Picking up the Pieces

Surfers help clean up Rockaway, New York, after Hurricane Sandy

One of the many houses in Rockaway obliterated by Sandy. Photo: Bush

Three days after Superstorm Sandy made landfall on the Eastern Seaboard, the coastal town of Rockaway, NY was still trying to come to grips with the devastation that had overtaken their seaside community. While images of the clean-up efforts in parts of Manhattan and other ares of the state filled the 24-hour news networks, Rockaway was literally left in the dark, cut off from the rest of the state. But with the help of a group of dedicated surfers, the first signs of relief were en route.

“When I first got to Rockaway, I went to the Rockaway Surf Club to drop off some clothes and other supplies, but when I got there, I realized that it was a lot worse than I thought it was going to be,” says Brooklyn’s Mikey DeTemple, who’s become a standout surfer/filmmaker in the city. “It was totally devastated. Everything was flooded and there were whole blocks of the town burned down. It was basically a ghost town. As far as I could tell, FEMA hadn’t been there, the Red Cross hadn’t been there, the National Guard hadn’t been there. It was instantly clear that Rockaway didn’t need a clothing drive, they needed man power to get in there and begin cleaning up from the storm.”

DeTemple sent out a message on his Facebook account for volunteers to come help with the clean-up efforts. The next day, nine friends met up early in the morning in front of Pilgrim Surf and Supply shop in Brooklyn, piled into DeTemple’s truck, and headed to Rockaway.

Upon their arrival, local residents directed them to two severely damaged homes that belonged to a pair of elderly couples. Water had flooded the neighborhood and ruined all the belongings on the first floor. The volunteers spent the next eight hours cleaning up what they could, sifting through residents’ belongings that had now been relegated to trash. All around them were thousands of homes in similar states of devastation. More needed to be done. Once again, DeTemple put out a call out for volunteers through his social media accounts.

On Instagram he posted an image of eight volunteers, standing before a pile of debris in front of an old brick home along with a call to action: “It took 10 of us to empty the contents of two older couples’ homes today. There’s 40,000 of these homes in @rockawaybeach_nyc that need this same thing,” the post read. “Come to @pilgrimsurfsupply tomorrow morning to carpool and help. Leaving at 10 a.m. Bring gloves, shovels, brooms and contractor bags.”

The following day, nearly 150 volunteers, all surfers, showed up to help. By the time they arrived, the Navy had begun to filter in. With the Rockaway Surf Club acting as headquarters, teams of volunteers dispatched to help out some of the hardest hit homes. According to DeTemple, when residents of the area asked which organization the group belonged to, they simply replied, “We’re just surfers who want to help.”

For Zak Bush, a surfer/photographer involved in the clean-up efforts, the devastation he found at Rockaway was heartbreaking. “It was shocking, I’d heard that things where bad out there but words couldn’t describe the destruction. I knew that there had been a few fires, but wasn’t expecting to see full city blocks that had burdened to the ground,” he said. But with his help and other volunteers, Rockaway will bounce back.

More than just water damage, numerous homes were burned to the ground in Rockaway. Photo: Bush

“It was amazing to see that kind of a turnout. Everyone has been so unbelievably positive. Entire neighborhoods have come together to help out,” added DeTemple. “It’s been a real bright spot of humanity amid such a tragic event. I never thought I’d be working with the Navy and a bunch of my friends shoveling sand out of people’s homes. But I think we’re making some progress. There’s going to be a lot of work and obstacles we’ll need to get through before we can really start putting the town back together.”

Some of the obstacles DeTemple cites include the gas shortage that’s plaguing the area. “The gas shortage has been a big problem. You have to wait in line at some stations for up to eight hours, hopefully when you get to the front of the line there’s still gas.” According to reports, the gas shortage should begin to resolve later in the week.

To make a tragic situation potentially worse, there’s a projected Northeastern storm set to make landfall in the area later this week. “We’re all watching that storm pretty closely. We’re worried about it because it’s forecast to whip up some strong winds and drop the temperature,” reflects DeTemple. “A lot of people’s basements are still flooded, and if the temperature drops enough, that water could freeze and possibly break up the foundation of the house. So we’re working on doing everything we can to make as much progress as possible before that storm hits.”

Rockaway Surf Club, which served as headquarters for relief efforts in the area. Photo: Bush
More destruction in Rockaway. Photo: Bush
Recently, elements of the US Navy have joined in to help clean up Rockaway. Photo: Bush