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Roll on Rockaway

Rockaway surfer with flag 2012 Getty Images


Steve Stathis sits on the deck between his gutted surf shop, Boarders, and a painted wall of lockers on Beach 92nd Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. “We look forward to hurricanes,” he says, “because they bring big waves. That’s the difference between us and normal people.”

Inside, among debris, power tools, and a grumbling generator, his son, granddaughter, and several old surf buddies congregate around a makeshift table, where one of the group has opened up a yellowing album of old surf photos. Five months after Hurricane Sandy, the shop still has no power.

Stathis, 63, is the guy you find when you want to talk to someone about surfing in Rockaway, an 11-mile peninsula in Queens, New York, that Sandy reduced “to a pile of rubble” last October, according to the Wall Street Journal. Home to the only public surf beach in New York City, its breaks are ridden year round by a dedicated local group of about 300, though that number depends on who’s asking.

You might recognize Stathis if you read or watched a lot of news after the hurricane. Press out here followed him like an aura after the tragedy. His brush cut’s mostly white, but he’s tan and tall, with a surfer’s upper-body build and the powerfully smooth gait of all water athletes. His accent is flatly Queens—featuring short vowels and muted r’s—and he speaks in an articulate, friendly way that welcomes outsiders by letting them know who’s in charge.

nullBenjamin Lowy

The wind off the water is cold, with whiffs of salty sand and the distant pop of nail guns, but Stathis sits in the spring sun with his work shirt open. He is the founder and president of the Graybeards, a local nonprofit organization that came together in the wake of 9/11. To date, the group has raised and distributed more than $1 million to hurricane victims. Stathis was one of the first people to ride the break two blocks away, a living legend in the Rockaway surf scene, a scene that’s a half-century old and was spearheaded by him and the guys inside having coffee: Jimmy Dowd, Dennis McClean, and John Roberts, elder of the group, who calls his old surf buddy “a great, great man.”

“Rockaway’s tight-knit,” Stathis says back outside. “Growing up, you had to be careful what you did in this community, because someone would spot you and tell your parents.”

He stops and watches a plane pass a few hundred feet over his head.

“And so there’s a lot of localism here. If you paddle out to the line and try to hog waves, you’re gonna get dealt with. But it’s changed. When I started, there were seriously like 10 guys in the water. Now? Forget about it.”

(And yes, he does pronounce it “fuhgeddaboudit,” though nobody says anything.)

“Yeah. A lot’s changed since it started.”

nullBenjamin Lowy

Surfing didn’t start in Queens, Florida, California, or even Hawaii. It probably started 3,000 years ago in French Polynesia, an island nation of seagoing people who brought he’enalu, or “wave-sliding” to Hawaii sometime in the 16th century. The earliest surviving records are the journals of European explorers, who first banned the activity but soon found themselves sliding waves. Surfing stayed in Hawaii until 1907, when a local named George Freeth formally introduced surfing to America on a business trip to L.A.; Pacific Electric Railway had hired him to ride waves as a publicity stunt in conjunction with the opening of its Redondo Beach line.

Like skateboarding, surfing took to California and then sprung up almost immediately in Florida, slowly moving up the East Coast. According to former pro and surf historian Mike Tabeling, people paddled boards but didn’t surf off Virginia Beach in the 1920s; there’s a 1934 record of a JFK-looking Californian named Tom Blake doing surf demos in New York and New Jersey, though the old gang at Boarders who’ve been surfing Rockaway for six decades say nothing really caught on until the late 1950s.

It was Korean War veterans who made up the first scene—native New Yorkers returning from abroad with a newfound passion they were determined to try out at home, despite the comparatively small waves and 40-degree water temperatures that drove surfers to wear two bathing caps and wool sweaters coated in oil.

Korea, now famous for its waves, saw the war end in July of 1953, about five years before Dennis McClean started surfing the break off his neighborhood beach. But he remembers the older kids paddling out to the break a year or two before. This is around the time a quiet fishing village 100 miles east was turning into a secret surf town, and today both Montauk’s waves and wild ’60s surf culture are the stuff of lore. (Entire books have been devoted to both the Montauk and Korean surf scenes.)

nullBenjamin Lowy

If this were Top Gun, McClean might be Tom Skerritt, call sign Viper. Even among the skilled Rockaway surf elders, McClean is revered for his talent on a board. He was one of the first surfers on the East Coast sponsored by legendary California surfboard company Hobie, and he says he was riding Rockaway “about two years” before he was regularly surfing with the core group that included Roberts and Stathis.

“What year? Hmmmmm,” he says, his winter hat pulled down past his eyebrows. “It was the year I was turned down for Little League. ... The scene was very small—my brother Dee and a couple other guys. So I borrowed my friend’s pop-out board with a seam all the way around it, and I didn’t do so well. And then one of the older guys said to move up on the board. So I did and caught the next wave. That was it.”

Everybody here has their “and-then-I-started-surfing” story. They all begin in different places and end in the water, where they stay.

“Surfing kind of takes over your life,” says Stathis.

“I never looked back,” says McClean.

“Once that bug bites you ...” says Roberts, trailing off.

“I can’t imagine not doing it now,” says Michelle Cortez, a 20-something Manhattan-born artist, who visited here in 2011 from Williamsburg and never left. “Surfing took over.”

nullBenjamin Lowy

Collectively, they offer their mostly overlapping histories of Rockaway surfing, the ebbs and flows of its popularity, their picketing City Hall for the surf beach they finally got in 2005, the reasons for the aggressive local culture, etc. And slowly but surely, a spooky truism arises: Hurricanes mean big waves, and big waves mean good surfing.

“Every year they tell us to evacuate,” says Stathis. “We always say, ‘Well, we didn’t evacuate then and we’re not evacuating now.’ We’re used to hurricanes. Hurricane Donna. Faith. Gloria. And we got excited when we heard Sandy was coming.”

Sandy brought big surf. “Double headers” (waves twice the height of a person) rolled into Rockaway 48 hours before the storm, bringing out a number of surfers and a fleet of cops. Cortez, who’d spent Hurricane Irene taking pictures from the boardwalk, found the surf too strong but hung out on the beach. Police asked her and some friends to paddle out and tell surfers not to surf.

At 4 p.m. on Sunday, October 28th, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg ordered the evacuation of Zone A, which included the coasts of Lower Manhattan, Williamsburg, Red Hook, Staten Island, and all of Rockaway. “This evacuation is mandatory,” said the mayor. “It is for your own safety.” Anyone who stayed did so at their own risk.

Cortez and her neighbors decided to stay. A dozen friends congregated to make dinner and camp out in the second-floor rec room of the steel and brick condo across the street. They called the gathering a hurricane party.

nullBenjamin Lowy

As winds picked up, Stathis watched the storm in a bar in Florida, where he’d gone with McClean for a vacation. His wife, Kathy, planned to fly down in two days. Hours before the storm hit, Kathy emailed a video of herself with their baby granddaughter, Charlotte. “Here we are in big, bad Hurricane Sandy,” she said, holding Charly up to the screen.

Two stories above 91st Street, spirits were high at the hurricane party. There’d be no work tomorrow, so everyone was drinking beer and watching the weather forecast. The storm was scheduled to hit the coast at 9 p.m. But by 5:30 things were picking up. “There was this point of silence at the party,” remembers Cortez. “And then a point where everyone went home.”

She decided to check on her dog at home and found the water up to her shins when she stepped off the curb. It was hours before high tide, and there was a full moon. She ran across the street and “in about eight minutes” packed a bag, unplugged everything, and got her dog. When she stepped off her porch the
water was up to her hips. “That was the moment when I thought I’d made a mistake—that something really major was going to happen.”

A group of about 15 people spent the night in a rec room whose windows rattled in the storm even though they were built to withstand 110 mph winds. At one point someone spotted an SUV floating down the street with three young men inside. Jimmy Dowd, the owner of a surf-gear company called St. James, went upstairs and retrieved three wetsuits, then swam out to the vehicle with two friends, who pulled the men through the sunroof. Power was lost at 2 in the morning when a transformer blew into the side of the building. Cortez stayed up texting her mom every 10 minutes—until her phone went out. Around this time Stathis got a text from Kathy: “We’re going to die.”

nullBenjamin Lowy

Around 5:30 a.m., Cortez and a friend decided to venture out. They walked down the stairwell to find the lobby two feet deep with sand and the courtyard full of broken glass and sofas. The abandoned SUV was wedged in the doorway.

“We stepped outside and the first thing out of both our mouths was ‘the boardwalk is gone,’ ” Cortez says. “There are so many unbelievable things that happened. But the boardwalk being gone, that was, uh ...”

If the boardwalk represents the Rockaways, then what Sandy did to the boardwalk there is metaphorically appropriate. The damage estimates for Sandy are upwards of $50 billion. New York City was the hardest-hit area, and Rockaway was among the hardest-hit neighborhoods in New York City. About $150 million in damage was done to the beach alone. Boarders was flooded with six feet of water, though the tide had stopped at Cortez’s front door.

Much of the seven-mile stretch of lumber disappeared, leaving a line of concrete pillars down the beach.

“Yeah, the boardwalk,” says Stathis, in an odd inarticulate moment. “The lifeblood of our community was the boardwalk, and now there’s no boardwalk.” A football-field-length piece of it had floated down 95th Street, plane-sized chunks with their railings showed up 200 yards away, some of the first sights to greet Stathis when he came back to town two days later.

Cortez describes it as “Armageddon.” Stathis says words can’t describe it. “You had to see it,” he insists.

No official relief would come to Rockaway for four days, though by midmorning people were out exploring the ruins and helping one another. Neighbors met on the relocated boardwalk, bartering for supplies. “Drop stations” were established on Cortez and other people’s front porches, with lists posted of what was needed most. Neighbors sought out elderly and housebound people and ran supplies back to them. Some packed supplies on their backs and walked from house to house.

nullBenjamin Lowy

Dan Sullivan spent the morning paddling around the neighborhood on his surfboard, rescuing dogs and cats. “The surfing community gets a bad notch,” says the musician/producer who lost his studio, “but if it wasn’t for us a lot of people would be dead.”

Sullivan stands at the corner of Beach 92nd and Holland Avenue while his cousin chops wood at a house behind him. He and his brother distributed gas generators around the neighborhood, which still is largely without heat.

Rockaway has been substantially cleaned up, though not rebuilt. Most of the wrecked cars, homes, and boardwalk have been hauled away, leaving only signs of the superstorm: water lines, lawns with no grass, homes with no siding. The neighborhood looks scrubbed clean in a way that’s off-putting and violent. As Sullivan speaks, internal and external renovations are taking place on every street, some by work crews, some by families, some by solitary home owners. Homes are patched with bright sheets of new plywood.

Like most locals, Sullivan says the widely praised federal response here was nil, then slow at best. Five days after Sandy, no one had cell service or running water. FEMA didn’t arrive until November 8th, and six weeks later, most residents were still without power and fighting a new problem at home: mold. FEMA would eventually offer grants or loans to local homeowners, renters, and businesses, though residents say the process was confusing, and ultimately ineffective.

“We got nothing out here,” he says. “Last month I got $2,000 for flood insurance that cost $1,800 a year that I’d paid for 20 years. But you know, it doesn’t matter. The community pulled together and made things happen.”

nullBenjamin Lowy

Since there were no roads or public transportation, the first volunteers pedaled bicycles with trailers full of supplies. Stathis recognized many as the Williamsburg “hipsters” who would often frequent his shop in the summer. “They were riding 15 or 20 miles, helping clean up all day and then riding back,” he says. “We’re gonna have to rename them helpsters.”

One such helpster was Beastie Boy Mike D, who was raised on the Upper West Side and now lives in a Brooklyn brownstone with his wife and two kids. He’s been known to catch a wave or two in Rockaway. The weekend after Sandy, he found himself volunteering here alongside his old board buddy Robert McKinley, creator of Montauk’s Surf Lodge. Supplies and volunteers were plentiful, but hot meals were few and far between. With the help of their friend Sam Talbot, a surfer and former contestant on Top Chef, they set up a station at 45th and Beach Channel Drive, grilling chicken. As lines grew, they looked to upgrade; within a few days McKinley found a weathered truck from the Canadian eatery Swiss Chalet, and the Rockaway Plate Lunch Truck was born. It still bore the Swiss Chalet logo and, appropriately, the word FRESH. In lieu of an “Open” sign, the guys leaned a wooden pallet against the front bumper, spray-painted with the message HELLO ROCKAWAYS. COME · EAT.

By Halloween, Cortez’s drop station was overflowing, to the extent that she commandeered an empty townhouse house across 96th street. Originally a storage area with high stacks of tools, matches, diapers, cleaning supplies, canned goods, and bottled water, 96th Street soon became a full-blown relief center with soup station and warming tent, and a fleet of volunteers running supplies throughout the neighborhood.

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Five months later, the house is no longer just 183 Beach 96th Street, but Smallwater, a nonprofit organization (with a lease) that’s headed by Cortez. Hurricane relief remains the focus, with mold removal and demolition services still in demand, but Smallwater volunteers also offer free trauma therapy. Fiscal sponsors have partnered with the organization to give locals rebuilding money.

A few blocks away, the Rockaway Plate Lunch Truck is still open five days a week and recently served its 20,000th meal. The single-special menu has not changed.

On his balcony on the corner of 91st Street and Shore Front Parkway, Dowd watches a work crew clustered around the half-finished boardwalk he used to change under as a kid.

“The magnet in this community is the ocean,” he says. “It’s a force, and we’re like pieces of metal that stick to it. It holds us here. It brings people to the beach.”

Six stories down, nail guns pop. The wind blows over the flat surf. “No waves today,” Jimmy says, “but it’s supposed to be good tomorrow.”



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