The Sandy Toll

Boyleing Points

Memory plays tricks on all of us. We forget things so we can move on. We forget some things just so we can deal with them – when they inevitably happen again.

I’m not sure what I’ve forgotten about Hurricane Sandy.  What follows is what I wrote a couple months after.


I headed out of Rockaway in country darkness, depressed.  Emergency lights atop a utility truck flashed giving some light to a side street full of garbage. Piles of it. But, of course, it really wasn’t garbage.  I didn’t need the flashing lights to know these were mounds of personal belongings. Picture frames and clo­thes mixed with broken desks, televisions, baby strollers, and a guy’s favorite chair.  All ruined now.

I drove over the Marine Parkway Bridge, sometimes called the Gil Hodges, through a half-lit toll plaza barely noticing the small sign that read: Do Not Stop / No Toll.  Just ahead, traffic on the Belt was backed up as hundreds of cars waited in the left lane hoping to get gas at the Mobil station on the parkway median.  I inched past and then drove into light traffic on my way to Staten Island to crash at my sister-in-law’s house. 

Hurricane Sandy had made our house unlivable.  And typical, I suppose. Six feet of salt water filled the basement leaving us with no heat, no hot water, no lights. I got some short-term pity bragging rights with neighbors because our heating oil tank had breached giving our mess a distinct, noxious stench. 

A neighbor and realist had glanced up and down the block and offered a deadpan spot-on summary: “Now this, is a fuck’n disaster.”  

With that, a Sisyphean routine began. Pump out water.  Drag stuff out to the curb.  Tear down sheetrock. Curse the nonexistent cell service.  Help your neighbor. Get help from your neighbor. Pump out water again. Drive to Staten Island or Bay Ridge for a few hours to nap. Do it all again the next day.

Of course, we knew things could’ve been worse. We were lucky compared to good friends who had had their houses burned to the ground or others who had water flood the basement and the first floor. Local business owners, almost all of whom live in Rockaway, got a double dose of misfortune. Steve Stathis battled flooding in his home for days before he could even get to Boarders, the iconic surf shop he owns in Rockaway Beach. When he finally got there, a 50-foot section of boardwalk rested in the middle of the street after floating three hundred yards from where it started. The store was destroyed.

Rockaway needed help, a lot of it, but that obvious fact seemed lost on Mayor Bloomberg as he insisted the New York City Marathon could go on as scheduled. 

Locals seethed. There was angry talk about dropping shovels and heading to a spot along the marathon route and locking arms to block the race.  Actually, it was more than just talk.  It would have happened.

Rockawayites have long felt snubbed by the city. Lousy transit options, unfair tolls on the two bridges to the peninsula, failing schools, cops issuing tickets for open beer bottles on the beach (while concert goers in Central Park could openly drink wine) are familiar grievances.  Grousing, like basketball and surfing, is a community past time.  But this was different.  

The thought that the marathon would go on meant the city didn’t get it. This was a true disaster and the city was sending a signal that it was business as usual. Confirming this fear, was the odd absence of television news crews. Normally, they’d show at the rumor of a missing swimmer. Now, with twenty or more houses burned down and dozens more collapsed along the beach, news cameras and reporters were nowhere. FEMA and Red Cross hadn’t been seen. Rockaway needed help and no one seemed to know or care.

All around, you could see that the spirit was willing — it always is in Rockaway — but prospects were grim. 

But then a different tide rolled in. I came off the Marine Park bridge into Rockaway one morning.  I can’t remember what day it was.  I can’t recall the sun or the color of the sky. I just remember my eyes stretching in wonder and disbelief as I passed the side streets I’d glanced at the night before. The debris was gone, many streets clear except for a layer of dusty sand.   Apparently, Sanitation crews had worked overnight — and worked miracles at that.

It’s a moment I won’t forget.  The Sanitation workers had given me the one thing I needed: hope. They illuminated the end of the tunnel.  The message was loud and clear: Things were actually going to get better.

These city workers were relentless.  You’d almost be embarrassed by the amount of garbage you were dumping at the curb but the guys in green scooped, lifted and dragged tons upon tons of stuff all the while showing both strength and empathy. 

They were heroes to many and a soaring symbol that the city — yes, Mayor Bloomberg, too — was coming through in the clutch. The city had our back.

And then volunteers came from everywhere.  And a ferry service was started.

And traffic cops kept things rolling. Although Rockaway is full of resilient, can-do people, all the help was needed.  And is still needed.

But does Governor Cuomo know that?  Almost exactly a month after Hurricane Sandy rolled over Rockaway, the tolls on the bridges to Rockaway were suddenly reinstated.  What’s that telling us?  You had your month, now be quiet?

Volunteers now have to pay tolls to come and help. Families who’ve been displaced and have to check on their battered or burned homes must pay a toll for the privilege. Residents of Broad Channel have to pay a toll to go to the post office in their own zip code.  So many stores and businesses are closed that people have to leave the peninsula to go get essentials but first they’ve got to pay a toll.  Both ways.

Things are not back to normal, Governor.  It’s a long road back and we don’t need tolls on that road.

We’re too busy to have a rally on the bridge or plan civil disobedience. But maybe we’ll be forced to find the time.  How about you save us the trouble and lift the tolls until we’ve got our legs back?  This is Rockaway, we’ll get there soon enough.

Postscript: Rockaway people rose to the challenge. Governor Cuomo, FEMA, Red Cross, Build It Back, not so much.  Hats off to those who made Rockaway Strong!

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