Garbage Mountain And Armoured Cars: New York Still In Ruins

Garbage Mountain And Armoured Cars: New York Still In Ruins

There was a sense when the lights came back on in Manhattan that the worst of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction was over. Sadly, that’s far from the truth. For thousands upon thousands of people, life is about as far away from getting back to normal as you can imagined.

The Rockaways, a community in Queens, New York, was one of the places the storm hit hardest. We spent some time there during the last couple of days. Here’s what it’s like on the ground.

Garbage Mountain

This is where all of the rubble and debris from the Rockaways is being taken. It’s the parking lot of Jacob Riis Park, though you wouldn’t be able to recognise it as such. The pile is easily 3m tall in places, and it’s as deep as it is long. As shocking as it is now, cleanup has only just begun. This pile will likely grow to three of four times its size in the coming weeks. Maybe more.

Sand Covers the Island

This image was taken in the middle of the island, about 400m from the shore. Sand was swept in over many blocks. At every corner you see massive mounds of sand such as this one, made by bulldozers in an attempt to make the streets drivable. There is still a layer of sand on most streets, ranging from an inch deep to a dune that can stop a bike in its tracks.

A Typical Side-Street

This is one block of Beach 91st Street in the Rockaways on November 5, 2012. It’s not an extreme example. There are streets that look a lot worse than this, and streets that look better. This one was about average.

Debris is piled high in front of every house. You see a lot of mattresses, chests of drawers, fried electronics. You name it. Anything moisture makes useless ends up on the footpath.

Armed and Dangerous

Many residents are armed and are understandably jumpy. They are willing to protect themselves and their belongings at any cost. There is a sign you see posted everywhere, “You loot, we shoot.” It’s not a safe place after dark.

Reduced to Rubble

Huge sections of homes and business have collapsed and/or burned to the ground. Here you see some of the casualties on Rockaway Beach Blvd, November 4.

No More Boardwalk

Rockaway’s iconic boardwalk is gone. In most places it has been swept clean off of the cement columns it sat on. Some sections are on the ground next to the columns, and some have been smashed into neighbouring houses, acting like a wrecking ball. This was just blocks from where I surfed as the hurricane was coming on. It is utterly unrecognisable.


Again, Beach 91st St, this time closer to the water. A huge section of the boardwalk was washed down the street, destroying homes and crushing cars. Currently, no one knows what is going to happen with these huge pieces. If there’s a removal plan in place, the residents haven’t heard it.

Food Trucks, As Always, Are Heroes

Food trucks have been showing up and giving away hot meals for free. Locals are incredibly grateful.

People Helping People

It’s not all bad news though. The community has come together in incredible ways to help each other out. There hasn’t been a central head or organising body. People have just been showing up, asking what people need, and then working together to figure out how to make it happen. This is one of the first distribution centres that popped up on the island after Sandy. It’s on Rockaway Beach Blvd and 113th, and it primarily runs off of solar power. Here, volunteers distribute food, supplies, nappies, really everything. There are now dozens of these, scattered throughout the island.

The inside of a distribution centre that popped up in a vacant house. Nobody’s in charge, it just sort of cropped up, and yet it’s running very smoothly. Supplies come in and are separated into different rooms: clothes room, blankets room, food room, cleaning supplies room, etc. Thick blankets and winter jackets seemed to be the most in-demand items, along with batteries, torches and fuel.

Reinforcements Arrive

Most residents I’d talked to had not seen FEMA or the Red Cross’s presence at all aside from a small van here and there. And when they finally showed up in earnest, they were greeted with cries of “What took you so long?”

US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano was on the scene yesterday, taking a tour of the area but declined to comment (or rather, the Secret Service guys declined on her behalf). She was part of a giant caravan of FEMA and Red Cross vehicles. Let’s hope they’re seriously boosting their efforts here.

What’s Next?

Looking at last night’s stunning sunset, it’s hard to believe that the town beneath it is in shambles. But it is. The situation is Rockaway is and continues to be desperate. With a northeast storm getting ready to pound the area again during the next couple of days, the problems have just begun.

Videos/images: Brent Rose