The ocean scene has changed a lot in Rockaway, our tiny New York beach community an hour from the city. As with most water-loving locales, standup paddling has altered the landscape. Within the span of a year, on an average summer day, you might see at least five SUPers per block along our 11-mile coastline.
The excitement here was high for 2013.
Then the storm hit.
In the afternoon, the rain started and we tried to prepare. As the lights went out, we gathered candles and flashlights and packed up sandbags to protect the house. By 5 pm the water had travelled down the streets and was calf-high in front of our homes.
By 8 pm, all hell had broken loose. The electricity was out and the water had risen onto the front porch. While we were in the basement taking valuables upstairs, the basement door exploded off of its hinges, filling the room with a gush of water not unlike the movie Titanic. Upstairs, the water had breached the first floor of the house.
I’d put our paddleboards near the backdoor. Our plan for evacuation was to put the dogs on the boards and try to paddle to safety.
While looking at the raging river in the front yard, I saw 50-foot flames shoot up behind the houses across the street. Our paddling escape plan started to look more like it would happen. But the wind was blowing northwest and the water in the street was raging north too. If we got caught in the current, we’d end up in the heart of the fire.
We heard no sirens. The water prevented the fire department from crossing the bay to get into Rockaway. We sat at the third-floor window for the next couple of hours watching fire destroy our neighbors’ homes.
Like a gift, when the sun rose the next morning, the water had receded. Everyone walked in silence, examining the destruction in utter disbelief. Every single house in Rockaway lost their basements and cars. The boardwalk was gone. One hundred and fifty houses burnt down. Oceanfront homes—some in the same family for generations—were reduced to splinters. The beaches had been sucked out to sea.
No one knew where to start. Eventually, we connected three or four houses to a generator and worked together to clean up our lives.
The looting had started so some people stayed in their freezing cold homes at night. My neighbor sat in his living room with a shotgun, another, a crossbow. Tensions were high; fistfights and arguments were happening between neighbors and friends. It was a nightmare.
For the month-and-a-half after, the focus was 100 percent on getting our lives back. We’re still nowhere near rebuilt. Eventually, I had to go back into the water. On my first ride I panicked, fell off and got caught in the washing machine. I started hyperventilating, thinking that a sharp object from the storm was going to kill me. But that was my head playing tricks on me. Gradually, other paddlers joined me and my rides got better as I relaxed. Next time out, three of us surfed the most epic party wave of our lives.
I guarantee you that on the first warm day in March, you’ll see dozens of us out there celebrating together.
Kelley Brooke owns The H20 Generation, a SUP company based in Rockaway, New York.
This article originally ran in our Spring 2013 issue.
Click here to read about how Hurricane Sandy victims are doing now, one year after the storm.
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Click here to view our gallery of standup paddlers SUPing during Hurricane Sandy.