Rebuilding the Rockaways

 

Text, photos and video by MARIANA IONOVA
April 2013

When Superstorm Sandy ravaged the Rockaways, Paula and Rick Engelman were left with close to nothing. The ocean-side basement apartment they had called home for more than a decade was submerged during the storm and most of their belongings were swept away. They had no place to go so they lived in their car for a week until they could no longer take the cold anymore and decided it was time to go. Through family, they found a cluttered, forsaken apartment in Brooklyn, which had been vacant since its occupant’s death 10 years ago. The plumbing didn’t work and the dust had them wheezing but they felt lucky to have a roof of any kind over their heads.

But, for Rick, leaving the Rockaways for good was not an option. Even as dozens of residents were fleeing amid fears that another storm of that magnitude would inevitably strike again in the future, this wasn’t enough to keep him away. He was born there and, for 60 years, it had been the only home he had known. Everything he knew and loved was in the Rockaways and he could not see himself living anywhere else. Paula, who grew up in Tennessee, begged him to bid the neighborhood goodbye but he was firm: they would rebuild their home as it was, where it was.

The process took months and cost them nearly $30,000. They had to build nearly everything from scratch and they did much of it themselves. Just before Easter, the two were finally able to move back and ease into normal life, after being homeless for five long months.

Meanwhile, the future of the Rockaways remains uncertain, as the city continues to mull over solutions for rising sea levels that are projected to bring Sandy-like flooding to the city every two years. But despite Rick’s love for the neighborhood, Paula has made one thing clear. “If there is ever a next one, the Rockaways will be a lovely place to visit, instead of living there.”

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