Nine days after Hurricane Sandy struck Rockaway, a nor’easter swept in from the sea, bringing icy winds and snow that promised a hard night for the thousands who were still without heat and had already endured too much.
The big threat was the sea itself, which had already shouldered aside the boardwalk and blasted through seawalls during the hurricane. The peninsula stood all but defenseless as word came that this second storm might bring a surge of as much as three feet when it peaked.
“There’s nothing to stop it,” a resident of Beach 118th Street said when the surge was just two hours away.
A full-sized flagpole that had stood at the end of that street as part of a monument to a firefighter killed on 9/11 now lay in the middle of the street. The boardwalk had been driven back and then smashed at the center, with the sections on either side tilted up at crazy angles. The sea was churning just beyond; indeed there was nothing but sand to keep it from reaching the homes beyond if it began to rise to any significant degree.
During Sandy, big waves had surged up the street, and one incredibly lucky young Rockaway man is said to have leaped from a second-floor window and body-surfed to the end of the next block, where he landed on the steps of a convent and found refuge with the nuns.
Nobody on Rockaway, though, seemed to be feeling lucky on Wednesday as darkness gathered and the storm neared it peak. The thought of being flooded again caused even some of the most stalwart souls to wonder aloud if they should just give up and move away.
It turned out that Rockaway had finally gotten at least a measure of good luck with the bad. This was not another perfect storm. The surge was coming not at high tide as it had during the hurricane, but as the tide was falling. And there was no full moon.
As the peak neared, the water was still so low that standing on the deserted beach brought no sense of danger. There was only the wind and the snow whipping around darkened, heatless homes.
If a warm house had awaited them, the few souls on the streets might have appreciated a startlingly improbable beauty forming even on the fire-ravaged sections of Beach 114th Street and Beach 130th Street, as a pristine white blanket of snow covered the charred ruins. The loveliness was made all the more unlikely by the lingering smell of smoke.
On Beach 130th Street just below the fire scene, two portable police searchlights powered by a generator were pointed skyward. The snow swirled in the twin lights with what was a hypnotic splendor so long as you were in a car whose engine had not been wrecked by the saltwater and happened to have gas and a working heater.
One solitary pedestrian struggling against the wind toward shelter but no heat, offered another, unbidden appraisal of this wild and wintry scene.
The water of this thankfully imperfect storm never surged through the street. But the wind kept blowing and the snow kept falling, covering the mounds of debris and ruined possessions that still stood outside many of the houses.
Other mounds had been carted away and deposited in a huge parking lot that is crowded in the summer with the cars of beachgoers seeking the pleasures of the seashore. It was now filled with untold thousands of tons of household goods made gorgeous by snow and the blaze of portable lights. The beauty did nothing to change a challenge that lay beneath it.
Hurricane Sandy had helped reelect Barack Obama by giving him a chance to be a president. One of his first actions in the aftermath should have been to send the victims a message that he was redoubled in his determination to help them as they now faced this second storm the night after the election.
Other storms are sure to come, and what our newly reelected president also should do is to assure Sandy’s victims that he will waste no time in ensuring they have more than sand at the end off their blocks to ward off the sea the next time they are not so lucky.