Hope and Despair in Far Rockaway, Queens


     FAR ROCKAWAY, N.Y. (CN) – “It’s true either way,” a young man said, staring at graffiti on the remains of a racquetball wall by the ruined boardwalk in the storm-ravaged Rockaways: the original message, “No Hope,” had been altered to “Hope Always.”
     His friend said he was thinking of moving out after living in the area for seven years, as he doubted the area would recover.
     “I came here to be close to the beach, but not this close,” he said.
     More than 100 homes burned down at Breezy Point, on the southern end of the Rockaways, where police have set up a checkpoint to keep out people without resident IDs.
     Rockaway Beach Boulevard, to the north, was a jumble of fallen trees, downed power lines, damaged houses and stranded cars last weekend.
     Vehicles were abandoned in the meridian, and in one case, staked on a wrought-iron fence on a front lawn.
     Far Rockaway is in southeast Queens, on Long Island’s Rockaway peninsula.
     David Selig, the owner of Rockaway Taco, said the shoulder-height piles of clumped dirt and wet sand on the curbs show signs of progress clearing the boulevard.
     But the layers of slippery sand on the road remain treacherous for travelers.
     “The boardwalk is missing from the mid-80s to the mid-100s,” Selig said. “Clearly, the ocean is telling us the boardwalk doesn’t make sense. The pylons survived, and to me, they’re reminiscent of the arrogance of man in history.”
     Dressed in pale yellow protective gear, Selig helped clear and dry out houses through relief efforts organized by Occupy Wall Street and 350.org, an environmental group named after a carbon emissions goal to combat global warming.
     Those groups coordinate work about 10 sites in the Rockaways, including the Veggie Island kitchen, two doors down from Selig’s taco stand.
     Red Cross, FEMA, and police and fire department vehicles whizzed past the grassroots relief stations, and military helicopters and National Guard Humvees guarded the perimeter of the island.
     Selig said he appreciated their work there.
     “The streets, though dark and abandoned, had some human presence, some authority, some control,” he said.
     “I have to say that I’m impressed because they flew people in from all over the country to make us feel calm and less stressed.”
     Hundreds of emergency vehicles have been parked at nearby Floyd Bennett Field, across Jamaica Bay from the Rockaways.
     Workers putting in long hours brushed their teeth and shaved inside restrooms at the once-active Navy air base.
     Performance poet Scott Tarazevits, traveling with a reporter, slammed his chin on the pavement after his bicycle hit a pothole outside the base. He went around the corner for medical help from a FEMA worker flown in from Colorado, but had to leave untreated.
     The EMT said she worked until 3 that morning helping to evacuate Shore View nursing home in Brooklyn, where nearly 300 seniors were taken out in stretchers and wheelchairs after power failed Thursday.
     “She was very accommodating all the way through, willing to help until her superior came,” Tarazevits said. “The guy who came up said she basically had to fill out paperwork, and call 911, and have me taken to the emergency room, if necessary.”
     Tarazevits did not feel injured enough to take up hospital space needed for hurricane victims, and headed back to his Harlem apartment by bus and subway.
     “The aid should be reserved by those who were affected by the storm,” he said. “If I were bleeding from within, I’m sure I would have been given immediate assistance.” Selig, the taco stand owner, said community groups have been nimbler at offering casual assistance, but that the heavy government presence in the area made their work possible.
     “We wouldn’t have the calmer type of community approach able to happen here if it weren’t for the law and order that was established right away,” he said. “We’d all be a little under duress, a little distrustful and it’s made it a lot easier for people to come up to other people and say, ‘How can I help you?'”
     Two elderly men from Surfside Manor Home for Adults, a senior center across the street, sat on wooden stools outside Veggie Island, waiting for coffee that volunteers were brewing.
     “Yes, warm coffee!” one of the men, Hank, said on the chilly afternoon.
     “One thing you’ve gotta say about New Yorkers, we do stick together. We kill each other, but when there’s problems, with nature, with the train, whatever, we stick like glue. But once it’s over, back to killing each other.”
     Catherine Yaeger, who coordinates volunteers at Veggie Island, said she’s gone through a “learning curve” as she helped people in the community.
     Yeager, who lives in the Rockaways, moved there in March to live in a bungalow, and waited out the storm near her house in an apartment on a high floor.
     “It was horrifying,” she said. “It was 20 mph winds rushing down with water level coming up to 5 feet out the window, the boardwalk going by out the window. The next day it was total devastation. I’ve never seen anything like it.
     “My volunteering began with just needing stuff myself, needing to clean up my home, looking at my neighbors and friends that I made down here that I fell in love with.”
     She said Veggie Island served hot meals for the first time Friday morning, and people came up “in droves and droves and droves.”
     “We’re learning right now how to organize it better, so that one person doesn’t get 20 cans of food,” she said.
     At first, they focused on cleaning her bungalow and helping others pump out their basements.
     “The electricity in Rockaway can’t be turned back on until all the basements are pumped out,” she said. “We really need winter clothing. This is across the board.”
     She said that need became more urgent with a nor’easter predicted to hit the East Coast on Election Day, and reach New York City the following night.

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