One year ago, a hurricane – the worst storm the Northeast had ever seen – touched land, wreaking havoc on communities from Washington, DC through Maine. One of the most devastated areas was Rockaway, Queens. On October 29, 2012, water from the Atlantic Ocean converged with that from Jamaica Bay. The peninsula was the meeting point. In spite of the widespread destruction, residents have begun to rebuild and plan to break ground on a garden – a symbol of hope and rebirth, in wake of the anniversary of Sandy.
“We're proud of how far we've come, but there's still a long way to go,” said Milan Taylor, Founder and President of Rockaway Youth Task Force (RYTF). “Rockaway was a devastated community before the storm; the storm only exacerbated our problems. The garden will serve as a reminder that Rockaway is still here, still in need, and still willing to survive.”
No one could have predicted the severity of the storm, or even the events that followed. Sandy swept through the area taking with it much of the iconic boardwalk that once stretched almost the entire length of the peninsula, leaving instead a broken and disconnected people. Literally. The A train – the only public means to get to New York City – was out of service for seven months. Some residents lost jobs as a result, while others were unable to attend school.
According to Taylor, the first response following Sandy was surprising in that there was none. “Red Cross, FEMA – were nowhere to be seen,” he stated. “Growing up we’re trained to wait for the fire department, wait for the police to help, but in this situation no one was there to help.”
That’s when RYTF, which up until that point had been more of an extra-curricular activity, sprang into action. The group of about 45 members, ranging in age from 15 to 29 years old, delivered food to those who were too sick or elderly to leave their homes in high-rise buildings. The Task Force also opened up a greatly needed farmer’s market that sold fresh produce, after many grocery and corner stores were destroyed leaving residents without access to fruits and vegetables.
“That was definitely something we saw that had a lasting impact on the community,” said the 24-year-old. “Our volunteers literally saved lives.”
While there are still lingering effects of the storm, Taylor relayed that it did play a hand in helping residents accomplish something he has never seen in his lifetime until now: a unified community. Groups that would normally compete with each other for resources are working together to speak out on things like better protection against future storms, boardwalk rebuild and no home or flood insurance increases from FEMA.
The garden, a 1.5-acre plot of land that RYTF acquired, looks to build upon this feeling of camaraderie and to give the young people of the Rockaway the means to play a more active hand in the rebuilding process.
“Very often outside organizations come in and they rebuild this, repair that and the community really isn’t a part of it,” stated Taylor. “And that’s the whole purpose of the project. Young people can make a difference when given the opportunity – they can make a very strong impact.”
The Rockaway Youth Task Force is set to break ground on October 26, 2013. Each resident will have the opportunity to take ownership of the garden and plant what they see fit, bringing their individual personalities into the mix.
The Day of Service kicks off at 9:00 am this Saturday. Guest speakers include: NY State Senator James Sanders Jr. and NYC Councilmember Donovan Richards. For the full schedule of events or to attend, click here.
Ravelle Worthington is a writer living in New York. Follow her on Twitter @ravmo.