Reporting From Rockaway in Sandy’s Wake

On Sunday, Nov. 11, 2012, Stony Brook University School of Journalism Assistant Professor Wasim Ahmad accompanied four undergraduate students on a trip to The Rockaways. The community, located on a peninsula that juts off Long Island’s south shore and stretches along Jamaica Bay to Brooklyn’s southern-most tip, was one of those damaged the worst by Hurricane Sandy. That peninsula is also home to Breezy Point, which lost more than 100 homes to a fire during the storm.

Along with the photos they took, each student wrote a piece reflecting on the experience of reporting from a community that had faced such a terrible disaster. The following are excerpts from those pieces, as well as an introduction from Professor Ahmad. You can find these reflections in full, along with lots of other student work at the JRN 380 class blog.

Rockaway: Global Warming
On Nov. 11, 2012, “Global Warming” is left written on the wall of a building along the coast of Rockaway Beach where nearly two weeks ago, Hurricane Sandy struck with 90 mph winds and a record storm surge. Photo by Jessica Stallone.

Professor Ahmad

Four School of Journalism students and I took a trip out to the Rockaways to tell the stories of the people who have been hit so hard by this disaster.

I started with putting things into perspective – each of us had childhood homes where we learned to walk, had many photos taken, raised a brother or sister, shared family meals. These destroyed homes that the students and I were seeing – each one – was that for the people we talked to. It’s a fact that every journalist needs to be aware of while out there telling stories.

Several of them told me they didn’t realize how bad Sandy really was until they saw it firsthand here. Living on campus, you’d think a few trees fell down and that was it. Even for those who walked a bit off campus, seeing a few downed power lines and trees don’t compare to seeing destruction on the level of Rockaway. Seeing this, I hope, spurred the students to action when it comes to covering Sandy’s aftermath. Getting the stories from Rockaway out to the world is one of the many, many things the area needs right now.

You can read the rest of Professor Ahmad’s story and see his many photos from The Rockaways here.

Rebecca Tapio

Perhaps the most haunting thing for me was looking into houses that had been ripped apart by the wind and water of the Atlantic Ocean, and seeing just how selective they were in their destruction. A dining room was set for dinner, and only one chair was out of place as though, according to a passing resident, someone had only just gotten up from the table. Potted plants remained in their stations next to the front door; kitchen cabinets exposed when a wall was torn from a house all remained closed.

Rockaway: Box
Valentina Villacis, 4, smiles at her father, Darwin, at the St. Frances de Sales donation distribution center in Belle Harbor, N.Y. The family’s first-floor home was wiped out during Hurricane Sandy. “The storms are just getting worse,” Darwin said. “It’s not worth it anymore.” Photo by Rebecca Tapio.
At a donation distribution center at St. Francis de Sales church in Belle Harbor, people collected food, water, essential supplies and clothing that had been aggregated from different organizations throughout the Tri-State Area. For those without power, this was a spot where they could get the help that they needed.

And that’s what will get me going back; the fact that even among all this destruction, there will be people trying to improve the living conditions of those they don’t even know, for no other reason that it is the right thing to do.

You can read the rest of Rebecca’s reflection and see all of her photos here.

Jodie Mann

I was worried about approaching people who were experiencing such difficult times, because I have never been in their shoes. These people were shoveling sand out of their dining rooms and throwing away almost everything they owned. It was nerve-wracking to say the least. I was afraid that I would say the wrong thing and upset someone, or come off as insensitive.

Rockaway: Dunes
A missionary from The Jesus Christ Church of Latter Day Saints walks down a devastated street while volunteering with Mormon Helping Hands in Belle Harbor, N.Y. on Sunday Nov. 11, 2012. The group came out to help residents recover from Hurricane Sandy, which hit the area on Oct. 29. Streets throughout the Rockaway Beach area were covered in sand and debris from the destroyed boardwalk. Mormon Helping Hands volunteers could be seen throughout the area helping residents clear out damaged items from their homes and shovel sand from their yards and driveways. Photo by Jodie Mann
After observing Professor Ahmad I learned that the best way to approach people was to let them see you first. Once someone took notice of me I would approach them and introduce myself. People were surprisingly willing to talk about their experiences. There were people who described the night of the storm huddling with their families and praying the windows didn’t break. There were other people who were excited to tell me about their new projects inspired by the rubble and wreckage.

You can read the rest of Jodie’s reflection and see all of her photos here.

Jessica Stallone

Alone, I walked down Beach 129th Street, in Belle Harbor, Queens, with my camera strap wound tightly around my wrist.

Rockaway: Mask
Many people in The Rockaways can be seen wearing surgical masks, because the demolition puts residents and volunteers at risk of inhaling mold. Joseph Ward, of Franklin Square, puts his surgical mask back on after his mother, Jenn Ward, reminded him of the safety hazards on Nov. 11, 2012. Photo by Jessica Stallone.
Tall, stone chimneys and scattered debris lined the block. What was once photographs, heirlooms and cherished possessions, now littered the ground as unidentifiable gray rubble.

I couldn’t hear what the brown-haired girl at the end of the block was saying, but the words formed on her lips, ”… lost everything.”

When I reached Beach Channel Drive, I realized that I hadn’t taken any pictures of what I had just witnessed. I was overwhelmed, but I knew that it is my duty, as a journalist, to inform the public and record history.

I failed this first test, but, by the end of the day, I became more comfortable with the situation. For me, the importance of this excursion was to prepare myself for a future in journalism, and the only way to condition yourself for disaster situations is to be fully immersed into them.

You can read the rest of Jessica’s reflection and see all of her photos here.

Nick Batson

Rockaway: Pillars
Concrete pillars that used to support the boardwalk now lie bare in Rockaway Beach N.Y. Much of the boardwalk was washed away during Hurricane Sandy, and its remains can be found as far as several blocks inland. Photo by Nick Batson.
Driving into Rockaway Beach is like driving into another world. It’s hard to imagine that what remains after Superstorm Sandy was once a suburban community. The area was devastated by the storm and it still remains without power indefinitely.

Covering situations like this are, in my opinion, the purest form of journalism. You’re telling the stories of those who need it the most, and by getting the word out about the condition of this areas such as Rockaway Beach, it opens the door for more relief to come in.

You can read the rest of Nick’s reflection and see all of his photo’s here.


Photos by Jessica Stallone, Nick Batson, Jodie Mann and Rebecca Tapio.