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The Free Republic of the Rockaways

Where the storm never ends, anarchy reigns, and people find their own ways to survive.

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In the immediate run-up to the presidential election, there was much punditry as to what effect Hurricane Sandy would have on the outcome. Could it be that God, usually thought of as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party, by virtue of His impish sense of humor, had decided to withhold the presidency from the Mormon asset column? After years of skulduggery and billions in super-PAC spending, the storm was throwing a last-minute monkey wrench into the race. Yet out here in Rockaway, New York’s hurricane epicenter, November 6 was not merely the thankful culmination of the desultory exercise of whatever is left of American democracy. It was Day Nine of the Sandy epoch, a wholly new kind of time.

It is a continuum that invents its own progressive reality, as witnessed by the ever-growing trash pile in the Jacob Riis Park parking lot. Giant dump trucks were lined up in front of the old bathhouse built by Jimmy Walker in 1932 for “the recreation of all New Yorkers,” ready to deposit their loads. Each truck was piled high with 36 cubic yards of what used to be people’s worldly possessions. With each cubic yard weighing 600 to 700 pounds and the drivers averaging four runs each day, that added up to slightly over 100,000 pounds, or 50 tons per truck per day (they’ve collected nearly 480 million pounds so far). There was plenty more to pick up, as revealed by a drive across the peninsula’s ethnic full spectrum, from Breezy Point’s cop-and-fireman gated paradise in the west, to the diverse old-school nabe around Beach 116th, out to Far Rock’s hard-knock world in the east. When the moon and the tides conspire to send fifteen feet of ocean water smashing across a less-than-a-mile strip of sand to meet a near-equal torrent from the bay, treasure can become trash in an instant. The lot behind the apartment houses at Beach 105th Street was filled with a hundred vehicles aimed at crazy angles like a freeze-framed ­bumper-car ride.

They’d never go again. And even if they could, there was no gas, of course. Not that this was any fault of a Far Rockaway resident named Sadiq. Originally from Georgetown, Guyana, Sadiq had spent the better part of the previous weekend trying to import a large quantity of what he called “motion lotion” in 55-gallon drums from Scranton, Pennsylvania. “I thought I would be the big-time petrol black marketeer. But we had a lot of leakage. Our drums were faulty.” Originally, Sadiq planned to sell his gas for $20 a gallon, but had second thoughts. He felt ashamed and couldn’t bring himself to “take advantage.” He wound up giving the fuel away to fellow livery-car drivers, most of whom had spent the week waiting in endless lines on the other side of the Marine Parkway bridge.

“Still no heat, no power, no ATM, no food in the store, no A train to get off the island, perpetual cold and darkness, no word when any of it will change,” said Almamy Seray-Wurie, summing up the situation as he waited at the Conch Playground on Beach 49th Street for what he called “the daily handout” of box lunches, clothing, Pampers, and bright-blue Marathon Recovery Bags left over from the canceled road race. At least he is used to it, said Almamy, who now lives in the former Edgemere projects after fleeing the decadelong civil war in his home country of Sierra Leone. “I am a refugee. I am accustomed to waiting in lines.”

This didn’t mean Day Nine of Sandy Time was exactly like Day Eight. Natural disasters work on a separate calendar, depending on the degree of the damage caused and the type of people affected. As the aftermath of Katrina demonstrated, help and mercy are not always meted out equally. In 1970, half a million people died in the Bhola Cyclone and all they got was George Harrison and the Concert for Bangladesh. On that account, Rockaway, a.k.a. “the Irish Riviera,” home to perhaps the highest density of first responders anywhere, has been lucky. Things could have been a lot worse. Last Monday, soon after the storm hit (officially starting Day One of the Sandy clock), the almost routine heroism associated with the FDNY was on display when a stretch of primarily mom-and-pop stores on Rockaway Beach Boulevard between Beach 113th and Beach 115th Streets burst into flames, a conflagration people in the Rockaways think began when employees fleeing the storm left the oven on in a pizza shop.

“It was insane, coming down the street in a boat in ten feet of water to fight a fire,” said firefighter Thomas Fee, who as a member of Swift Water Team No. 6 was soon on the scene. “We didn’t have our usual gear. We thought we would be pulling people out of the water, so we had this thin plastic foul-weather stuff on,” he said, drawing a diagram to show how he managed to crawl through the openings in the “fucking roaring” buildings, eventually reaching 22 people trapped on rooftops and leading them to safety.


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