Following years of economic decline, poverty and a growing crime rate, the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens was finally on the mend. The blue-collar oceanfront community and once -popular summer resort had seen something of a revival over the last decade as new residential and commercial development dotted the shoreline. When surfing was legalized there in 2009, Rockaway Beach began attracting cool young twenty-somethings from nearby Williamsburg—The Ramones sang about it, after all—and as these tattooed, pierced and vintage-clad scenesters opened trendy shops and restaurants along the boardwalk, some even began calling it the “Hipster Hamptons.”
That was before Superstorm Sandy.
In late October, the massive tempest made landfall in the Rockaways and brought unimaginable devastation. The sea rose up and devoured hundreds of homes, winds ripped apart the landscape and a rash of fires and power outages continued to wreak havoc even after Sandy passed and dwindled away. More than 100 homes were lost to fires in the Breezy Point section of the peninsula; 50 blocks of boardwalk were torn asunder and crashed into beachfront residences during the storm; and local streets, homes and businesses were left under water. The storm took 11 lives in Queens alone, looting and break-ins were widespread and millions of gallons of partially treated sewage flooded into area waters. Three weeks later, the cleanup and humanitarian efforts have only just begun.
Had the 1,000-mile-wide storm taken a slightly different path, the horrors in the Rockaways could have easily happened on the East End and the real Hamptons instead. The destruction might have been even worse.
There but for the grace of God go I.
Perhaps because of this fact, a host of East End residents have adopted the Rockaways’ cause. Dozens of kind-hearted locals have been organizing collections and relief efforts for Sandy’s victims in Queens. Groups formed specifically for this purpose, including East End Cares and Occupy Sandy among them. As recently as November 19, East Hampton’s Main Beach Surf + Sport held a volunteer support trip to bring food, blankets and a busload of extra hands to help clean up the embattled fellow surfing community to the west.
East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson even got involved and cleaned out a section of Town Hall to use as a collection site for donations to East End Cares and the Rockaways. Similar primary EEC collection sites opened at the Montauk Community Church and the Omni in Southampton, and smaller operations popped up at homes and businesses all over the South Fork. Other proactive locals organized events to benefit East End Cares and Sandy’s victims on the Queens peninsula.
Using Facebook, EEC continues to share information about how to help storm victims, including volunteer trips, what equipment to bring, and how to navigate the disaster assistance process. The community response was so strong, they had to ask people to stop donating clothing.
The response from East Enders looking to help the Rockaways has been extraordinary. Sandy was no picnic on the Twin Forks, but the specter of what could have been is hard to ignore. A direct hit would be catastrophic, and these storms are becoming more frequent. It’s only a matter of time. Maybe the East End is paying it forward? It’s hard not to imagine volunteers thinking of their own homes as they scoop burnt, blackened and wet debris from the streets and structures in Rockaway.
“People have stared into the abyss by looking to our neighbors to the west,” Jeremy Samuelson, Executive Director of Concerned Citizens of Montauk said on Monday. The environmental advocate is currently pushing for improved natural buffers (dunes and wetlands) in Montauk and on the East End, as well as creating a smart reconstruction plan in the event of another calamitous storm. He said Montauk and the rest of the South Fork could face terrible devastation if a storm like Sandy hit a little closer to home. “I really hope people in our community are going to sit down and have an honest conversation.”
Melissa Berman of EEC acknowledged that the feeling that the East End dodged a bullet has definitely played a part in the phenomenal response to the Rockaways. She pointed out that many East Enders have connections to the most affected communities, whether they grew up there, surfed there or spent summers on the Queens beaches. She said the East End community is very altruistic and has displayed abundant compassion. “The outpouring has been overwhelming, as has the initiative people have taken to just get in there and find ways to help. No one is sitting around waiting, our East End community knows how to get things done—it has been awe inspiring to watch.”