Monday, Nov. 5, 2012 — One Week After Sandy
“Welcome to Washed-Away,” Tom Burke says, sitting shotgun as his cousin Jessica Taylor drives her Jeep over the Marine Parkway Bridge from Brooklyn to the Rockaways.
Jessica, twenty-one, turns toward Jacob Riis Park, where the parking lot is now a massive garbage dump. Scores of seagulls circle overhead. Her father, Billy Taylor, watches from the back seat as they pass the dump, currently growing by hundreds of feet every day as the Department of Sanitation gradually removes the trash heaps that still remain in front of most houses.
There are flashing lights from emergency vehicles in every direction. The Jeep zigzags through sand-covered side streets, passing military Humvees and National Guard trucks, slowing down at intersections because traffic lights don’t work. Jessica drops the men at Billy’s apartment on Beach 124th Street, says goodbye, and drives toward a service station in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, to spend a few hours waiting in line for gas.
Tom, thirty-four, and Billy, forty-eight, are readying for another long day of what they’ve been doing since Hurricane Sandy washed Billy out of this apartment a week ago. They’re let inside by Billy’s second cousin, Jake Taylor of Portland, Pennsylvania, who’s driven here in a truck carrying expensive equipment from his father’s heating-and-cooling business, Super Heat, Inc. They’ll use it to pump water out of Rockaway residents’ basements—free of charge. Tom’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing since his sisters advertised the service in public Facebook posts that ended up going viral, garnering tens of thousands of likes and shares.
“Church basement—eight feet of water,” Tom tells Jake as he answers the door.
“Hoo-rah,” Jake answers in a deep military grunt.
Jake is only nineteen, but he towers over his elder relatives. He slept here in Billy’s cold, powerless apartment last night to guard the equipment while Billy and Jessica stayed with Tom and his mother in Marine Park, Brooklyn, where there is power. Jake has brought his girlfriend along because he doesn’t know when he’ll return to Pennsylvania.
It’s around 10 a.m. Time to go.
The devastation in the Rockaways has been widely reported, but now, a week after the storm, it’s only possible to fully comprehend in person. While most New Yorkers are returning to normalcy, there’s still no power here. As the temperature drops, many continue without heat and hot water. Countless houses are beyond salvation. Cars do not start. At night, gunshots erupt and looters pillage. At the beach, the famous wooden boardwalk has been reduced to a mountain of splintered planks. The military presence, the tent city set up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the abundance of police make the area feel like a war zone. Air Force planes fly overhead.
“I try not to say it around everybody, but this is Ground Zero on a massive scale,” says Tom, a Marine Corps veteran who is wearing his camouflage combat pants over pink polka-dot boots. An LED lamp is wrapped around his winter cap.
Tom was in fact at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. He was on his way into work—a carpentry job for his dad’s construction outfit at Borough of Manhattan Community College on West Broadway—when the planes hit. In the aftermath, instead of turning the other way, he rushed into the dust-covered chaos of Lower Manhattan to search for his father and friends. Tom volunteered—“shovels and buckets,” he says—over the subsequent weeks.
More than a decade later, Tom is now a cook. This past summer, he worked at the beach concession stands “out here with the hipsters,” as he says.
“Rockaway was right on the cusp of revitalization with the hipsters coming through,” Tom says, referring to the many young, non-native Rockaway residents who recently moved to the peninsula to surf, work on the boardwalk, and start businesses and co-ops selling things like skateboards and organic food. The bulk of that boardwalk now sits in a pile of rubble nearby.
When Sandy arrived, Tom had just landed a job at the Jumpin’ Bean, a new restaurant in Sheepshead Bay, a nearby Brooklyn neighborhood. The building got damaged beyond repair in the storm.
En route to the First Congregational Church on Beach 94th Street, Billy rides in Jake’s truck, and Tom goes with Neil Rowe, fifty, a friend who lives near the elevated train tracks on Rockaway Beach Boulevard. His home is visible from the church.
Neil has lived there for twenty-two years, working as a mechanic at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Spring Creek bus depot in Brooklyn. He’s only been able to get to work since the storm because he remembered to fill his truck up with gas beforehand.
“I’ve been crying,” Neil says. “Tom, you know how rough I am. Bawling.”
They arrive at the church, where Billy, conversely, is smiling (he is always smiling, Neil says) because there’s good news: only four feet of water remain to be pumped out. The water is actually in the basement of the house next door, where Pastor Joe Medlin lives.
“We did hold service yesterday at eleven o’clock,” says Pastor Joe, thirty-six. “We had twelve folks here for worship service, so that was great, giving folks hope that we’re going to move forward.”
The crew sets up the pumps, capable of removing six-thousand gallons of water per hour. Tubes get connected, generators are turned on, a giant air compressor is activated, and soon enough, the whiz-bang of the pumps fills the air as they vacuum water out of Pastor Joe’s basement. A small lake begins to form in a ditch outside.
“I don’t donate to the Red Cross because I do shit like this,” Tom says. He’s beaten the Red Cross and FEMA to these flooded basements, while those organizations deal with the logistical nightmare that is widespread disaster relief.
Jake is the leader of the pumping operation, despite his youth. He’s the type of dude who could get dropped in the middle of a wild forest, survive, and build a house.
“This isn’t that bad of a gig,” says Jake, whose father has always sent him to do the worst jobs for Super Heat. “I have a place to stay that isn’t my pickup, and I’m with my family.”
Jake lumbers around the yard, barking out orders. His girlfriend, Shelby, who never speaks to anyone except Jake, looks on adoringly, and every time he passes her on his way to the pickup truck, he swoops in and kisses her.
Walking back to the house, Jake expresses his annoyance at FEMA. “I just see them camping out, having a fuckin’ bonfire,” he says as he prepares to fix the water pump.
Pastor Joe and his fiancée have been staying with friends in Forest Hills, Queens. He’s been overwhelmed by the kindness people have shown, repeatedly thanking Tom, Billy, and the others for their help.
“It’s because of people like them that we will move forward,” Pastor Joe says.
Tom seems to know everyone in Rockaway. Even strangers say hello. Tom asks about their homes and families and checks their basements for water. The people here have a clan mentality, Tom says—Rockaway is often called the “Irish Riviera”—and the many Irish-Catholic policemen, firefighters, and union laborers have imbued the area with a proud lower-middle-class work ethic. There are also many military veterans, and American flags fly from houses on almost every block.
Neil says Rockaway is the “Sixth Borough.” Indeed, it is geographically isolated from the rest of New York, and its culture seems distinct, even in über-diverse Queens.
“They don’t call it Far Rockaway for nothing,” Neil says. “When you’re in Rockaway, you’re far from everything.”
Tom and others acknowledge that living so close to the water presents a risk. But he describes a “thickheaded” mentality—everyone knew a storm like this would eventually happen, but nobody wanted to believe it. After Hurricane Irene wasn’t as strong as advertised in 2011, many didn’t take Sandy seriously.
“When a wave comes, we’re grabbing our surfboards,” Tom says as he walks back to the church. “But I don’t think anyone had time to grab a surfboard this time.” Instead, people swam out of their houses when the surge hit.
Back at the church, Billy Taylor is still smiling, belying his recognition of how rough the situation is. A few trusted employees are keeping things running at his auto accessory store in Bay Ridge while he helps out here. When he can get his phone to work, Billy fields business-related calls between water-pumping stops.
He says he admires the work of city sanitation employees and wishes people would realize that it will take FEMA workers weeks to “muster.” But once they do, Billy says, their help will be essential, because, after all, it will take years to rebuild this place.
“The reality is it’s gonna be a cold winter,” Billy says. “I’m not willing to move yet. I’m still in denial.”
Even though his own apartment on Beach 124th Street was flooded, Billy was the one who had the idea for this volunteer water-pumping project. He mobilized his family and arranged for the equipment to get to New York, always looking to solve problems like the businessman he is.
“We point people in the direction of hope rather than the direction of despair,” he says. “If we get them dry, they can begin the process of cleaning.”
Billy also wants to show his daughter Jessica—who came back from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, where she is a senior studying biology, to help with the recovery—the importance of coming together and helping neighbors.
“You’re never gonna see that kind of outreach unless you’re in the middle of a shitstorm,” Billy says.
Over the next few hours, the temperature dips below forty degrees. Neil drives to Thursby Avenue, and Tom kicks out the windows of a basement filled with fetid sewer water so he can get the pumping tubes down there. A neighbor stops by to ask if anyone can do something about the tree that’s leaning on her house and cracking her ceiling. Five minutes later, Jake is walking toward the house with a chainsaw resting on his shoulder and his free hand locked in his girlfriend’s. He brings the tree down with swift ease.
“God bless you!” the neighbor tells him, over and over.
As the crew continues pumping, Jessica arrives with a stack of pizzas and to say goodbye—she has a flight back to Cleveland at eight p.m., and she’s cutting it close. She has a class tomorrow morning, but asks how she’s supposed to pretend physics matters at a time like this.
It gets colder and darker as Jessica gets on her way to LaGuardia Airport, again traveling over the Marine Parkway Bridge. Back in Rockaway, her father Billy is using the generators to set up lights, so pumping can continue into the night. As she drives, Jessica says she secretly wants to miss her flight. It’s better to be here than in Cleveland, with no way to know what’s happening at home, where the cell-phone service is still spotty.
Jessica says how wonderful it’s been to see all the volunteers rushing to help, but she also worries, echoing something Neil said earlier:
“Right now, people are giving. But come back in a few weeks.”
Monday, Nov. 19, 2012 — Three Weeks After Sandy
Tom Burke stops in the early afternoon at one of his favorite local bars, Rogers Irish Tavern on Beach 116th Street. The white-haired owner, Richie Rogers, appears, sipping on a Heineken. He gives Tom a beer from the cooler; though the bar is still unable to open, he’s been offering beer to passersby without charging. The bar has been in Richie’s family since 1919. There have been two fires in that time, but he says the storm was “ten times worse.”
Like virtually every other local business here, Richie was unable to get flood insurance because his bar is so close to the water. Richie says he has no idea what the storm will mean for his future.
“It’s all question marks,” he says.
Rockaway is struggling to regain a sense of normalcy. Though myriad problems remain, most basements are now relatively dry, so the volunteer water-pumping operation is over. (Tom estimates that he, his family and friends pumped out at least one-hundred houses over the course of two weeks.) Billy and Neil are working regularly again. Jake briefly returned to Pennsylvania, but came back when a few building managers hired Super Heat to provide power, remove debris and repair damages.
Tom, though, doesn’t have a job because the storm destroyed the restaurant where he’d started working just a week beforehand. So he travels from his mother’s house in nearby Marine Park—where he’d been living before the storm—to help in Rockaway however he can, getting only $150 per week in unemployment money from his summer cooking job on the boardwalk. He’s hung out in Rockaway since he was a teenager and feels a special connection to the place.
Rockaway looks and feels like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. Fires hit the Belle Harbor area in the Beach 130s, where former homes, shops and restaurants are now only piles of brick and wood. Entire commercial strips are completely empty. The streets are still caked with sand and mud. Portable toilets are set up on corners and in shopping plazas.
Some lucky businesses have gotten power back and are open, which makes things look even weirder: Tom, walking down Beach 116th Street, has to yell to be heard above roaring generators, enormous trucks and emergency sirens as he passes closed shop after closed shop, and then, suddenly, there’s a nail salon, everything inside looking normal.
Tom decides to call on a friend. Rochelle Grubb stands in her bungalow on Beach 101st Street near the elevated tracks of the A train, which is still not running here and probably won’t again until the summer. The walls of Rochelle’s little one-story house have caved in, allowing all the rooms to be seen from the front entrance.
Rochelle, forty, wears a Rockaway Beach hat with a shamrock on it. She teaches children with autism at P.S. 256 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. She and her husband fled their bungalow during the storm, wading through waist-high water and arriving at Rochelle’s parents’ house on Beach 131st, where they have been staying since, with only the wet clothes on their backs and their two cats raised above the waves. They stay on the second floor; the first floor and basement are destroyed there, too. Rochelle, like many others, got a FEMA check for $2,945, but she doesn’t quite know what to do with it.
“I never leave for any hurricane,” Rochelle says. “I was in the bar for Irene.”
Thursday, Nov. 29, 2012 — One Month After Sandy
The streets of Rockaway are mostly empty at night. Power is still coming back slowly. Streetlights on some stretches of Rockaway Beach Boulevard are working; others are not. Some blocks would still be pitch-dark if not for mobile streetlamps powered by generators; others have houses fully decorated with Christmas lights. Rogers Irish Tavern is back open and full of thirsty patrons; other bars are still closed.
In a large white tent in a yard on Beach 96th Street, Tom stands at a microphone with a tiny book in his hand, as a drummer pounds out a funky beat behind him. He’s reciting a poem that he wrote. Most of what he’s saying is difficult to understand, as the drums are very loud, but a few lines rise above the rest:
I could have, I would have, but I didn’t,
but had I, would things be different?
I know we’d still be here.
Tom is a bit drunk. Two people, also drunk, dance in an open space in front of the guitars and amplifiers.
This is the Rockaway Artists Alliance’s open mic event, held every Thursday night. Tonight it’s held in the tent because the National Park Service still hasn’t inspected the Alliance’s gallery at nearby Fort Tilden park for mold damage. Tom is glad they found a substitute venue; he says the jam sessions have provided people with some relief from post-Sandy problems.
About forty people come in and out of the tent throughout the evening, helping themselves to sixteen-ounce Bitburger beers and twelve-ounce Dale’s Pale Ales. Generators power the lights and the large heat lamps that keep the tent a bit warmer than outside, where it is in the low thirties. The crowd is a mix of old-school Rockaway residents and newcomers.
Geoff Rawling, the former president of the Artists Alliance, is a longtime Rockaway guy, but he’s quick to praise the Rockaway hipsters, whose storm-relief efforts he describes as “phenomenal.” Some of them are here tonight. A lot of Rockaway natives view them as invaders, but Geoff is glad everyone has come together after the hurricane.
Matthew Calender, twenty-eight, skinny and long-haired, is just the sort of person who would be labeled a hipster-invader: He’s originally from Attica, New York, near Buffalo; he moved to New York City for “a girl,” he bartended at the now-destroyed Low Tide Bar on the boardwalk over the summer, and he’s involved with the local organic co-ops.
Matthew is responsible for the tent where the jam session is taking place. During the day, it’s a post-Sandy distribution center, which Matthew fostered through smallwater, a volunteer organization he founded with some other “hipsters” after the storm.
“It just grew into this huge thing,” Matthew says as a band inside the tent plays a cover of The Surfaris’ “Wipe Out.”
When Tom called and asked if the Artists Alliance could use the tent for the jam session, Matthew says, the answer was “absolutely.” Patti Smith, the legendary punk musician, performed in the tent on Thanksgiving Day during a feast the volunteers prepared. She had bought a bungalow in the Rockaways earlier this year.
Neil Rowe, Tom’s friend from the volunteer pumping operation, shows up at the tent with his twenty-two-year-old son. Neil is “still in shock.” His Rockaway apartment remains without power, so he’s in the awkward position of having to stay with his soon-to-be ex-wife in Five Towns in Nassau County.
“I’m worn out,” Neil says as he sips a bottled root beer. He says the Thursday open mics help to keep him going.
At the microphone, a retired (and evidently drunk) firefighter screams over a heavily overdriven guitar and a thumping drum kit.
“I don’t know why the fuck I’m in Rockaway!” he bellows with a crazy grin, and then he repeats, over and over: “I’m in fucking Rockaway!”
This garners wild cheers and laughter from the assembled.
“It’s gonna be alright,” Neil says. “We’re gonna have a nice summer.”
“The beach is gonna be fuckin’ jammed,” Tom adds. “It’s all good.”
Monday, Dec. 17, 2012 — Seven Weeks After Sandy
Rockaway residents called Tom Burke a hero as he and his family pumped water out of their basements, but he hasn’t always been viewed that way.
He tells the story of his low point as he sits at his mother’s kitchen table in Marine Park. It was Dec. 20, 2000, and Tom was at Roadhouse, a bar in TriBeCa, for a holiday party with co-workers. At the time, he was on active reserve with the Marines while doing carpentry jobs for his father nearby.
Tom had just gone through a bad breakup. He got “hammered” at the party and ended up having words with his father, who was also drunk. Tom angrily stormed out of the bar.
“I leave, and I’m wound up,” Tom continues, sipping coffee. “And I’m walking to my truck in the parking lot and see these two guys on the corner. As I approached them, one of them says, ‘What the fuck are you looking at?’
“I’m already in fight mode in my head. So I hooked off and I hit the one [who hadn’t said anything], and the guy dropped immediately.”
Tom, who fled the scene, didn’t find out until the next morning that the man—Neil Eddleson, thirty-nine, of Sheepshead Bay—died from the blow. Tom turned himself in on Christmas Eve and eventually pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide, a Class E felony. He served three years in state prison, from 2002 to 2005.
“It was an unfortunate fuckin’ accident,” Tom says. “I’ll live with that for the rest of my life.”
Tom moved into Billy’s apartment when he got out of prison. That’s when Geoff Rawling and the Artists Alliance came into the picture. Geoff, whom Billy had commissioned to paint a mural at his truck and auto shop, took to Tom and let him do carpentry for the group. Tom says he was never interested in art when he was growing up, but after he took some Artists Alliance classes in painting and photography, he now tries everything from spoken-word poetry to sculpture. Art became a positive force in his life. But he is still haunted by that night in 2000.
“I sat in front of the parole board and told them straight up, ‘You can keep me here three years; keep me here forever. There’s nothing that you people can do to me that I don’t do to myself one-hundred times worse every day,’” Tom says. “Every day I wake up with Neil Eddleson. Every day.”
Tom was told not to return to the Marines after his arrest. But he speaks fondly of his military experience, during which he never saw combat, and believes he was a good soldier. He thinks the service cultivated the spirit he would apply to his relief work later in life, after 9/11 and after Sandy.
“There’s an old commercial for the Marines that says, ‘There are people who run toward it and there are people who run from it.’ I have always run toward that shit, even before the service,” Tom says. “It’s in my nature, I guess.”
Tom believes he is a very different person now than he was at that TriBeCa bar that unfortunate night.
“I’m OK with who I am,” he says, his sister Jenna listening nearby. “I very readily tell anybody that I would not hang out with the young man that I was.”
Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013 — Seventy-Five Days After Sandy
Hundreds of people crowd the corner of Rockaway Beach Boulevard and Beach 112th Street at 9:30 a.m. on a cloudy day. They’re here to march to the beach, proceed to Beach 130th Street, and hold a rally.
Congress still hasn’t passed the $60 billion Sandy relief bill. Local residents and politicians such as Congressman Gregory Meeks, whose district includes the whole Rockaway peninsula, repeatedly chant, “Pass that bill!” Television cameras document the action.
The bill will ultimately pass, but Rockaway locals are outraged that Congress has taken so long, and many are skeptical about whether the bill will yield real results. Sixty-billion dollars is a huge amount, but everyone wonders when, how, and where that money will appear.
Tom’s friend Rochelle Grubb is here, again wearing her Rockaway Beach shamrock hat. She says her parents’ house on Beach 131st Street, where she fled after the storm destroyed her home on Beach 101st, has to be demolished because its foundation is compromised. Rochelle wants to build another house on the same property, and she’s secured $20,000 from FEMA, but she says she needs $175,000 to complete the project.
Beyond the anger at Congress, though, everyone seems to be in good spirits. The rally is a reunion of sorts; many people who have been displaced haven’t seen neighborhood friends over the past two-and-a-half months. Volunteers hand out pulled-pork sandwiches and cupcakes. A singer belts out “New York, New York.” But all the while, cleanup crews fill wheelbarrows with dirt and debris at the still-ravaged houses behind the rally.
After the rally, Tom visits Justin Werner, fifty-five, whose Newport Avenue house was the first that Tom and his family pumped out the day after the storm. Justin, a retired New York City Fire Department captain, stands on the first floor of his home, which has been completely gutted. There are no walls left; only wooden beams divide the now-open space into partitions. The flooring has been ripped out.
Justin’s basement, which was fully finished, had to be pumped out twice. Everything got ruined. His family is renting an apartment in Gowanus, Brooklyn, while he tries to get the house back into a livable state. Months and months of work are still ahead of him.
Justin doesn’t want to point fingers and understands the scale of the government’s relief effort, but he talks admiringly of Billy’s and Tom’s pumping operation.
“When you were getting help from nobody, these guys came out of the blue. It still stands the hair up on the back of my neck,” Justin says.
After bidding Justin farewell, Tom travels back into Brooklyn over the Marine Parkway Bridge, which is once again charging the $3.25 toll ($1.62 for Rockaway residents) that had been lifted after the storm.
Like the Sandy surge, the huge wave of volunteers has receded. The national news has largely left Sandy for Sandy Hook Elementary School and for debt-ceiling debates. Still, reports say over seven-thousand residents and businesses remain without power in Rockaway.
Tom is going back to his mother’s house in Marine Park. His time as a hero-volunteer water-pumper, like his stints as a Marine and as a Ground Zero volunteer, is over. Besides the Thursday open mics, the Rockaway Artists Alliance isn’t doing much, as many board members “lost everything,” Tom says. The storm washed away the job he had, and there’s no immediate sign of another one coming soon, though he’s been looking.
Tom tried contacting the Queens Economic Development Corporation to take a class that helps people get contractor licenses. The course is meant for people exactly like Tom—skilled workers who are already volunteering. But enrollment is focused on Rockaway residents, and Tom doesn’t have an address there.
He doesn’t worry, though. “I got a good family, I got a lot of great friends,” he often says. He also remembers his pre-prison days, when he was riding high, and he expects it to happen again—but without the immaturity of his youth.
“I was a real asshole,” he’d said a few weeks earlier. “But I was young. I had a ton of money in my pocket. I had a three-bedroom apartment to myself, a brand-new fuckin’ Xterra. Just home from training in the Marine Corps, so I’m in great shape.
“World by the balls, as they say. I had it, I spent it, I lent it, I meant it.”
“It’s all good, man,” he’d gone on. “It comes back. When? I couldn’t tell you. If I knew, my mother wouldn’t break my balls this much. Something eventually will fuckin’ happen.”