Fast Forward: Two years after Hurricane Sandy, Rockaway rebounds


IMG_1980In a few short days, residents across the tri-state area will mark the 2nd anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. In Rockaway, that date will be observed quietly, as there are no public events planned. As the rebuilding continues, there is cautious optimism about the future of the beach community. It seemed unfathomable just two years ago, but Rockaway is rebounding.

Things looked quite bleak in the days and weeks after the storm. Like many hard hit coastal areas, Rockaway’s infrastructure had been destroyed, along with hundreds of homes and businesses. The damage was catastrophic, and the obstacles to rebuilding seemed insurmountable.

The first 12 months after the storm played out like every other post-natural disaster: complaints about ineffective government support, squabbles among community leaders about the road to recovery, and residents and business people alike questioning if they should return. In the absence of any cohesive plan, food trucks came to the rescue, and people got to work rebuilding their homes and businesses.

The summer of 2013 presented some glimmers of hope: beach attendance was down, but many businesses had reopened, and a number of new restaurants made their debut. Mayor Bloomberg dedicated Restaurant Row on the one-year anniversary of the storm. However, a confluence of more significant events in late 2013 really propelled the recovery efforts.

A legacy-minded Mayor Bloomberg turned his attention to the transportation issues that have vexed Rockaway for years.  In his final weeks in office, he directed the Transit Authority to make the ferry service permanent, which had been expected anyway. However, the real game changer came when the MTA agreed to add a spur of the L train directly to Beach 116th Street via the Broadway Junction connection to the A train. That direct subway service brought an influx of shoppers, diners and young entrepreneurs to Rockaway, which sustained many businesses in the off-season.

The real estate agents noticed the influx of foot traffic right away. By the time the 2014 spring selling season got underway, they had banded together and began marketing properties in “RoBe”. Residential sales ticked up right away, as did the hashtag #RoBe on Twitter. The young newcomers were mostly telecommuters in the creative sector, and they were looking for opportunities to connect locally. Rock Inc., a newly established incubator and shared workspace, quickly became a hotbed of activity for new businesses.

Using his influence in the financial sector, Mayor Bloomberg encouraged Citibank to establish a bike-sharing program in Rockaway. By Memorial Day 2014, Rockabike had been launched, with docking stations from Mott Avenue west to Ft. Tilden. While locals resisted it at first, they came to embrace it as a way to cope with restrictive summer parking rules. The DOT was quick to respond to the changes, and funds were allocated to a street beautification program. Bike lanes were installed, creating an unbroken corridor on Rockaway Beach Boulevard from Arverne-by-the-Sea west to Beach 116th Street.

Year 3 of the recovery seems to hold promise as well. Mayor DeBlasio, accused of neglecting Rockaway during his mayoral campaign, allocated funds to renovate the Neponsit Nursing Home. One of the area’s most valuable yet unused parcels of real estate, the nursing home was long coveted by private developers. However, the Graybeards were contracted to run a year-round Wounded Warriors recovery facility on the property. Space was also allocated to the Rockaway Artists Alliance, creating work areas and gallery showrooms for emerging local talent.

And when asked to comment on rumors of new residential developments on Beach 116th Street, local gadfly John Baxter just grinned and said “Rockaway is back strong.”