As the Carolinas continue to grapple with the physical damage and psychological trauma from Hurricane Florence, the region faces difficult choices. Communities must decide which lands and neighborhoods to reclaim and rebuild and which ones are best left to absorb the ravages of intensifying storms. Those decisions will play out very differently depending on the race and the income of the individuals and families hit hardest by the historic flooding.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy slammed a very different region of the country: the Rockaways section of New York. But the aftermath of that historic storm provides some sobering clues about post-hurricane resilience efforts—like the ones that didn’t really help the Rockaways’ low-income residents and people of color.
Most visitors to Manhattan or Brooklyn know little about the Rockaways. The finger-like Rockaway Peninsula runs approximately nine miles off the southeast end of Queens. Less than a mile across at its widest, the peninsula is flanked on one side by Jamaica Bay, and by the Atlantic on the other. Its neighborhoods are collectively called “The Rockaways,” mimicking “The Hamptons,” their posh, iconic Long Island neighbors to the north.
The Rockaways do not feel like New York. You’re never more than a five-minute walk from the water. The beaches offer a beguiling escape from the skyscrapers, a change of pace from the pervading hustler mentality, and a quiet retreat from the orchestra of car horns, heels on sidewalks, and gossipy chatter.
But there’s nothing iconic or posh about the Rockaways. It’s a microcosm of New York’s religious, political, racial, and socioeconomic diversity, but it’s long been plagued with relentless crime, dilapidated public housing, and undeveloped lots. Then there are unique features that set it apart from the rest of the city: There are more elderly people, more affordable housing, and, most striking of all, no skyscrapers.
That’s because the Rockaways sit on a barrier beach. Barrier beaches are anchored in place by sand dunes, but “the more human activity you have on a barrier island, the harder it is to hold it in place,” Michael Oppenheimer, a Princeton geoscience professor, explains. The barrier beach protects the mainland behind it. As soon as you put valuable infrastructure on a barrier beach, it needs a protective barrier of its own. In an ideal world, “nobody would live on a barrier beach,” Oppenheimer says.
With power still shut off following Hurricane Sandy's landfall in Rockaway, Queens, Kiva Kahl prepares beef stew for friends and neighbors in front of her residence.
But 112,836 people do. Heavy rain and hurricanes often threaten the peninsula. Sea-level rise is a major concern. Perched, at its highest, a mere ten feet above sea level (at its lowest, three feet), by 2100 most of the Rockaways would be flooded during what today is just a regular high tide.
Rockaway residents have already had their wake-up call. On the night of October 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy hit during a full moon, when high tides were at their highest. In addition, a Nor’easter collided with the hurricane earning the tempest the media-moniker “Superstorm” Sandy. The storm caused $19 billion in damage.
The peninsula homes and the historic boardwalk were the first structures to be hit by the ocean waves. As the locals say, “The bay met the ocean,” inundating the Rockaway peninsula. Howard Schwach attempted to stay in his home during the storm. “I must’ve weathered 30 or 40 hurricanes here since I was a kid, and that’s why I stayed for Sandy,” Schwach explains.
Schwach, 79, often sports rectangular eyeglass frames and navy-blue baseball cap branded with “OnRockaway.com,” the hyperlocal news site he founded in 2015 after moving on from the area’s other local paper, The Wave. Schwach runs the site singlehandedly, reporting on everything from town events to local politics, but mostly on crime, including a swordfight (one of the tamer crimes in the Rockaways).
Having spent almost his entire life in the Rockaways, Schwach has seen his fair share of storms. But Sandy was exceptional. “I noticed that we had more hurricanes when I was a kid, but there weren’t any that [were] as bad as [Sandy],” Schwach told me. He didn’t hesitate to blame climate change for the increased severity of the storm. “There’s got to be some way to account for that. … I definitely think it’s due to climate change.”
“Everybody in Rockaway needs a car and a basement,” was his lead story in The Wave when he came back. Cars from across the peninsula were carried away and basements were flooded everywhere. The morning after the storm, Schwach found that his car had been replaced in his driveway by a 10-foot chunk of the boardwalk, with a bench and railings still on it. While the chunk of boardwalk had traveled three blocks into his driveway, his car was swept two blocks the other direction.
Schwach and his family didn’t stay long after the storm ended. Before a week was up, the electricity and the gas had both been turned off (they were lucky—some companies did not shut off the electricity, causing more than 120 housefires and leading to a major lawsuit). The evacuees fled to higher ground on Long Island for nearly six weeks and didn’t move back home until December 15, though he had to pay rent for the full months of November and December.
Schwach is one of the many renters who make up two-thirds of the population: Despite more than half of rental units being rent-stabilized or publicly owned, on average, nearly half of those residents’ income goes toward rent. “In New York City, there really is no affordable housing,” says Schwach.
The Rockaways’ vast income disparities make it even more difficult for people living in affordable housing on the peninsula. The affluence of the peninsula’s west end brings up the area median income (AMI) of the entire peninsula, which increases the rents for people on the east end.
Even before Sandy, much of the public and affordable housing was poorly maintained and sorely in need of upgrades. While private developers began building “climate-proof condos” and proactive homeowners purchased flood insurance, public housing withered away, making those homes even more susceptible to Sandy’s impact. These vulnerabilities disproportionately affected lower-income people and people of color, but what they didn’t know was that the post-storm recovery and resilience efforts would fall short, too.
NEW YORK IS OFTEN cited as an example of a resilient city, prepared for the threats of climate change. A member of the international 100 Resilient Cities program, New York was one of the first to weave adaptation and climate-proofing into the city’s fabric courtesy of program called OneNYC: The Plan for a Strong and Just City. New York is even home to the world’s first resilience institute.
Resilience, the newest buzzword in urban planning, is about “bouncing back”—that’s how it’s defined in the 2013 “A Stronger, More Resilient New York” (SIRR) report. Resilience is about returning “to the status quo,” says Jesse Keenan, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
But disasters don’t discriminate, yet resilience and recovery efforts often do. Many African American communities are hit harder by storms and suffer disproportionate harm from disasters because of the lack of attention to maintenance in public infrastructure and housing. A Stony Brook University study found that Sandy was no exception: African Americans and Hispanics bore the brunt of Sandy’s wrath.
In her study of New York City post-Sandy, Leigh Graham, a professor of public management at CUNY’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center notes that resiliency efforts are often influenced by preexisting urban dynamics: Resiliency can make the already harsh effects of the storm even worse. “If you have a city that’s inequitable, probably its resilience process is also going to be inequitable,” Graham explains.
Inequality is deep-seeded in the Rockaways. Beginning in 1900, the Rockaways became a popular destination for summering Manhattanites. Colonies of bungalows carpeted the peninsula for the first half of the 20th century, enhanced by a 5.5-mile beachside boardwalk, concession stands, an amusement park, and a movie theater.
After World War II, Robert Moses and other New York officials pursued a policy of de facto economic segregation that pushed marginalized residents to waterfront communities, and the Rockaways emerged as a neighborhood with a feasible daily commute for lower-income residents. Indeed, New York’s most flood-prone neighborhoods are mostly lower- and middle-class since those waterfront areas were some of the only places where middle- and working-class families could historically afford to live.
In the mid-20th century, under the guise of “urban renewal,” the bungalows were torn down, leaving many vacant lots interspersed with affordable high-rise apartments. The construction of public housing along with two bridges and a subway line (all connecting the peninsula to Brooklyn) transformed a vulnerable barrier beach into a permanent year-round community.
AmeriCorps volunteers assist in cleaning out homes following Hurricane Florence in Conway, South Carolina.
The Rockaways are also defined by a steep income gradient that runs from west to east that developed because of historical zoning laws. There’s a series of parallel, numbered “Beach” streets that run along the peninsula, from Beach 227th Street at the west end, to Beach 11th Street at the east end. On the farthest western tip of the peninsula is the most affluent enclave, Breezy Point, where the roads are not only private, but gated. To the east of Breezy Point is Neponsit, where “you can’t touch a house for less than a million, two million dollars,” Schwach says. Residents become steadily less affluent as one travels east down to Baywater and Far Rockaway, where most of the public and affordable housing is located.
“The west-end, east-end narrative is pretty strong,” says Graham. Income segregation also “maps onto racial segregation in a lot of ways. … The peninsula gets very white basically from Rockaway Park [and to the] west,” she explains. There’s also an imperfect divide between the Atlantic side, which is mostly white and more affluent than the Jamaica Bay side, which was historically African American because the Atlantic beachfront was reserved for whites only.
Today, 35 percent of residents identify as African American, 30 percent as white, and 27 percent as Hispanic. The communities continue to be largely segregated, with Hispanics and African Americans mostly living on the eastern end of the peninsula. More than two-thirds of Far Rockaway residents identify as African American or Hispanic, while almost all residents of Belle Harbor and Neponsit are white.
Today, post-Sandy, the Rockaways’ resilience investments have accelerated the gentrification that had already begun its slow creep into the neighborhood. Described as a “slow hurricane” before the real one, the transformation began after Mayor Michael Bloomberg legalized surfing on some Rockaway beaches in 2005. New shops and restaurants moved in to cater to the surfers. “You know, there are some nice new restaurants, but $18 for a pizza and $12 for a hamburger. It’s really not for the people that get by paycheck to paycheck,” Schwach said in an all-too-familiar commentary on gentrification.
The Rockaways have the second-lowest average household income in Queens. A quarter of the Far Rockaway population and one-third of all children on the peninsula are living below the federal poverty level. When Sandy hit, many people did not have the resources to build back their homes. Instead, they left, some never to return.
AFTER HURRICANE SANDY, the boardwalk was completely destroyed. The original boardwalk was made of wood. Schwach used to play in the space underneath the wooden boardwalk as a child, but now the surface of the boardwalk is concrete and concrete fills the space beneath, going deep into the ground to act as a barrier against large waves.
“After Sandy, one of the city’s main priorities was to really get that beach back up online as quickly as possible,” says CUNY’s Graham. It’s an economic engine for the area [and] for the city,”
The new $341 million boardwalk, which debuted in the summer of 2017, is supported by steel pilings and with a concrete face, which many residents think is ugly. The Army Corps of Engineers brought in 3.5 million cubic yards of sand to restore the beachfront and the beach will continue to undergo “beach nourishment.” Protective dunes were also manufactured to protect the infrastructure directly behind the Rockaway beachfront.
Yet on the bay side, a storm surge barrier to protect Jamaica Bay has been promised several different times, but still has yet to be built—even though the bay side was equally as damaged by “surge” flooding and is equally as vulnerable to future storms as the ocean side. This side of the peninsula—and its predominately black and Hispanic residents—did not receive nearly as much infrastructure reinvestment as the Atlantic side. Indeed, race and ethnicity were completely overlooked in most of the resiliency and recovery reports—including the 445-page SIRR report.
The boardwalk, in theory, was a project that would help the entire peninsula recover. But instead, it reinforced the inequality that was already there. A New York City councilman even admitted that aid money was given to wealthier residents first. “Getting Rockaway Beach up and running … has really benefited the white, west-end neighborhoods that live very proximate to it [and] sort of see it as an extension of their private property,” says Graham. “It helps their property values.”
Post-disaster, there were valid reasons to prioritize the boardwalk and other beach attractions, which helped fuel the economic engine of the coastal community. But in the Rockaways, focusing on the economic engine disproportionately benefited the white and wealthy.
Meanwhile, on the boardwalk today, dark metal huts are perched above the cement sidewalk. These concession stands and lifeguards shacks are already rusting and need repair after just one season. So much for resilience.
REAL-ESTATE AGENT Lisa Jackson, the founder and owner of Rockaway Properties, a local real-estate company, figured that post-Sandy, nobody would be buying in the Rockaways. So she moved away. But within three weeks, she had to move back. “My phone was ringing off the hook,” says Jackson. “People wanted to buy.”
Crews work to clean up demolished homes in the wake of Hurricane Sandy's landfall on the Rockaway section of Queens, New York.
After years of being as good as ignored, the storm brought media attention to the Rockaways. The New Yorker, The New York Times, and New York magazineall had feature articles about the area. A documentary was made comparing the peninsula before and after the storm. “To this day, people tell me they never heard of the Rockaways until the storm,” Jackson says.
The flood damage on the A line, the subway line that services the Rockaways, meant that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority had to close down the line and passengers had to use shuttle buses for months. During that period, residents were encouraged to take the ferry. The MTA lowered the ferry fare from $6 to $2 and extended the ferry schedules to include weekdays and evenings. The ferry leaves from the center of Rockaway Beach, takes riders past Coney Island and under the Verrazano Bridge, providing a picture-perfect shot of the Statue of Liberty, and finally drops them off at Pier 11 in Manhattan.
It’s a relatively quick, 57-minute ride (slightly shorter than the subway trip) and a relatively painless (compared with the subway’s longstanding ills) way to get to the Rockaways—and affluent city-folk have begun to take advantage of that. “People from Manhattan who didn’t want to ride the subway could hop on the ferry for the same amount of money, have a beautiful ride, get off and go to any beach that [they] want,” Schwach explained. Three new ferry boats now bring thousands of people to the Rockaways on summer weekends.
Since Sandy, real-estate prices have soared in the areas that were hardest hit by the storm. “Up, and up and up” is how Schwach described them. “They’re real higher than I’ve ever seen before, and I’ve been here all my life,” he says. The population has increased with the price hikes. Though dropping significantly in the two years after the storm, the Rockaway population has reached almost record highs.
The developers and wealthy home-buyers seem to have Sandy amnesia. The resilience efforts are breeding a false sense of security, and homeowners are willing to take risks and give into the enduring lure of beachfront property. A 2017 study conducted by StreetEasy, a New York City real-estate company,showed that sales inventory and recorded sales have increased dramatically post-Sandy. Average recorded sale prices also steadily increased.
In the past year alone, house values in Belle Harbor (Schwach’s neighborhood) have increased 12.1 percent, with the average price nearing a million dollars. In September 2013, less than a year after the storm, the average home value in Belle Harbor was closer to $600,000—nearly half what it is now. The booming housing market isn’t just in the wealthy beachfront neighborhoods. Far Rockaway, too, has seen an almost double in housing value, with a 9.8 percent increase in prices in the past year.
Schwach said neither of his children can afford to buy a home in Rockaway now. “That’s not the way it used to be. When you lived in Rockaway, the kids lived with you until they could afford the house down the block, and then they moved in and their kids grew up and bought houses also. It’s not possible anymore.”
The two major post-Sandy projects—the boardwalk and the ferry route—sparked even more interest in Rockaway real estate. But they also exacerbated the segregation of Rockaway residents—white, wealthy, and young homeowners living along the west-side beachfront and the low-income residents concentrated along the east side and Jamaica Bay. It’s like painting over a wall without taking the old color down, or at the very least, without putting on any primer. Those who needed the resilience programs the least, benefited from them the most.
Resilience policies not only need to be equitable, but they need to be structured to help fill existing inequality gaps. “When you’re not thoughtful about that policy challenge, you create these unintended, problematic impacts for the most vulnerable communities,” says Joseph Sant, the deputy general counsel at the Center for New York City Neighborhoods.
And it’s only a matter of time until another storm hits; in fact, it’s a near miracle that one hasn’t. No two storms are the same; there are lots of factors that determine how a storm hits the coast. The next storm could have stronger winds or higher waves, causing more damage than even the most well-built homes are prepared for. When I asked Schwach if he thought the peninsula could survive another Sandy, he did not hesitate: “Absolutely not.”
This article has been updated