Reluctant Rebuilding of the Rockaways
By Colin Gannon
In the farthest reaches of New York City, an eerie silence hangs in the air.
Nestled between the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay, Beach 101st Street in Queens sits still. Few cars pass by on the road, and pedestrians are a rare sight. It is a warm April day, but few people are around to enjoy it.
This is a residential neighborhood, made up of a mixture of single-story beach bungalows and two-story homes. About half are vacant, their windows hastily boarded up, their front porches rotted and dilapidated.
Looking around, the word “ghost town” comes to mind.
The Rockaways, a collection of neighborhoods on an 11-mile long peninsula, certainly does not feel like New York City. Although it is within city limits, there is little indication that this washed out beach town is part of the nation’s most populated metropolis.
Standing on the elevated subway platform that crosses over Beach 101st Street, the iconic Manhattan skyline punctuated by the Empire State Building can be made out in the distance. However to get there would be a slow and meandering hour and a half ride by subway. The hustle and bustle of Midtown is long forgotten here in the Rockaways.
The palpable feeling of emptiness on Beach 101st Street can be attributed mostly to a hurricane that struck this city a year and a half ago. “Superstorm” Sandy made landfall just south of here on October 29th, 2012 and pushed a massive storm surge up the coast. Flood waters quickly inundated the peninsula, rising to more than ten feet in some places. Residents climbed on to their roofs or upper stories and watched helplessly as their community disappeared into the ocean.
After assessing the damage caused by Sandy, many homeowners found complete reconstruction was necessary. However, as was the case for many families here, footing the cost of rebuilding themselves was simply not feasible. Some reached out to the City for aid, others to non-profit organizations. To this day, homeowners needing aid have been displaced to neighboring boroughs, and have not yet returned to the Rockaways.
Prior to Sandy, these residents had never dealt with disastrous flooding here. But as oceans rise and storms become more intense, the future of the Rockaways, which sits just above sea level, is dubious. On one hand, homeowners stand resolute about remaining in their homes, and accept whatever risks may lie ahead. On the other, experts feel that the Rockaways as a whole are simply unsustainable, and that with projected future sea level rise, staying here will be a costly and devastating mistake.
This may be the reason for the unnerving silence on Beach 101st Street. It has been a long road for Rockaway residents since the flood waters subsided, and some difficult choices have been made. A few families have sacrificed their homes here and moved to higher ground. The rest have begun rebuilding, chancing the odds that a repeat disaster will not occur. The now partially restored community has an unescapable feeling of abandonment. Considering the Rockaways vulnerability, there may be a good reason for that.
Beneath the elevated subway line in the neighborhood of Rockaway Park lies an unassuming string of warehouses. Behind an aluminum garage door is an equally unspectacular space which instills a sense of emptiness not unlike that on Beach 101st Street. This is the headquarters for the non-profit organization Friends of Rockaway, one of the most active and respected rebuilding group in the central Rockaways.
Friends of Rockaway has been helping homeowners protect their property investments since Sandy hit, providing the supplies and labor to those unable to afford the cost of rebuilding. They are partnered with the St. Bernard Project, another disaster recovery group, who rose to prominence in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Together, the two have made steady progress in getting residents back into their homes. Having been on site for about a year and a half, Friends of Rockaway has fully rebuilt 33 homes with their $130,000 budget. In the past six months, the City’s own program, known as “Build it Back,” which has processed some 26,000 requests citywide and works with a $1.45 billion Federal Disaster Recovery Grant, has only managed to fully restore six homes throughout the five boroughs.
Inside the Friends of Rockaway garage, a handful of staff members work on fold out tables in a back corner. In the center of the office sits Todd Miner, 34, the director of Friends of Rockaway. He is energetic and eager to talk, sporting a scruffy beard and a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. Despite his youth, he is well versed in disaster recovery and resilience from his work with The World Bank and New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability.
It may come as a surprise that someone so acutely aware of the threat of sea level rise would be in charge of a rebuilding movement in one of New York City’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.
“We try to have a conversation about what’s going on and what [the homeowners] want,” Mr. Miner explains. “You know, in 80 years this place is going to be like Venice, but between now and then [the residents] are going to experience more consistent and cyclical flooding. We at least want to make sure that they understand that change, but I don’t think many people are thinking like that.”
Draped high on the wall behind him for all to see is the official Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) flood zone map for New York City, which highlights the spatial risk of certain neighborhoods from storms of varying severity. “Everyone is very conscious that they’re in the flood zone. A lot have recognized that there are difficult choices ahead.”
Friends of Rockaway was founded to protect homeownership for those who are committed to staying. However, as Mr. Miner grimly discusses the seemingly imminent flooding in these communities, it’s hard to imagine all his work won’t be done in vain. The suspended flood map behind him is almost sardonic; the entire Rockaway Peninsula is coded dark red, extremely risky.
About thirty blocks east of Beach 101st Street is the neighborhood of Arverne. Life is a little bit more resplendent here, as one- and two-story homes sit squarely centered on small lots, affording residents the opportunity to enjoy the pleasant spring day on their lawns.
One of the homes, which sits on the north end of Beach 72nd Street, is buzzing with activity. Here, Tom Tamledge, 25, is overseeing the reconstruction of a cream-colored 1,100 square foot single-family home. An AmeriCorps volunteer working with Friends of Rockaway, Mr. Tamledge has been on-site here for four months. When he first arrived, mold infested the walls and the floorboards were rotted out. Today, he is leading a 10-person crew as they put the finishing touches on drywall installation.
Speckled with paint, Mr. Tamledge tells the story of the home’s owners, who are among many who have been displaced to Brooklyn since the storm.
“The water came up to about here,” the AmeriCorps volunteers says, tracing an imaginary water line at chest level. “Luckily [the homeowners] weren’t here, they had evacuated. But the water destroyed pretty much everything.”
This family is among the many Rockaway residents who are determined to stay, no matter the cost. They have made it clear that they are committed to their home, community, and the beaches which attracted them here in the first place. However, some of their neighbors have relieved themselves of the emotional and financial burdens by moving away from the high risk zone.
“It’s been tough on them since Sandy, but they’ve made it work,” Mr. Tamledge explains. The owners have been renting an apartment in Brooklyn, and each day drive over the Jamaica Bay Bridge to to bring their kids to school and to go to work in Arverne. “[The homeowner] will pop in every now and then to say hello and check out the progress,” Mr. Tamledge says, smiling. “He can’t wait to move back.”
The economic strain on displaced residents has greatly hindered their ability to return home. A general rule of thumb exists in the Rockaways, where the higher the street number, the higher the wealth. Large luxury homes are commonplace in the westernmost portion of the peninsula, at Beach 222nd Street in Breezy Point. But at the eastern extreme, where the Beach Streets dip into the single digits, the Far Rockaway median income is below the city average at $39,800, according to 2010 Census data. The central portion of the Rockaways, which includes Rockaway Park and Arverne, is not wealthy by any stretch of the imagination. The poverty rate here is 21%, two percentage points higher than the city average.
With their homes in shambles, displaced Rockaways residents have been forced to pay rent in another part of the city. Often times, they continue to make mortgage payments on their Rockaway home. To make matters worse, they must also find the means to pay for the cost of rebuilding their destroyed homes. For this reason, Friends of Rockaway operates on a need-based system, considering variables including income, employment status, and number of dependents. The non-profit has helped many families return home, removing them from long waiting-list of homeowners waiting on assistance from the Build it Back program.
But should a Sandy-like event happen again, most of the same people struggling now would be unable to cope economically. As Mr. Miner puts it, many people say “I’m just going to duck my head down and sort out my financial issues and straighten that out… that’s when I’ll be able to have a larger conversation [about future risks].”
The owners of the small home on Beach 72nd Street, for one, are staying regardless of the risk and financial strain. “They love this place,” Mr. Tamledge explains, “and they couldn’t bear to leave this community. We just want to get them back home as soon as possible.”
Once the full devastation caused by Sandy was fully digested by the City of New York, many people were interested in how Mayor Michael Bloomberg would respond. His 2007 PlaNYC established New York City as a leader in climate change mitigation and sustainability, promising to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to make the city more responsive to climate threats. But after Sandy, there was a new sense of urgency among policy-makers to address sea level rise and storms of increased intensity which are threaten the city.
In June, 2013, Bloomberg firmly declared that the New York “will not retreat from the waterfront,” and released a new program as part of PlaNYC, the Special Initiative on Rebuilding and Resilience (SIRR). The comprehensive plan explicitly outlined projects to make the most vulnerable New York communities more resilient to climate change, namely storm surge exacerbated by sea level rise. The report deemed the Rockaways as “high risk” at present day, a threat level which would only get worse in the future. However, following the new plan, the city would be more capable to bounce back after a disaster.
Some experts felt this was not a sufficient approach. Among them was Klaus Jacob, 77, a researcher at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who has served as a consultant in both the original PlaNYC development and in Rockaway neighborhood association meetings. A disaster risk management expert, he has repeatedly voiced his concern for development in the Rockaways.
“I am fundamentally against maintaining the Rockaways,” he puts bluntly, while talking about the SIRR and other development strategies proposed by the City. “We have to think about relocating, first the lower points, and eventually the higher parts. Rebuilding and elevating homes is just postponing the problem. Putting investments there is just outright wrong.”
Mr. Jacob would ideally have a buyout plan implemented which would incentivize residents to relocate to lower risk areas. However, this system of “carrots and sticks” would require major Federal, State, and City funding.
Such a large-scale coordinated effort seems to be nothing more than a distant dream to many.
Peter Marcotullio, 56, an Associate Professor at Hunter College’s Department of Geography, agrees with Mr. Jacob about retreating from the Rockaways. Organized relocation from the coast is an incredibly arduous undertaking, he acknowledges, but is something that planners and policy-makers should now be considering.
“There are always unintended consequences with something like this,” he says. “With all the social dynamics, it’s hard to account for everything that is going on. There is the problem of people losing housing, and then finding a new place to put them. [In New York], the question is, where do we find the space?”
Nevertheless, Mr. Marcotullio believes that this discussion needs to be brought into the open, and for policy-makers to start thinking of a way to move this community off the peninsula.
“It’s not going to be easy, and I don’t necessarily think that there is a cookie-cutter approach. But we need to start doing it, and we need to figure out how to retreat to fit each community’s needs.”
Mr. Miner offers an explanation for why, despite concerted efforts by his organization and the City to restore the Rockaways, nobody is having the unpopular conversation about retreat.
“These are extraordinarily difficult things to do, and nobody wants to commit to them at the political level, administrative level, or even at the logistical level,” he laments. “Nobody wants to commit, so you just have nothing happening.”
As the dust settles, and Friends of Rockaway welcomes families across the peninsula back into their newly renovated homes, the neighborhoods will look a little different than they did in October, 2012. A few people are gone for good, and the streets will be a little quieter. But the risk hasn’t decreased, and action to ensure a repeat disaster does not occur has been insufficient by experts’ standards. “From a long-term risk management perspective, the Rockaways are one of the sad stories that the City should not be proud of,” says Mr. Jacob.
Rebuilding continues under the SIRR and Build it Back programs, and Beach 101st Street will likely soon be bustling with activity once again. Residents are returning to this highly vulnerable community, and are slowly, but surely, reinvesting in the Rockaways. The more Sandy becomes a distant memory, the more the vulnerability of the Rockaways will slip from the forefronts of residents’ minds. Organized action to remove people from this high risk area is certainly not going to occur any time soon.
After apologizing for his bleakness, Mr. Jacob ultimately asserts that until a massive, deliberate effort to relocate residents is undertaken, the Rockaway neighborhoods have the grimmest of outlooks. “The question,” he concludes, “is how to rectify this problem without ruining the livelihoods of the people that live there, who still love the place, and are clinging to it without any concept of how to proceed into the future.”