Superstorm Sandy legacy: Recovery far from equal on NY shore

Oct 25, 2022, 9:05 PM | Updated: Oct 27, 2022, 6:19 am
Dexter Davis, a neighborhood resident, walks the street between two abandoned residential lots 10 y...

Dexter Davis, a neighborhood resident, walks the street between two abandoned residential lots 10 years after the area was severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, in the Edgemere neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York. There are no skateparks in Edgemere. No coffee shops. In fact, said Davis, a former NYC police officer, laments that there are few places for young people to go. "The things that they pump into the other communities around us are more positive (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

NEW YORK (AP) — Even before Superstorm Sandy’s floodwaters surged over New York City’s Rockaway Peninsula, there was an air of decay in Edgemere, a far-flung seaside neighborhood long pockmarked with boarded-up homes and vacant lots with waist-high weeds.

When the water receded, even more of Edgemere’s homes lay in ruin. But there was hope, too, that in the rebuilding effort the predominantly Black neighborhood would finally get the boost it needed to recover from decades of neglect. In the decade since Sandy swamped the coast, those hopes have been dashed.

There is little sign of the development promised along block after block of worn homes, some long unoccupied. Meanwhile, mostly white communities further west on the peninsula have flourished, with recovery funds bringing new housing, businesses, places to gather.

“They tell me that we’re one peninsula — no, we’re not. It’s a tale of two peninsulas,” said Edgemere resident Sonia Moise, whose home filled with seawater during Sandy, her car carried off by the tide.

“You go west, what do they have? They have a skatepark. They have a dog park. They have concession stands,” Moise said. “What do we have? We have homeless shelters. We have hotels that house homeless people.”

When Sandy hit the northeastern U.S. coastline on Oct. 29, 2012, the storm did not discriminate as it caused about $65 billion in damage — much of it in New York and New Jersey. Luxurious vacation homes on the Jersey Shore were torn apart; small homes in working-class sections of Staten Island were submerged up to their eaves.

But the rebuilding effort has been anything but equal. The woes in Edgemere are a case study in disparities that play out across the U.S. after natural disasters: The billions of dollars in recovery money that pour in make their way last to, and have their weakest impact in, communities of color. In New Orleans, the remarkable post-Katrina recovery made for a whiter, more expensive city where poor Black neighborhoods still struggle. In Florida, there are already grumblings along rows of crumpled mobile homes that help has been swiftest in resort beach communities in the wake of Hurricane Ian.

Public spending after disasters has led to increased inequality, said Junia Howell, a sociologist at the University of Illinois in Chicago who researches race, housing and disasters.

“Communities that are whiter and wealthier actually are not only recovering from disaster, but in many cases, they’re doing better,” Howell said. “What you’re doing is giving resources to those who already have the most resources and further leaving everyone else behind.”

The contrast is perhaps sharpest just west of Edgemere, in Arverne by the Sea. Like most of the Rockaway Peninsula — an 11-mile long sliver of barrier beaches that is home to around 124,000 people — both communities were almost entirely underwater after Sandy hit. But Edgemere residents say they watched Arverne and predominantly white communities get more help, and sooner.

Arverne already has a new grocery store and a Dunkin’ Donuts in a new commercial strip. And next door in Rockaway Beach is a new skatepark, rebuilt after Sandy tore apart the old one. Construction of a community amphitheater is in progress.

Neighbors admit it’s not a perfect comparison. Some Arverne investment was underway before Sandy. Six years prior, a $1 billion development drew more white families to the neighborhood — which is still majority Black, though that number is dropping — and some of those 2,300 homes are being resold for as much as $1.7 million. The development was mostly unscathed by winds and flooding, prompting grumbling by Edgemere residents that their homes weren’t built to last.

What’s clear, community board leader Moise and others say, is that Edgemere has never gotten its fair share.

“We have been fighting for years to get the same thing that the rest of our surrounding neighborhoods have gotten. We have been ignored,” Moise said.

Unlike Arverne, Edgemere has no coffee shops or concession stands. Along Beach Channel Drive, the main thoroughfare, there’s a bodega and a Chinese takeout restaurant. Next door, a smoke shop is moving in. Up the street is a massive public housing project.

There’s little sign here of the Rockaways’ history as a beach resort community. The peninsula’s grand hotels didn’t survive into the automobile age. The 1950s brought urban renewal; officials tore down thousands of bungalows that were home to Black and Puerto Rican families, replacing some of that lost housing stock with high-rise housing projects while leaving other razed blocks to nature.

Edgemere and other communities on the eastern end of the Rockaways became dumping grounds for the city’s poorest residents, pushed out across a wide bay to the very end of the land, a 70-minute subway ride from Manhattan.

But just before Sandy, there was hope that things were getting better — even if neighboring communities were seeing faster progress. Edgemere was growing. People were moving in. City officials promised to build some 800 new homes to fill vacant lots.

Sandy brought those small signs of hope to a halt.

The city says it’s working to bring change to Edgemere. Earlier this year, it finalized a development plan dubbed “Resilient Edgemere.” Every member of the community board urged the City Council and mayor to reject it. But the community didn’t have the political clout to stop it.

The plan includes vows of affordable housing near the beach, and high-rise apartments with 1,200 residential units above retail space. There’s $14 million earmarked to buttress the shoreline with an elevated berm to protect Edgemere against 30 inches (76 centimeters) of sea level rise, and $2.3 million to upgrade sewage and drainage lines.

But residents worry the low-income units will add to the neighborhood’s longtime burden of housing the poor. More than a quarter of Edgemere residents live in poverty, the highest among Rockaways communities, according to a recent state report that highlighted longstanding inequalities in the area.

Those who have money spend it elsewhere because the community has few amenities.

And while the plan’s shoreline work might be welcome news, many say it’s another case of being last in line. In other places along the peninsula, sand dunes were beefed up quickly to keep tides from intruding as they did during Sandy. Edgemere’s beach restoration began only weeks ago.

Instead of the city’s plan, community board members want more duplexes and townhomes to fit in with existing housing stock. They want a new school and grassy inland parks that could help absorb the next flood. They want amenities like the fully-stocked grocery stores found in neighboring, wealthier communities.

City officials insist they’ve made progress — they cite wetland restoration and the raising of 100-plus homes against flooding. Stretches of the wooden boardwalk have been replaced with a concrete promenade along the beach. Headquarters for a nature preserve is being built, but construction has limited community access to the boardwalk and beach.

Dexter Davis, a former NYC police officer whose Edgemere home was flooded with more than a yard (meter) of water during Sandy, says his community needs more than what’s outlined so far.

“The things that they pump into the other communities around us are more positive. They give them more leisure things, better quality,” Davis said. “Here, they do things — but it’s not up to the same par.”

Experts such as NYU sociologist Jacob Faber say it’s not just natural disaster that has affected Edgemere and other poorer communities — it’s the lingering impact of years of neglect.

“You have these geographically and socially and economically isolated communities that are in a position to just get hammered, over and over again,” Farber said.

__________

Associated Press writer Deepti Hajela contributed to this report.

Follow Bobby Caina Calvan on Twitter at https://twitter.com/bobbycalvan

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


              FILE - Five years after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the area with a huge storm surge, concrete baffle walls, left, and a sandy berm, right, designed to protect beachfront homes from future hurricanes, are in place in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of the Rockaways in the Queens borough of New York on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2017. After Superstorm Sandy struck New York's Rockaway Peninsula, there was hope that the rebuilding effort would give a long-awaited boost to some long-neglected communities on the 11-mile strip. Ten years later, residents of the predominantly Black Edgemere neighborhood, east of Belle Harbor, haven't seen the type of redevelopment that they'd hoped for. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens, File)
            
              An elevated home stands in the background of an overgrown abandoned lot 10 years after the area was severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, in the Edgemere neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York. Edgemere's story is one that has played out in other U.S. cities after major natural disasters. The billions of dollars in recovery money that come pouring in often come last, and have their weakest impact, in communities of color. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
            
              Children play in a skatepark along the beachfront west of the Edgemere neighborhood 10 years after the area was severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in the Queens borough of New York. "You go west, what do they have? They have a skatepark. They have a dog park. They have concession stands," said Sonia Moise, an Edgemere resident who leads the neighborhood community board. "But what do we have on the east end? What do we have?" she asked, her voice rising. "We have homeless shelters. We have hotels that house homeless people." (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
            
              People watch sand dredging work, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Atlantic Shorefront Resiliency Project aims to construct a reinforced dune system designed to block storm surge. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)
            
              A person looks over artificial sand dunes, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022, in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Atlantic Shorefront Resiliency Project aims to construct a reinforced dune system designed to block storm surge. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)
            
              A bottle collector pushes his cart past an overgrown lot damaged by Superstorm Sandy, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in the Edgemere neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York. Edgemere's story is one that has played out in other U.S. cities after major natural disasters. The billions of dollars in recovery money that come pouring in often come last, and have their weakest impact, in communities of color. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
            
              Around the clock sand dredging work continues, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Atlantic Shorefront Resiliency Project aims to construct a reinforced dune system designed to block storm surge. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)
            
              Weeds overgrow a sidewalk beside an abandoned lot 10 years after the area was severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, in the Edgemere neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York. Edgemere's story is one that has played out in other U.S. cities after major natural disasters. The billions of dollars in recovery money that come pouring in often come last, and have their weakest impact, in communities of color. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
            
              Sonia Moise, a resident of the Edgemere neighborhood, stands by an overgrown empty lot on a residential street damaged by Superstorm Sandy, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in the Queens borough of New York. "They tell me that we're one peninsula — no we're not. It's a tale of two peninsulas," said Edgemere resident Moise, whose home filled with seawater during Sandy, her car carried off by the tide. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
            
              A person surfs, Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022, in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York. While some parts of Rockaway Beach are currently closed due to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Atlantic Shorefront Resiliency Project, others continue to be popular with surfers and other beachgoers. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)
            
              A pipe deposits sand and water from the ocean floor as sand dredging work continues, Tuesday, Oct. 18, 2022, in the Far Rockaway neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Atlantic Shorefront Resiliency Project aims to construct a reinforced dune system designed to block storm surge. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson)
            
              Dexter Davis, a neighborhood resident, walks the street alongside a recently built home elevated to protect against floodwaters 10 years after the area was severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, in the Edgemere neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York. There are no skateparks in Edgemere. No coffee shops. In fact, said Davis, a former NYC police officer, laments that there are few places for young people to go. "The things that they pump into the other communities around us are more positive (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
            
              New luxury housing developments are in process of construction along the beachfront sand dunes, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2022, in the Queens borough of New York. City officials say they've made progress in wetland restoration and other coastal flooding projects after Superstorm Sandy, raised more than 100 homes against flooding. Stretches of the wooden boardwalk that was washed away has been replaced with a concrete promenade along the beach, which is currently being restored after years of delays. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
            
              Dexter Davis, a neighborhood resident, walks the street between two abandoned residential lots 10 years after the area was severely damaged by Superstorm Sandy, Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022, in the Edgemere neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York. There are no skateparks in Edgemere. No coffee shops. In fact, said Davis, a former NYC police officer, laments that there are few places for young people to go. "The things that they pump into the other communities around us are more positive (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

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Superstorm Sandy legacy: Recovery far from equal on NY shore