In the Far Rockaways, there is no Red Cross relief, no FEMA, no National Guard shuttling in supplies for the elderly Polish and Russian Jews living in high rises without power or heat. There is no relief for the poor black and Latino families living in low-income housing. The lights haven’t come on, and for many the water hasn’t started to flow. There is no heat, and basic necessities like water and food are scarce. Life may be starting to look a bit like normal in parts of Manhattan, but here in the marginal communities of the Far Rockaways, there are only volunteers, mainly coordinated by Occupy Hurricane Sandy Relief. On Monday morning, when many people headed back to work, I decided to go back to Far Rockaway. We rented a van, donated by a wonderful rabbi’s grassroots fundraising, and picked up volunteers, both strangers and friends. Our motley crew drove to the Occupy Hub in Sunset Park to collect more supplies and make our way to Far Rockaway.
The stark contrast of the normalcy of Brooklyn and the utter devastation of the Rockaways is still shocking. Seagulls hover over the continuously growing trash heap in Riis Beach Parking lot, comprised mostly of soggy debris mucked out of homes flooded by Hurricane Sandy.
In the high 100s it looks like relief is on the way. The streetlights aren’t on yet, but on Monday LIPA trucks lined the streets and stations run by ATT allowed people to charge their phones and connect with loved ones. It looks hopeful, which is a relief to many weary Rockaway Beach residents.
When the tree crashed against the house and spilled its leafy branches across the driveway, it came to a crunching stop on top of my car, taking down power lines along the way. I couldn’t get very close in the dark confusion of the storm, but the next day, after a man with a chain saw cleared me a path to the driver’s side door, I removed all my belongings in preparation for the inevitable towing and demolition of the vehicle.
I leaned carefully onto the seat — the interior was strewn with broken glass — and unwound from the rear-view mirror the little Traveler’s Prayer that I’d hung there years ago when the car was still new.
In preparation for Storm Sandy, I’d gone to my parents’ house, about 75 miles away from where I live on the same Connecticut coastline, so I could help them in the powerless days we knew would follow. Now we were trapped — literally, by the fallen trees and wires — in their house, and I was unable to help anyone, even myself. We could only wait.
When we finally got out, we found a very New England scene, with wrecked suburban yards and people in puffy vests standing on line at Dunkin Donuts for hot coffee. But inside my family’s house it seemed that, along with our unwilling regression to a less complicated way of life, we had somehow become more Jewish.
My mom has been a global warming true believer since I can remember. As an avid lover of winter and a careful listener of Al Gore, she thought the evidence was obvious: Our grandparents had snow from Thanksgiving to Passover while we have less and less.
My brother and I used to tease her for being an alarmist, but then the weather began to change — noticeably — over our own lifetimes. And so eventually, as these things often go, it became like mother, like daughter. I morphed into that Debbie Downer at brunch, talking in hectoring tones about how climate change was going to ruin everything, starting with the apple crops and ending with global famine and the zombie apocalypse. Well, maybe not the latter. You see, as a part-time news editor at a progressive website, I’d been posting items about the small, localized side effects of climate change that made me more willing to accept the truth in the bigger changes.
For instance, here in the Northeast we have small-seeming trends that nonetheless show evidence of a major shift: maple syrup shortages, failed apple crops, fir trees dying, covered bridges washing away in storms. Even twentysomething kids who used to seasonal work at ski mountains now have to go to soup kitchens due to warm weather.
In New York City, the evidence has been all too tangible (balmy Halloweens, unbearable Junes). And between hurricanes Katrina and Irene, there were growing reports of the vulnerability of the city to the new superstorms — the Battery, the tunnels, the subway systems, reports that predicted much of Sandy’s damage.