Rebuilding in Rockaway
Ask locals for characteristics that typify the people of Rockaway and the chances are that you’ll hear words like “tough,” “resilient,” and “gutsy.” All are traits that residents here have needed in spades in recent years.
First there was 9/11. Fifty locals perished that day, many of them firefighters called into action as the Twin Towers smoldered in the distance. Then, a few months later, a plane crashed into the Belle Harbor neighborhood, killing all 251 passengers and five people on the ground. The area looked like a warzone in the aftermath as a gyre of thick black smoke unspooled into the sky from the scorched crater below.
The landscape and the community were both scarred, but Rockaway residents picked themselves up, as they always do. A handsome memorial was built, inscribed with the names of the victims. Life went on.
Then, in late October of 2012, disaster struck again. The peninsula was one of the areas worst affected when Superstom Sandy battered the Eastern Seaboard. Nine people died, countless homes were ruined and the area’s most iconic landmark, the Rockaway boardwalk, was torn apart.
“It was unbelievable, the amount of water that started coming from everywhere when the bay met the ocean,” said Anna Burkle, a dog groomer, who lived one block from the beach at the time of the storm. “A piece of boardwalk with a bench attached to it washed up our street. It was really dangerous.”
Sandy threatened to strip Burkle of her home, as well as her livelihood. The high waves that swept down her street flooded Burkle’s basement and destroyed much of the dog grooming equipment she had stored there.
Burkle wasn’t the only small business owner whose source of income was swept away. Hampered by the floodwaters, local firefighters were unable to stop a blaze that burned down a two-block commercial strip of more than a dozen buildings.
Chris Romulo, owner of Crom Martial Training and Fitness Center, remembers the dark days after the storm. “For at least 4 months we didn’t have a place to hold classes. All of our equipment was wrecked, and a lot of our members were displaced. We lost everything,” he said.
The impact of Superstorm Sandy on small businesses such as these was particularly brutal. Many ventures lacking the cash reserves to endure weeks without any income during the aftermath simply disappeared. The city doesn’t track business closures caused by storm, so it’s tough to say how many vanished in the wake of Sandy, but FEMA estimates that around 40% of all small businesses were unable to rebuild post-disaster.
Burkle and Romolu were able to count their businesses among the survivors after seeking assistance from Renaissance Economic Development Corporation. Both applied for, and were granted, a Hurricane Sandy Emergency Loan.
For Romolu, the money provided the working capital that kept his gym going in the limbo period before he could reopen. “For a while we did fitness classes in our living room. Then we started holding classes in a small yoga studio in the evenings. We made the best of what we had,” he said.
Burkle used her loan to invest in new equipment and secure a location where she could set up a dog grooming salon. “It’s thanks to Renaissance that I could start all over again,” she said. “It hasn’t been easy, and not all of the customers I had before the storm have returned. But I’m still in business, so I consider myself fortunate.”