It’s not like we didn’t have any warning. Television had been talking about the storm for days. The Mayor talked about mandatory evacuations. It was never as bad as they said it was going to be. It was just the TV news reporters trying to scare us.
When the storm finally came they had been right if anything it was worse than anyone could have imagined.
I am photographer who has been documenting the people who live in the housing projects. So I was familiar with this part of Coney Island. Nothing prepared me for what I saw. There was sand everywhere; the streets were piled high with it. The air was so thick you could hardly breathe. The water had reached 10 feet in certain spots and the sand that had been pushed along with the rising water had deposited itself against the buildings in some bizarre snowstorm.
People were in the streets wandering around in disbelief. Stores up and down Mermaid Avenue were closed. The streets had all of the damaged and destroyed debris from the stores on the curb. The sanitation workers were the unsung heroes of this disaster. They came with an army of men and machines and cleaned the streets. They quickly hauled it away. This went on for weeks.
Coney Island is made up of enormous 15-story buildings housing tens of thousands of people. Looking at these buildings you would say they survived the storm. The basements of these building were drowned in dark dirty salt water. The people who lived in these buildings were without heat, hot water and electricity. Elevators didn’t work. Refrigerators didn’t work. After several days people ran out of food and many who were ill or disabled couldn’t walk up and down the stairs and those that could had no place to buy food. All the local food stores closed. Those with cars couldn’t drive them. Thousands and thousands of cars were abandoned in the streets destroyed by sand and water.
Drive along Surf Avenue past these buildings you will come to a gated community called Seagate at the very tip of the Island. It is made up of mostly private homes. The storm leveled many of the homes along the beach and those that it didn’t completely destroy became unlivable. As you move away from the beach block after block of homes were flooded.
People began to remove the debris from their basements and hauled it out. House after house had mountains of debris piled at the curb.
I had spent many hours photographing church services in Coney Island. Now the churches were silent. They had been ravaged by the storm. Many had their entire building destroyed. At best their basements where their books and offices were kept were completely wiped out. Even in this time of their own needs the churches began to feed the hundreds of people who had no food or even a place to buy it. The churches became a center of life not only on Sunday but every day of the week.
Things are starting to return to normal in Coney Island. Much of the sand has returned to the beach. Many of the stores have reopened, but the houses of worship are still struggling and it will be many months or even years before they are back to where they were before the storm.