Six Months After Sandy, the Rockaway Story Continues

The birds have returned to the beach for their annual nesting—and the uncommon people never left. Michael Daly reports.

04.29.13 8:45 AM ET

The government-protected shorebirds of Rockaway have begun their annual nesting, just as they would if Hurricane Sandy had never swept through there six months ago.

Some of the birds have nested on an 11-block stretch of beach that the urban park rangers close off each spring as a breeding sanctuary. Others have settled in a debris-strewn patch of sand outside the preserve and just across the street from a huge housing development that was begun when such a storm as Sandy had not seemed possible.

“They don’t know any better," a park ranger whose nameplate read Billak said.

He was speaking of the birds, as he stood by one of the perimeters of bright orange string on green metal stakes that the rangers set up along with a RESTRICTED AREA sign around each nesting place they discover outside the sanctuary. This particular spot was occupied by an oystercatcher so sensitive to the approach of humans that it had walked off past a surviving patch of boardwalk that mighty Sandy had lifted and tossed aside. The red-billed bird had been trying to draw attention away from a shallow indentation in the sand—known as a scrape—that serves as its nest. Two gray and black speckled eggs were inside, looking perilously delicate, surrounded by bits of metal, brick, concrete, rock, wood, and glass.

But the ranger could have been speaking of the people who were continuing construction of the Averne by the Sea development—as if such a storm could not come again.  The developer had erected a big sign amid the sawing and hammering.


1 & 2  Family Homes For Sale”

Unless you knew better, you might have thought the ranger was also speaking of the many residents of Rockaway who have chosen to rebuild despite having even less protection from the ocean since Sandy swept away much of the boardwalk and the sea wall along the beach.

Only, these Rockaway people do not remain because they don’t know any better.  They stay in seeming defiance of common sense because of an uncommon sense of who they are individually and collectively, and how that is rooted in the very special place they all share.  It is a sense that was only intensified by Sandy as the storm surge was met by uncommon heroism, kindness, generosity, and neighborliness.

“This is a Rockaway story,” said retired FDNY Chief of Department Pete Hayden just after the storm passed. “Now we’re really never going to leave.”

This soul-deep feeling of home is clearly shared by other shore communities that were struck by Sandy. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo reported Friday that there had been few takers on his offer to purchase storm-damaged homes at pre-Sandy prices plus a premium. Cuomo had made the offer with the hope that people in threatened areas would heed Sandy as a warning of more extreme weather to come as a result of global warming.

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“It’s up to the homeowner, and the vast bulk of homeowners are deciding to stay right where they are and rebuild,” Cuomo now said.

One Rockaway resident whose home had been completely destroyed and yet eschewed an offer of a premium price for what was now only bare sand was FDNY Lt. Tommy Woods of Beach 130th Street. His block had been struck by a hurricane-driven fire along with the storm surge, and he and his 14-year-old son, Brendan, had rescued his 82 year-old mother by placing her on a surfboard. They had taken her five blocks through hellish darkness, fighting the surge’s current and dodging debris and flaming firebrands. They then returned with a kayak and were assisted by other off-duty firefighters in rescuing a neighbor who has multiple sclerosis.

Afterwards, Woods avoided any talk of his heroism, instead speaking of how brave and caring and helpful his neighbors were. He stood on a street that had been all but destroyed—and said he could conceive of no better place to live. His son’s own quiet courage seemed proof that this was also the best of places to raise a kid.

Six months after the storm, the arrival of the new mailman there continues to be a reminder that the most uncommon of mailman, Rick Gold, was killed in the storm. And full subway service has still not been restored. And the public library branch is still not open although a sign in the window says it is only “closed temporarily while storm damage is repaired.” So far, only a tiny portion of the boardwalk has been partly replaced and new sand will not be pumped onto the beach until after the summer season has already started.

But affirmation of the Rockaway spirit came last week with word that Woods will be named this year’s recipient of the FDNY’s James Gordon Bennett Medal, the department’s oldest and highest award, for “the most outstanding act of heroism.” He will be the first person in its 144 years ever to receive the medal for actions while off-duty. He, of course, made no mention of it to anybody, allowing to his mother that he had won something, but giving her no idea of the magnitude of the honor.

By the time Woods was told of the honor, the charred remains of his house had been carted away. All that was left was an indentation in the sand that looks like an out-sized version of those scrapes on the beach where the oystercatchers, piping plovers, and terns nest every year.

To look at where Woods will be rebuilding on Beach 130th Street and then at where that oystercatcher is nesting by Beach 67th Street is to wonder if maybe the shorebirds actually do know better—if they too possess an uncommon sense of who they are and where they want to start their kids in the world.

If the government can protect the nests of the shorebirds as they follow their instincts, then it should do no less for the shorepeople who are rebuilding. It will, of course, take much more than string.

The government can start with seawalls.

It might even follow common sense and do something real about global warming.