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The Free Republic of the Rockaways

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The brave feats and dramatic destruction of Day One had morphed into soul-numbing process by Day Nine. This was confirmed when a chauffeured Range Rover pulled up in front of a swath of burned-out buildings where Tommy Fee had risked his life to save others. Out stepped a swoop-coiffed gentleman in an expensive coat, sunglasses, and a purple shirt open at the neck. With small convoys of “mobile claim center” RVs now roaming Beach Channel Drive, it was assumed that the man was an insurance agent. “No,” he said. “I work against the insurance company.” He was representing the owner of a number of the burned buildings, “to make sure he gets what is coming to him.”

“The guy’s a public adjuster,” said Chris Karadimas, the owner of a four-story apartment house across the street from the fire scene. “They show up after whatever happens. A lot of them are ex-­brokers. They read all the policies, know every little angle. They negotiate with the companies, take a commission or a percentage.”

Even as the power remained out and the waste-treatment plant stayed mostly off-line, the Sandy “recovery” had reached “the lawsuit stage,” Karadimas said. Whatever the outcome, the little stores across the street, the deli, the perfume emporium, weren’t coming back, not like they were. Uptown, in Belle Harbor, Neponsit, and Breezy, they had the good insurance, they would be able to rebuild. In a few years, Sandy would be one more bad memory to endure, like the crash of Flight 587 and 9/11, the worst memory of all. Down the beach, Arverne by the Sea, a massive new development where the ads read, “Like this wave? Live on it!,” would be okay, too. Indeed, construction on the development has proceeded nonstop throughout Sandy Time. Asked if they thought it was strange, continuing to build condos 100 yards from the torn-up boardwalk, workmen shouted over the generator clang that they didn’t speak English.

But the Beach 116th Street area was honky-tonk, tatty and funky, with places named Pickles and Pies. That Rockaway was over. “I’m fucking obsolete,” said Matt Gilkeson, throwing out the last of his meager possessions from his low-ceilinged basement apartment. Appearing to be in his sixties, with a couple of centuries of wear on his puffed and drooping face, Gilkeson is a former Navy man. Once his ship was caught in a typhoon 200 miles south of Hawaii. “We thought we were going down, but this was worse, trapped in this little basement, the water rising to your eyeballs faster than you could count.” Gilkeson looked mournfully at a large plastic bullfrog to his left. It was a joke, one of those novelties. Wave your hand and it croaked. “Fartin’ Freddie,” Gilkeson said. “That’s what I got left, Fartin’ Freddie.”

You couldn’t even get a drink. Kerry Hills Pub, Gilkeson’s local, was closed since Day One. Rockaway might not be full of racial Kumbaya, but drinking was the common denominator. It was something about the air, so damp, so raw. The FEMA response might be helping Obama, but where was the booze? Engine companies from all over the city were making runs to Breezy to deliver what one observer called “the real emergency service: beer.” Otherwise the drought was on; Rogers, Curran’s, the Irish Circle were all shut tight. Hearing of the terrible fire on Beach 130th Street, one longtime Rockaway resident was said to have asked if the church had burned. Told no, it was the Harbor Light, the man said, “Oh my God, that’s worse.”

Still it was Election Day, an election in which Rockaway was in a fulcrumatic position. It was hard to judge what effect Mayor Bloomberg’s endorsement of the president, mostly on climate change, might have in the largely Republican Breezy, where Rush Limbaugh often competes for a.m. bandwidth with WFAN. But down in Far Rock, where Romney would be lucky to get his presumptive one percent, the polls were packed. For many, it was something of a one-stop-shopping trip, as many relief organizations had set up distribution centers outside of polling places like M.S. 53 on Nameoke Street. Citizens filled carts to the brim with donations, then went inside the public school to vote for Obama. Aside from the large Hasidic population following a similar regimen, it was the perfect Roger Ailes behavioral model, at least until the people returned home to their unlit, unheated apartments.

The key was getting home before dark. As one man standing on the voting line said, the real insult to injury was the end of daylight saving time coming so soon after the storm. “They hit us with this hurricane and then they make night come an hour faster,” the man said, smelling conspiracy. “If Obama really wants to help us, he should repeal that shit.”


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