NEW YORK—Residents across the Rockaway Peninsula—one of the areas most damaged by Superstorm Sandy—are not moving, despite the possibility that another storm, similar or even worse, will strike in the future.
What happens if another storm does come?
“That would suck,” said Matthew Moore, taking a break from helping restore the beachfront home of his 100-year old mother-in-law.
“It certainly could happen given the environmental conditions we all live in right now, but you have to hope that this is really a once in a century storm,” said Moore. “If other storms come, they’ll be similar perhaps to Irene, but not with the impact of this one.”
While city officials, environmental experts, and urban planners debate what will protect low-lying areas such as the Rockaways, residents—particularly homeowners—will rebuild and carry on, though some do so with reluctance.
“I wouldn’t mind going to Colorado in the mountains at this point, but we own the house, so we’re not going anywhere,” said Rockaways resident Richard Bender, who works as a pilot for the Staten Island Ferry.
Population: 114, 978 (2010)
Length: 11 miles
Width: 3/4 of a mile (average)
Bender has 16 family members staying with him at the moment, including his 90-year-old mother and 76-year-old aunt. They have had trouble finding hotels closer than Connecticut he said, making his house an important asset.
Nancy Crerar was sweeping sand off her driveway, three houses from the beach.
“I got one mortgage payment left—I ain’t moving,” she said passionately. “I spent 20 years paying that off.”
Crerar’s garage flooded but she considers herself one of the lucky ones, as none of her electrical wiring was damaged and her husband has a backup generator.
Crerar hopes no similar storms happen but wants to see the 8-foot-high seawall restored. The wall was mostly taken down by the strong 14-foot storm surges.
Housing Prices Drop
Those looking to sell their homes may have a tough time now that the peninsula has proven vulnerable to extreme weather.
“Nobody’s going to buy the house the way it is,” said Bill Guage, 64, a nurse who lost $25,000 worth of power tools in his basement because of flooding. Guage was throwing ruined plastic siding into a pile Sunday afternoon.
Guage had a buyer lined up for his home, but the home is directly on the beach without any protection such as a seawall.
“I would’ve sold it next year because we were going to retire, but now that’s out the window,” he said grimly.
Homes that are still standing in Breezy Point (at the southwestern portion of the peninsula) will drop in price after flooding and a storm-related fire, predicted Dennis Graff, 64, whose house burned down.
Prices have risen $100,000 to $300,000 for the average home in the last 20 years, said Graff. City data shows that of the 16,134 owner-occupied units on the peninsula, 13,405 are valued at $300,000 or more.
These will now be available for around $50,000, said Graff. Yet people will still remain in the area, he said, noting how people still live in other areas that are prone to flooding, such as New Orleans.
“That’s why the clock ticks,” he said, his wife waiting in the car. They had come to check the sand levels of the beach in Jacob Riis Park. “People forget. People rebuild.”
Workers Will Also Stay, For Now
People who work but don’t live on the peninsula are also staying.
“Of course I’m still going to work here,” said Ediwin Fleury, a 22-year-old security guard at Ocean Promenade Nursing Center, right on the beach at Beach 113th Street.
Fleury was at the center for one week straight after the storm hit. He saw the water lift the boardwalk off its supports, and the boardwalk slam into the building. Glass broke and water rushed in. The employees scrambled up to the second floor. More than 30 workers and a backup generator helped about 110 residents weather the storm. The experience had a dramatic impact on Fleury, who lives in Canarsie, Brooklyn.
“Since that whole week we all became a family,” he said. “We all got a close bond now, so I can’t leave that behind.”
Stu Rabinowitz meandered onto the boardwalk a couple blocks away. “This was a really bad hit,” he said, surveying the damage. The boardwalk, thrown off its supports, splintered in the middle, parts of it jutting at awkward angles.
“I hope this is the once-in-a-lifetime storm, that this isn’t the new norm,” said Rabinowitz, the owner of Kings Pharmacy at Beach 116th and Rockaway Beach Boulevard. His shop had just opened for its first day after the storm. He showed pictures on a digital camera of National Guard troops cleaning out the store’s basement, discussing how “armies of people” had come to help clean up after “people were just walking around like zombies” the first and second day.
“I think people are pretty strong here,” he said, pacing around, looking at the damage again. “We’ll rebuild, see what happens. If it happens again like this, then …” he trailed off, laughing.
Strong Community, Allure of Beach, and Cheap Rent
“People don’t want to leave here,” said James Naus, a contractor. “I mean this is a 100 percent safe neighborhood. You don’t got to worry about really any crime, everything’s self contained. Everybody knows each other.”
Naus owns a house in Roxbury, a small neighborhood tucked against Jacob Riis Park and the base of the Marine Parkway Bridge. One of his grandfathers, Ted Feimer, moved here more than 100 years ago. Feimer later had a promenade named after him. Naus stood next to a light post where a street sign marks the promenade with his grandfather’s name.
Naus and his wife had most of their possessions destroyed by the storm because their basement flooded. Yet they enjoy the community in Roxbury and don’t plan on leaving. Neither does the majority of the neighborhood.
“Granted they let people rebuild, people will continue to be here, knowing full well this could very well happen in June, this could happen next week again,” Naus said. “The way the weather has been, you can’t predict it.”
“One silver lining about the storm is that this community has come together like I’ve never seen in my life,” said Assemblyman Philip Goldfeder, who was born and raised on the peninsula. As an example, one group of neighbors on 121st Street, after finishing pumping out their homes and cleaning up, went onto the next block, said Goldfeder.
People and vehicles created lots of activity Sunday, including the Army, who helped put scattered debris into piles while teams of volunteers such as the renowned Team Rubicon, a group of mostly military veterans, helped other residents.
Residents said they also like being close to the beach.
“Next summer we’re going to be sitting on that beach and just having a beer,” said Crerar, looking at the beach and smiling.
And the cheap rents are practically unbeatable in the city. More than half the almost 24,000 rented units have a rent of $1,000 a month or less, according to U.S. census figures, while fewer than 3,000 pay more than $1,500 a month.
“I’m retired. This is all there is,” said Fred Weinzweig, 70. “I’m good,” he added. “All I need is heat, light, and electricity.”
There was, in the end, one Rockaway resident who wants to leave the peninsula.
“When I move out [of my parent’s house], I’m not going to live here,” said a young man waiting for a bus in Roxbury. “I’ve seen too many storms.”
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