A phone rings on the first floor of a one-family home on Cronston Avenue in Belle Harbor. The sound of the ring echoes through the rooms and hallways of the home, which is in no shape to inhabit, but works just fine for a makeshift office space.
Todd Miner storms down the staircase and across the torn-up floors of the home to answer the receiver, which sits on a folding table in the middle of what in better times would serve as a living room, but now is nicknamed the “war room.”
“Friends of Rockaway,” he answers.
The house at 135-11 Cronston Ave., located next door to a schoolyard, looks like a construction site. Out front, two construction vans sit parked. The floors are ripped up, as are the first foot or so of all the first-floor walls. The kitchen has been removed.
But for the employees of Friends of Rockaway, a group set up to help the community of more than 100,000 people recover from Hurricane Sandy, it’ll do. Miner — a veteran of disaster relief projects — and his colleagues work from folding tables and sit on folding chairs. The real work isn’t done in this house, it’s done at similar houses all over the Rockaway Peninsula.
Friends of Rockaway was formed especially to help residents with mold issues in their homes. Nearly every house on the peninsula — especially on the western two-thirds of it — was flooded in the storm surge. Its founders are Manhattan resident Michael Sinensky, who grew up in Rockaway and still has family there, and another Rockaway native, Evan Abel, who now lives full time in Israel.
Sinensky, who runs a bar full-time, formed the organization to step in for his neighbors where others have not been able or willing to.
Even nearly six months after the storm, Friends of Rockaway still has a laundry list of clients looking to utilize their services.
Since its creation, Friends of Rockaway has gone into dozens of homes all across the Rockaway Peninsula, including Breezy Point, and done demolition work, mold remediation and rebuilding.
The group operates through charitable funding. It has received $500,000 from the Robin Hood Foundation and thousands more from other sources.
Most of the work is done by volunteers, though the mold remediation jobs are contracted out. Some of the paid jobs are done by unemployed Rockaway residents, a number of whom lost their jobs in the wake of Sandy.
Miner, who serves as director of Friends of Rockaway, said the organization has about 20 employees and dozens of volunteers, depending on the need. He manages its administrative duties from the Cronston Avenue house.
In the makeshift front office of the house, white boards line the walls and form a system which clients are worked through the process. On one wall are names and addresses of homes waiting for demolition work to be done, on a chart that includes the date the work will begin and the team of volunteers will be sent there. On the other wall are homes waiting for mold remediation work, grouped by tens, which Miner will then contract out.
“I’ll look for the best bid price to do as much of the work as possible,” he said.
After the mold work is done, crews will go into a home and replace the Sheetrock in order to get the house to a point where it’s livable again
“We want to put them on solid footing,” said Rick Anthony, Friends of Rockaway’s demolition manager, who is a resident of Belle Harbor himself.
If there is time and resources, Friends of Rockaway will send crews to do small projects, such as removing bushes that may have died in the storm or fixing fencing. Some homes may not need mold remediation and Friends of Rockaway will still do free assessments to see if mold cleanup is needed.
In some cases, clients have been burned by contractors and were left with an unlivable home. In one of their projects on Beach 134th Street, the homeowner is still not able to live in her house. During Sandy, the floodwaters reached into the main floor of the home and because of that, the basement needed to be gutted and the floors had to be ripped up.
Even today, the home still has no floors and workers are forced to navigate through the kitchen and the living room on plywood boards.
Anthony said Friends of Rockaway took over that job from contractors who did not finish the work.
“It’s one of those unfortunate cases where the contractor didn’t do the job,” he said. “There are a lot of those stories here.”
In the basement, one of the volunteers, a Rockaway resident named Joseph, hacked away at a rotten wooden floor while listening to Miles Davis.
“It feels good to give back like this,” he said through his protective mask.
Miner said volunteer crews with little experience get some training working on the Cronston Avenue house, which, he noted, has its own problems. In the basement, jacks hold up the home that had already suffered some termite damage previous to the storm.
“There are quite a few cases where homes had problems even before the storm,” he said.
“The response from the city and other agencies to the storm for my constituents has been abysmal,” said Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Rockaway Beach). “For these guys to come in and do this work for those still struggling in Rockaway, it’s a breath of fresh air.”
For more information on Friends of Rockaway, call (347) 625-7419 or visit their website at friendsofrockaway.org.