After Hurricane Sandy: The Coney Island community continues to pick up the pieces

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We all saw the devastation when Hurricane Sandy hit the US last month – but what is life like for residents of Coney Island now that the world’s attention has moved on? Hermione Hoby joins the volunteers there to find out about their remarkable clean-up operation.

Eight days after Hurricane Sandy, every vehicle along the length of Coney Island's Neptune Avenue is grimed with dirty seawater, a reminder that a week ago this street was 15ft under water and most of these cars were floating.

Piled up on the streets outside homes are the wreckages of flooded basements and ground floors. These are disturbing transpositions; what should be inside and private – families' lives and belongings – is now outside. And what should be underground and unseen – raw sewage – is above ground, stinking.

On one long stretch of road, the only places open are a liquor store and a pawn shop. Across the road, at a deserted intersection, a man in a bright yellow chicken suit wanders disconsolately in small circles, no one around to hand his leaflets to and no fried chicken place in sight. My companion raises a hand to him. He lifts a wing and waves back at us.

One car, silted and tide-dumped on the side of the street, looks as though a giant hand has reached in and wrenched the seats inside into its fist. Its twisted wheels are somehow grotesque.

My companion and I take pictures on our iPhones and worry aloud to each other about romanticising devastation. This is a place, however, that attracts romanticisation. Coney is not quite an island, but an anvil-shaped spit of land at the southernmost tip of the borough. To its north-west is the bay formed by Brooklyn's bulge and, on every other side, the Atlantic Ocean.

The subway line ends here, a fact which somehow feeds Coney's reputation as a slightly lawless badlands promising roguish good times. In the summer, teenagers fill the boardwalk and pack the funfair, shrieking as they ride the Cyclone, the New York City landmark of a rollercoaster. Now, its name seems either grimly apt or desperately inappropriate and it shames me into remembering that Coney Island is not just an eminently Instagram-able seaside treat of kitsch and grit, but a community. And an estimated 20 per cent of its population live in poverty.

Unsurprisingly considering its geography, it was one of the most Sandy-battered regions of New York. We're here to volunteer and by the time we reach the Coney Island Gospel Assembly – an ad hoc relief centre – it's around 4pm and getting dark. There are no street lamps, no traffic lights and very few windows have light in them. Police trying to guide traffic have lit small red flares in the middle of intersections.

A woman exuding capability asks us where we're parked. We explain we walked from Avenue X. (The subway is not yet running all the length of the line.)

"Go home," she says firmly. The message is clear: being here after dark is plain foolish.

The next day, in the same spot, daylight this time, I meet Pam Harris, the executive director of a youth programme called Generation Gap which she runs, or used to run, out of her home. Along with every other house on this stretch, it was flooded with raw sewage, but Pam is more preoccupied with her neighbours' plight. She's wearing a phone headset and issuing instructions, breaking off from her call as every second person that passes stops to ask something of her. As she puts it: "I have that 'I-think-I-can-save-the-world' attitude, even though I know I can't and sometimes it's just crazy."

Pam has lived here all 52 years of her life and I remark on what seems to be formidable community spirit.

"You know, it always takes a disaster and that's so unfortunate – it's like in order to put a light up a child has to be hit by a car and that's kinda like here. But we are a pretty tight-knit community here, because we are tiny. Of course you don't want anyone to go through anything like this but if you have to, a small community that comes together is a plus."

On the night of the hurricane, she and her husband Leon sat up all night praying.

"The water came up to the second floor and I was just praying it stopped there, otherwise we'd have been on the roof and who knows?"

Still stacked up against the wall of her house is a ladder to the second-floor window which was, her neighbour explains, his lifeline. This is Stuart Stein, a 65-year-old Vietnam vet, who lives on his own in the house next door to Pam f and Leon. His wife died of cancer in 2007. He wears a cap covered in badges, one of which reads 'PTSD – not all wounds are visible'.

The devastation wrought on his home, though, is visible, painfully so. Piled up outside the front of his house are his belongings, all sodden and reeking of sewage. Inside, three young Swedes – volunteers dressed in rubber boots, gloves and respirator masks – are mopping up all the ephemera and miscellany of a life: coins, a tiny nightlight holder, small sodden bits of paper, all covered in foul-smelling sludge. In his hallway, or what was his hallway, Stuart has a modest survival station where he encourages me to make use of a tiny bottle, a vial almost, of hand sanitiser. He's keen to tell me his story.

"The day of this rain, it happened so quickly," he explains. "As the rain waters were coming in the house I was trying to get everything off the floor. I threw everything as high as I could, on to shelves and on to the bed, never dreaming what was coming. I came outside, I saw the water get worse. I was going back inside and then my refrigerator fell over, the water lifted it up, and locked me out of the house.

So I came and I sat in my truck. I thought I was safe. Then the truck started to float. Water started coming in so I jumped into the back of the truck but then the lights came on, the washers came on, and the windows opened. I thought, God is punishing me, I'm going to die in here, the water's going to flood me and I can't get out. I was able to escape through the back window. The water was above my head. I couldn't get into my house, the water was freezing. My neighbours couldn't get the doors open for me. And I'm yelling 'Leon, Pamela, I'm going to die if you can't get me in your house'."

Eventually he managed to swim to their windows and climb that ladder to their second floor.

"I'm a big man, 300 pounds, so it was very difficult squeezing in that window. They saved my life."

A few days later, the subway is running all the way to the Coney Island stop where debris is washed up in the terminus and all the shops are boarded up. I peer through their grimy windows and see dark interiors which look like shipwrecks: capsized shelves, collapsed walls and groceries strewn about everywhere. Across the street from the station there's a wall painted with 'CONEY ISLAND' and streaked through those big letters, at chest height, is the water mark.

On the boardwalk, 50-year-old Rican Vargas, Coney's self-appointed 'Commander in Chief' ("Obama's in the White House, I'm in Coney Island: we're a bunch of characters here in Coney Island") is presiding over a team of young men who've been ordered to do community service; instead of doing time in jail they're doing penance shovelling away vast drifts of washed-up sand. If one of them so much as mutters, Rican bellows and the kid is instantly shamed back into silence. Hands on his hips, and with one foot planted on a mound of sand, he looks like a conquering pirate; an impression helped along by his long, plaited pigtails, enormous toothy grin and fighting talk.

"We really took a kick to the front teeth," he says. "We got beat up here. This whole island went under. Spooked the crap outta a lotta people. But everyone has a calling and I felt that I needed to come up here and clean the beach. This is not a time to go punching the mayor in the mouth. This is about: I live here, we gotta take the initiative. I did not want to wait for the city, I did not want to wait for the mayor, I did not want to wait for anyone. This is my backyard. I can't clean the whole beach by myself but everybody's reaching out to me – like, 'Yo, go get Rican, get the Commander in Chief!'"

Rican heads the Coney Island Dancers who organise small, free beach parties along the boardwalk during the summer. But he's also a quasi-official community leader; the District Attorney delivers him these young offenders and Rican, who claims to have "a degree in the streets", says that, "they love what I preach".

Was he scared, when the storm rolled in?

"Damn right," he says. "I came down Neptune Avenue – there was no cops, the cops bailed f out; every man for himself – and I'm creeping, and I'm watching buses float by. And that's when I realised the magnitude of this and I turned around. I dragged a few people out. They jumped in my van, begged me to get a ride and I got them out to safe ground. Floating buses, dead dogs, cats… they're digging the sand on this beach now. You don't know if someone's buried under there. We're going to find out a lot of stuff."

A little further west down the boardwalk is Tom's Restaurant, the only place open. It's owned by Jimmy Kokotas, a tall, middle-aged guy with an easy, lopsided smile and a small gold crucifix round his neck.

"I can't tell you everything is rosy and cheery and beautiful," he says. "There are things going on. There are some people who won't answer their doors, a lot of immigrants – just because people are knocking and saying they're here to help… they're not sure they're here to help. It's dangerous. There's been looting here."

Nonetheless, the atmosphere in the diner is purposeful and optimistic. The place only opened a month ago and is unusual on the boardwalk for having a store front. It lost power, like everywhere else, but was otherwise unaffected, and so Jimmy has volunteered it as a command centre for various groups local groups organising relief efforts.

"One hand washes the other," he says with an affable shrug. "We want to be good stewards of our community, we want to help out any way we can. I wish all of the city could have this. But this, what's going on here in Coney Island, this is more of a community. To be honest, the last time I've seen something like this up close was after 9/11; people just volunteering, showing up to help. The greatest motivation for all these people is knowing that they're giving something back. This is the epitome of New York: people coming together, no politics involved, one person helping out the other. And it's beautiful."

The Coney Island Gospel Assembly is even busier than Jimmy's diner. There are long lines for food and clothing and families are eating chicken as they wait. One team of volunteers are barbecuing and the clouds of fragrant charcoal smoke make this feel a little like a street party. A notion which seems almost barbaric, particularly when I talk to Lara, a petite 31-year-old volunteer and activist who doesn't want to give her second name. She's loosely associated with Occupy Sandy, the relief effort which grew out of Occupy Wall Street. Like many, she's bitterly angry about the plight of those trapped in Coney's high rises; low-income housing projects where a large proportion or residents are elderly or disabled. These buildings still have no power, which means, of course, no working lifts: descending 20 or so flights of stairs is an impossibility for anyone not supremely able-bodied.

She talks of opening doors to weeping, desperate people, who've been trapped in their own apartments without heat or light for f days. She politely refuses to take me to any because, as she points out, these people need food or medical assistance, not a journalist wanting to hear about their misery.

"The first building we came to, we met a woman who was supposed to be having dialysis three times a week and she'd missed three appointments. We've heard about a man who has cancer and was supposed to be getting treatment every day at the hospital. He'd missed more than a week by the time we saw him. And then there are people in extreme material need. Awful. There's a huge problem with heat. Blankets go as fast as they come in and they're coming in by the hundreds if not the thousands."

She feels that the efforts from Fema (Federal Emergency Management Agency) and the Red Cross have been too late, too little.

"The only organised effort to addressing the human catastrophe in this situation was the community effort followed by the volunteer effort. It was really shocking that there was no effort on the part of the large organisations. I'm also very concerned about all the doors that people have been knocking on where there is no response. I hope those are able-bodied people who are out trying to get supplies. Or else I hope they're people who decided to go stay with a friend. Only through rumours, but yes, yes I have heard that there have been several deaths already. But I don't know. I don't know when we'll know."

I find Stuart Stein is in the very same spot and stance I left him: leaning against his truck outside his home. His front yard is still piled high with a life's worth of ruined possessions. I ask him how his spirits are.

"You've seen me for a couple of days. I'm pretty happy, right? Just trying to make life best I can."

He shows us inside. There's still no heat, no light and no hot water. The sewage smell is still overpowering but in the back room the floor's white tiles are now visible and an inflatable mattress and a small table with pill bottles constitute a makeshift bedroom. The TV, high up near the ceiling on a wall bracket, is still streaked with the high water mark.

"Somebody donated these two heaters to me but it's still not warm enough," he says. "It's cold in here at night. It was horrible with the snow."

After a moment he ushers us out. "This is enough to make anyone unhappy," and he resumes his post outside. Perhaps he's spending all of every day like this, out on the sidewalk, because to be inside his ruined home is just too depressing. Far better to weather the cold out here, greeting his neighbours as they make their way to and from the relief centre.

"Don't be ashamed Julie!" he advises a middle-aged woman as she makes her way past with a trolley to the church for supplies. "They've got great stuff, don't be ashamed to take what you need!"

"I'm gonna get it back together," he assures me. "Bigger and better."

I say goodbye to Stuart and start walking back along Neptune Avenue. When I reach a puddle I pause to try and wash some of the sewage off my boots. A small Chinese man walks past me slowly and then turns around. I look up and, accompanied with a meaningful look at my boots and a polite nod, he offers me a tiny paper napkin.

That anyone should care about the state of my shoes in the middle of a humanitarian crisis seems both preposterous and awkwardly touching. I dab at my feet and the napkin, inadequate to its task, disintegrates in my hand. His gesture though – a small, gracious attempt to combat a lot of shit – stays with me.

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