Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who covers criminal justice, terrorism and the courts for WNYC. She found her way into public radio after practicing law for five years, and can definitely say that walking the streets of New York City with a microphone is a lot more fun than being holed up in the office writing letters to opposing counsel.
Ferry service into Manhattan started Monday for the Rockaway section of Queens, one of the hardest-hit New York City neighborhoods after Superstorm Sandy. Many residents are still feeling cut off, struggling without power or adequate public transportation options. And now worries about mold are creeping in.
But the new ferries were a small consolation for the trickle of commuters who trudged onto Manhattan soil for the first time in two weeks. Some of them, like Sheila Curran, were grinning all the way down the plank.
"It was so luxurious. I didn't realize it was going to be that nice," says Curran. "It has Wi-Fi. I haven't been on the Internet for weeks. If you saw the Rockaways, it looks like a war zone."
That war zone, along a skinny peninsula directly facing the Atlantic Ocean, is a place where floodwaters have now given way to clouds of dust. A lot of residents in the Rockaways walk around wearing surgical masks. The streets are jammed with sanitation trucks, supply trucks and tractors. It looks and sounds like a construction area, but there's no building going on. It's a demolition zone.
People are flocking back to their evacuated homes because now the concern is turning to mold — mold crawling up walls, into carpets, books and upholstered furniture. Homeowners like Nick Zimaras are see their homes now as gutting jobs, not remodeling projects.
"We're busting up the walls to make sure the mold doesn't rise and [to] keep it safe for the future," he says as workers chop his sink into pieces and toss the carcass aside.
The whole kitchen is coming down — counters, dishwasher, stove — anything saturated with water. Volunteers from two relief organization, AmeriCares and World Cares Center, are whacking and pulling, whacking and pulling.
This house was supposed to be a fresh start when Zimaras moved in six years ago.
"I felt great. It was my first house. It was a brand new area. Totally redone. So everything was new. Nobody lived here before," said Zimaras.
Zimaras lives in a small nook of the Rockaways called Arverne By the Sea. This used to be an eyesore decades ago — vacant, full of weeds and grass. Then developers decided to resuscitate the area in the past few years with gleaming beachfront homes, a new Stop & Shop and YMCA.
To attract homeowners, the city offered tax breaks. The website for Arverne describes living here as providing "all the amenities and fresh air your heart desires" and "the lifestyle you've dreamed about." A new community sprang to life in the middle of a heavily low-income neighborhood.
"And it was right about to turn the corner and then BOOM," says Casey Hernandez, one of the first homeowners to take a chance on Arverne. He calls himself "First of the Mohicans."
"Now you worry about, 'Are people still going to believe in this place? Are people still going to stay here and continue building what we started?' Or, are people gonna get a little shell-shocked and say, 'I'm outta here. I don't want this to happen again'?"
Scattered next to the debris in his house are little decorations his wife once picked out — stuff that celebrated the ocean that engulfed this place — like wooden signs that say "Head to the Beach!" and "No shirt, no shoes, no problem."
Five tropical fish have been floating dead in the tank since the water filtration system lost power.
"This guy was Stripe," says Hernandez, pointing to a black-and-white fish lying belly-up. "We had Yellow. That's not that original, but he was yellow. And we had two little white guys. We call them the Oopa Noopas."
Hernandez says he's not deserting the place now. You hear that a lot around here in the Rockaways. Rather than flee the shore, residents are running straight for it.
Take, for example, Steve Darmody. He spent this morning fishing, just to feel normal again, he says. He crawled under the boardwalk, which used to block access to the jetties.
"The whole thing is that they usually don't let you fish off the jetties. [The police] give you a summons if they catch you. So it was an opportunity to go out and not be bothered, so it was good. It was like the old days — they didn't bother you," says Darmody.
But other residents say they want to be bothered now. Too much of the neighborhood has been rundown and forgotten for years. They say maybe finally, with the world watching, this place will get the rebuilding it's been waiting for.