A trip to the Rockaways.
Immediately after Superstorm Sandy hit the Rockaways last October, St. Francis de Sales Parish in Belle Harbor became ground zero. The Rockaways, part of Queens, New York, form a peninsula on the South Shore of Long Island, 100 miles west of the East End. The “Rockaways,” means the “Place of Sands” in the Lenape language, and with 170 acres of beach, that still holds true.
Monsignor John Brown set up the first warming tent across the street from the church. Donations from all over the world arrived every hour. Hundreds of volunteers, from near and far, descended on the warming tent, and thousands of victims followed, to be fed, clothed, healed and guided in the right direction to rebuild their lives.
It was at this warming tent, in January, that Fairway Markets announced a donation of 1,000 turkeys to be distributed throughout the Rockaways to those in need. John Franco, a diligent volunteer from Long Island, was there to delegate.
Joe Realmuto, of the Honest Man Restaurant Group was there, too, dropping off soup from the East End. Without flinching, he accepted the massive number of perishable birds.
“A day later, the enormity hit us,” Realmuto said. “Five hundred turkeys were dropped off on five 4x4x6 pallets.”
It’s not easy storing, cooking and transporting 1,000 turkeys, but Realmuto was quick to point out that he could not have done it alone. “Those turkeys passed through a lot of hands,” he said.
East End Cares, a Montauk-based group, was and still is instrumental in getting food and supplies to the Rockaways. Help also came from people like Bonnie Brady, the executive director of Long Island Commercial Fishing Association; Gosman’s and Stuart’s seafood companies; farmers Ian Calder-Piedmonte and Alex Balsam of Balsam Farms; local restaurants North by Northwest, Nick and Toni’s, La Fondita, Townline BBQ and Foody’s; caterers Art of Eating, Peter Ambrose Events and Dreesen’s; as well as the Amagansett Firehouse, the Ross School and Stony Brook University, all of whom contributed cooking facilities, ingredients, cash, refrigerator space and more.
“It’s almost not fair for me to stand here and take pictures,” said Realmuto, carving smoked turkeys at Townline BBQ. “When you see how hard people were hit there, you realize how fortunate we have it here.”
The chef suggested that everyone who cooked the turkeys, carve them “so all they have to do is pop them into the oven and make sandwiches.”
Driver Lalo Reale was hired to make several trips to deliver the turkeys. After picking up almost 200 cooked birds from La Fondita, Townline BBQ and the Ross School in East Hampton, the van’s first stop was the Community Church of the Nazarene on Central Avenue in Far Rockaway.
People with rolling carts were lined up on the sidewalk, past a beat-up pitbull tied in an empty lot. The church had been dishing out 300 meals a day, whether or not the recipients were Sandy victims. Burger King and the Red Cross had already given out food, but that didn’t stop the volunteers from taking turkeys.
“There’s so much crappy food, like hot dogs, from the Red Cross. It’s nice to get a healthy alternative,” said Franco.
Franco guided Reale to other relief stations. He also made a stop to check on merchant marine Kevin Hennessey. While most people in the Rockaways evacuated before the storm, Hennessey stayed in his home. He was in the basement trying to turn a pump on, to prevent the newly renovated basement from flooding, when water rushed through the cinder-block walls.
Before he knew it, he had fallen in the pump hole with water up to his chest, a flashlight in his teeth. When he finally made it back upstairs, his neighborhood was on fire and cars were floating down the street. He had trouble putting a flotation device on himself and his Jack Russell terrier.
He began to think his daughter, a former St. Francis honor student on her way to college, would grow up without a father. He started to write his family a letter.
“I didn’t dare sit on the couch,” Hennessey said. “I’m a well-trained husband.”
Beach grass is permanently stuck within the windows, and the bottom of the ocean ended up around the house.
When the van pulled up to the St. Francis de Sales warming tent on Beach Boulevard, Charlotte Ghigliazza, a waitress and dancer who lives in North Manhattan, was manning the front entrance, giving directions to drivers with deliveries, including the turkeys.
The 20-something first came to the disaster zone to help shovel houses. She eventually became “the odds and ends girl” doing everything and anything from coffee detail and taking the trash out to calming down victims of the storm.
“The longer I’m here, the more I know,” she said, as she directed a volunteer massage therapist.
The main problem Ghigliazza cited was the need for more information on mold infestation.
“Mold remediation is not something you can do on your own. You need professional help,” she said, as men in hazmat suits walked past.
“It’s amazing that so many local businesses care and countless volunteers have come from out-of-state to help. It’s humbling to see,” she said.
Further west, just past the Breezy Point security checkpoint, local volunteer Anna Marie Willis, was at the Catholic Club with Morgan Parr from Virginia. Parr dropped out of the University of Maryland temporarily, to “gut and pump” houses. He slept on the floor of the activity-center-turned-urban-campground, which also served as a makeshift shop where victims could take what they needed of donated items.
Only a stack of handmade Amish blankets remained. An acupuncturist arrived to volunteer, but the room was quiet. The turkeys waited to be taken. Sandy victims were resuming their lives elsewhere. The streets eerily empty, still filled with sand.