Lucy Sanchez, remembers riding out the storm in her home one long block from the beach. Instead of trying to keep the flood out, she and her husband Jose opened the back door and let the water come in the front and out the back. It meant they had about one foot of water in their first floor, but not more. They rebuilt, a bit higher, with a new wooden deck and a flourishing herb garden.
Commerce is coming back, slowly. The local Key Food supermarket’s sign still says “Key Fo,” with the errant second “o” and “d” long gone. The former Harbor Light Pub is a vacant lot surrounded by a plywood fence.
There’s a big “Open for Business” sign on the Thai Rock restaurant, which sits on the Jamaica Bay side of the Rockaway peninsula, in the shadow of the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge. Closed after Sandy and reopened in a limited way in May, the restaurant serves customers on its outdoor deck while workers paint, plaster and install fixtures inside.
While the bar survived Sandy, the kitchen didn’t, according to co-owners Bob and Metta Kaskel. Chef Karog Rangsiratanakul makes do with a gas grill, a pair of giant coolers and a beach umbrella for shade on a summer-like autumn day.
Bob Kaskel said his business sustained $1.5 million in damage, for which he has been compensated $17,000 so far. He clearly loves the setting, and plans to bring Thai Rock back to full operation, but he acknowledges the challenges of doing business on a shifting sand: “Forget about my place, how can any place survive here?”
(Photos of Breezy Point and the Rockaways, and Karog Rangsiratanakul by Deborah Zabarenko/Reuters)