Coney Island Recovery Effort Brings Storm's Impact into Sharp Relief

Monday, November 19, 2012

Tom’s Restaurant was one of the only places open in Coney Island almost two weeks after the storm, so it was a natural gathering place for NY4P staff who visited the devastated community on November 9th at the request of the City to do what we do best: survey the conditions of the neighborhood's public spaces.

On streets near the Boardwalk, trash blew past shuttered storefronts. In Kaiser Park, on the north side of the neighborhood, the trash stayed put, tangled in shorefront brush. In some spots within public housing courtyards and playgrounds near the ocean, only the tops of green wooden benches were visible above the snowstorm of sand that had washed in from the beach. The sand surge nearly wiped out an entire brace of ducks living in a Surf Avenue community garden.

The open spaces of Coney Island felt forlorn and forgotten when the staff of New Yorkers for Parks arrived. We came at the request of the Coney Island Development Corporation (CIDC), which needed help assessing damage and prioritizing clean-up needs in advance of a massive volunteer initiative scheduled for the following day.

After the storm, the bulk of our research and advocacy work came to a halt. As our staff met in a Midtown conference room, away from our shuttered Lower Manhattan office, we decided to do anything we could to help the City in its recovery effort. Partnerships for Parks, a joint program of the Parks Department and the City Parks Foundation that works closely with volunteer and neighborhood park groups, tasked us with identifying qualified individuals to lead volunteer teams in cleaning parks citywide. Thus far, we’ve delivered more than 20 team leaders for cleanups across the city.  In addition, CIDC asked us to walk every block of Coney Island between Ocean Parkway and 37th Street, beach to creek, to create a prioritized list of every public space in need of cleanup, from parks and playgrounds to schoolyards, community gardens and New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) open spaces.

Scenes were eerie as we began our assessment. The neighborhood seemed frozen in a moment of shock. Formerly flooded cars were parked hopelessly with open hoods. Residents waited on corners below broken traffic lights, asking when food would arrive. Some lingered by waterlogged couches, chairs and dining room sets waiting for garbage pickup. Boxes of rotted bananas, once slated for delivery, stretched half a block near the Haber Houses. There was little moving, other than the occasional utility truck or emergency vehicle. The next day, several hundred volunteers would arrive, eager to help. But that Friday provided a tragic post-Sandy snapshot.

As our four two-person teams methodically canvassed our assigned zones, top priorities emerged: sweeping mud and sand off play surfaces, bagging trash and debris, hauling sand out of playgrounds and community gardens.  As hard-hit as many parks and playgrounds were, most heartbreaking was the squalid conditions of much of NYCHA's grounds, where many residents were living without power or heat.

The next day, several of our team leaders took on the clean-up tasks NY4P had identified.

“When I arrived, I wasn’t totally prepared,” said Michael Samuelian, one of our leaders. “The devastation was amazing.”

Sameuelian led a trash-removal team, along with several dozen students from a Flatbush high school, along the Kaiser Park shoreline.

“It was daunting at first,” he said. “And when you’re in the middle of it, it’s hard to get a sense of what you’re accomplishing. But then when I stepped back, there was a real feeling of pride; we had a sense of the difference we had made. It was especially meaningful because we were working so far from the areas most people visit near the Boardwalk.”

It was a homecoming of sorts for Samuelian, who grew up in nearby Bensonhurt.

“I hadn’t been back in years. Now, I want to keep coming back to help.”

The first thing that came to mind for Mark Foggin, another NY4P-enlisted team leader, was the damage in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“I don’t want to draw too many comparisons, but there were a lot of similarities,” he said. “There was just an immense amount of water and debris that impacted the neighborhood in a really shocking way.”

Foggin was deeply affected by September 11 and has jumped to assist with disaster relief efforts ever since. Besides New Orleans, he also assisted last year in the Catskills after Hurricane Irene.

Foggin’s team began the day cleaning the courtyards at Unity Towers, a NYCHA development. The gates of the courtyards served “almost as a netting for garbage flowing in,” he said.

The team of 12 filled 38 large trash bags at Unity.

He moved on to Kaiser with a smaller team in the afternoon, joining a group of local volunteers to scrape mud from the park’s basketball courts.

As Foggin walked to the subway at the end of the day, he saw several dozen cars, inundated by salt water, being loaded onto a flatbed truck, headed for a junkyard.

Foggin grew up in the Annadale section of Staten Island. Though his neighborhood wasn’t struck hard, he was eager to visit his home borough, but also eager, like Samuelian, to come back to Coney Island.

“This is the first time in many years that I’ve had the ability to do that in my hometown. I hate having to do it, but I was certainly glad I was able to play a role in it.”

On the end of our surveying day, signs of painful progress were evident: a Red Cross hot food truck parked on Neptune Avenue had attracted a line that stretched nearly a block. Residents gathered around a Verizon charging station next to the Coney Island Houses on Surf Avenue.

A cold, raw wind whipped off the water onto the Boardwalk, where planks had been loosened or dislodged by the storm.  As two staff members noticed the damage to the base of the famed Parachute Jump, a local resident walked by and shook his head.

“Lived here for decades,” he said, physically shaken by the emotion of his words.“Never, never seen it like it this. Tough to take.”

He staggered away into the wind.

The long ride into Manhattan on the D train provided time for reflection for some staff members. There are many parts of New York City that seemed barely touched by the storm, areas where long grocery lines seemed to be the biggest problem.

But the sight of a New York City neighborhood stuck in a profound moment of disbelief and hopelessness will remain seared in our minds long after the sun shines on a bustling Boardwalk once again.

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