One Year After Sandy: Coming Home in Sheepshead Bay

Thursday, November 07, 2013

The storm rushed in off Sheepshead Bay, flooding the venerable restaurant row along Emmons Avenue. Up to 18 feet of water, and as many as six blocks inland, over the Belt Parkway, all the way to Avenue X.
Steve Barrison watched from a second story window at home with his father, Earl, as the water overtook the south Brooklyn neighborhood the family has called home for three generations.
“Like Niagara Falls flowing over the highway,” he said.
On Batchelder Street, near the bay, Carole Shanahan’s nearly 100-year-old bungalow, where she grew up and returned to live as an adult, was filled with five feet of water. She fled to higher ground, a friend’s house in Bay Ridge. After the entire house had been gutted and de-molded three times, she moved back in August. Her heat and kitchen sink were finally reinstalled two weeks ago.
“The whole thing is still a blur,” she said.
On nearby Stanton Road, she said, many still haven’t returned.
Hundreds of businesses were closed, and a quarter of them remain shuttered, said Barrison, who has served as president of the Bay Improvement Group (BIG), since founding it 21 years ago. He describes it as "a broad coalition of residents, businesses, community groups, and leaders dedicated to the future preservation and planning of Sheepshead Bay, and advocating for the main streets."

Those approaching the neighborhood on the B and Q lines rumble into Sheepshead Bay station. On the eastern side of the tracks is a lawn, at Voorhies Avenue, one of three NYC Department of Transportation Adopt-A-Highway parcels near Shore Parkway that BIG has helped maintain since 1992.
“There’s not much parkland here,” said Barrison. “This is basically all we got.”
The water flooded those too. The mums never came up, nor did the shrubs or cabbage plants. The ornamental evergreens were washed away.
“We had three gardens and 45 species of plants,” said Barrison. “We lost about 75 percent of what we’d worked on for 21 years.  Springtime came, and everything was bare and dead. Then we saw the daffodils. We were shocked.”
In April, the lawn at Voorhies Avenue bloomed with thousands of them, as did the other two daffodil planting sites in the area. BIG has participated in the NY4P Daffodil Project since 2001, when it was founded as a 9/11 memorial.

This fall, they planted several thousand bulbs, just in time for Sandy’s one-year anniversary. To mark the occasion, some in the community participated in Light Up the Shore, a waterfront candlelight vigil that extended from New Jersey to Long Island.
Around 50 people gathered along the Emmons Avenue waterfront, where seven white roses were handed out: one for each person killed by Sandy in Brooklyn. In the day’s bright twilight, as speeches ended and the group turned toward the water to toss in the roses, four of the Bay’s famous resident swans had lined up in front of them. They stared back at the crowd.
“They were perfectly in a row, like soldiers,” said Laura McKenna, BIG’s Acting Executive Director. “It was very eerie, very moving.”
The swans were a reason why Shanahan, a BIG volunteer, always came back to the neighborhood, even after moving out of the Batchelder Street bungalow in her 20s. She remembers weekend visits in the summertime, and strolls along the waterfront, the center of what Barrison describes as “the little fishing village of New York City.”
Finally back in her childhood home – there was, she said, no way she’d be kept away forever – one of Shanahan’s favorite places is the community’s only waterfront dining deck, at il Fornetto.
“The swans come over – hoping you’ll feed them,” she said. “There just aren’t many parts of the city where you can see that.”

Barrison hopes that those headed to the waterfront will stop, even if just for a moment, to appreciate the three BIG gardens, which are visible from both the subway and Shore Parkway. Clearly, his group is deeply devoted to them.

“Last fall, the storm was bearing down on us, and we were planting, literally from 9 to 5pm, so we could finish up at that last site,” Barrison said. “While everyone else was leaving or getting ready, we were out there.”
It was important to Barrison and his fellow volunteers to maintain the Daffodil Project tradition.  And it’s even more so now, a year later.
“There’s a connection, Barrison said, “between 9/11 and Sandy. There’s an emotional line, whether you realize it or not.”
When last year's all-day planting was finished, Barrison had just enough time before the storm to hurry home, where his father was waiting by the window.

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