One Year After Sandy: Rebirth in the Rockaways

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Doris McLaughlin took a drive last spring through Queens and Brooklyn, where she saw flowers blooming and trees budding. She returned home to Ocean Bay Houses, in the Rockaways, and that’s when the full weight of the storm hit her – five months after Hurricane Sandy forced her from her apartment.
She had fled with her husband, Willy, and their English cocker spaniel, Clover, in their 1995 Volvo. With all nearby hotels full, they ended up in the massive Costco parking lot in Lawrence, just over the Nassau County line. They lived there for two weeks.
“Willy took the front, and Clover and I shared the back,” she said. “We did the best we could.”
One day during their parking lot stay, Doris and Willy drove to buy gasoline. They entered the long line at 9am. At 6 the next morning, when it was finally their turn, the station promptly ran out.
But the saddest moment for McLaughlin came when she returned home from that spring drive. Instead of the flowering trees she had seen in other parts of the city, many of the craggy trees in her Edgemere neighborhood were dead, unable to withstand the Atlantic Ocean saltwater that had flooded the area.

“That was just devastating to see,” she said. “There was no green, no life. It still looked like the dead of winter. Through all that had happened, that was the moment when I really felt it.”
McLaughlin, an avid gardener, set her sights on orchestrating a literal rebirth of her community. With the help of the New York City Housing Authority’s Garden & Greening Program and a donation from Lowe’s, she organized a planting last July. And in September, she picked up more than 1,000 bulbs from the Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, provided for free through New Yorkers for Parks' Daffodil Project. She and several neighbors lined street tree pits and sidewalk lawns along Beach Channel Drive and Beach 58th Street with the bulbs.
Last Tuesday, on the one-year anniversary of the storm, McLaughlin basked in an unseasonably warm sun as children from the Housing Authority’s onsite afterschool program joined NY4P staff to plant 650 more daffodil bulbs along the perimeter of a triangular lawn at the entrance to the complex.
Nearby was Forest Zeno, a neighbor and fellow gardener. Unlike McLaughlin, he elected to stay at Ocean Bay Houses when Sandy hit. Zeno lives with his teenage son and 70-year-old mother in a 5th-floor apartment, and his days last November were filled with elevator-less trips to the street to wait in long charity giveaway lines: for food, for basic supplies, for more blankets.
“Today is a beautiful day,” he said. “Seeing the kids running around, laughing. It’s great you all are here.”
The children, from grades 4 and 6, were an efficient planting group, finishing within 45 minutes. Most had never planted before.
Passersby stopped to lean over the lawn’s fence to ask what the children were doing.
“Planting flowers!” came the response from multiple high-pitched voices, sometimes in unison.
“These kids will pass the lawn with their families in April. They’ll be dressed up, going to church, and they will be able to show their family what they’ve done for their community,” McLaughlin said. “They’ll feel a sense of ownership, of pride in this space. It’s all about picking up the pieces and feeling some pride again. They’ll make their friends want to pitch in and plant flowers too.”
They were already eager to do that. Two sisters, Victoria and Mary, looked forward to Googling an image of daffodils to show classmates. Both had been fortunate enough to remain at home in the weeks following the storm. Their friend Lucy, however, a 4th grader, said her family had lost its car.
“There are so many stories like theirs,” McLaughlin said. “So many people have been depressed. Things like this help lift us all.”
McLaughlin's contributions to her neighborhood's rebirth haven't only occurred in the soil.
She now leads 8am beach walks on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays with several women she noticed were particularly down. Sometimes it is that mere act of noticing that makes all the difference.
“I have a neighbor who used to always be joking, always smiling,” she said. “One day it hit me that she hadn’t laughed in months, ever since the storm. I invited her on our walks, talked with her about how things are starting to look up. She’s starting to laugh again.”

This fall, NY4P has sponsored Sandy recovery plantings with children in Midland Beach, Staten Island, and Broad Channel, Queens, as well as this one in Far Rockaway. Additionally, the NYCHA Garden & Greening Program held a Daffodil Project planting in Red Hook, Brooklyn. More youth plantings are scheduled for the coming weeks. Photos from our 2013 Daffodil Project plantings can be viewed on our Facebook page.

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