Driving down the ramp toward Shore Front Parkway off the Cross Bay Veterans Memorial Bridge, it is common to catch the red light at the end of the ramp before the Rockaway Freeway.
But the view from the stop light has changed. Now, the view is uninterrupted straight to the ocean.
That’s not how it used to be. Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge nearly wiped the Rockaway Peninsula off the map.
Where the beach ends and city begins is no longer clear. The boardwalk, which runs nearly the entire length of the nation’s largest urban beach is gone — the concrete pillars that held up the wood structure are all that’s left of the icon of the Rockaways. Sections of the boardwalk, with lampposts and benches still attached, now sit along sand-covered Shore Front Parkway and lodged on side streets, as far as Rockaway Beach Boulevard in some places.
Though the Rockaway Peninsula was ordered to be completely evacuated, many people — as many as 50,000 — stayed behind. A number of residents expected a storm similar to Irene, which only caused minor damage to Rockaway in August, 2011.
But this was far worse.
The water from the Atlantic Ocean met the water from Jamaica Bay, inundating the entire peninsula.
At the 100th Precinct, three blocks from the beach at Beach 94th Street and Rockaway Beach Boulevard, police officers had to be evacuated by boat after the water rose dangerously high.
At the western end of the peninsula, Breezy Point was left marooned — a deserted island cut off from the outside world. The floodwaters there were met with another element during the storm — fire.
How or where it started is unknown, but the blaze quickly escalated out of control, engulfing more than 100 homes in a section of the neighborhood between Oceanside Avenue and the beach and Ocean Avenue to the east and Hudson Walk to the west.
Firefighters were unable to fight the blaze because the storm surge was too high and kept fire trucks from reaching the neighborhood.
The fire left Breezy Point a barren wasteland resembling a city in the heart of war. The homes of Rep. Bob Turner (R-Middle Village) and Mike Long, chairman of the New York State Conservative Party, were among those destroyed by the fire.
Throughout the night, rescue workers struggled to save trapped residents as fire crews tried to control a number of fires that erupted on the peninsula besides the inferno in Breezy Point. A row of stores on Rockaway Beach Boulevard near Beach 116th Street burned to the ground. At one point, unable to get water from the fire hydrants, firefighters and other residents tried to control the blaze with seawater from the storm surge. By Tuesday morning, the National Guard arrived on the peninsula after setting up a staging area in Howard Beach.
Waterfront homes in Belle Harbor were destroyed, mansions reduced to rubble. Wood planks, shingled roofs and personal items lay scattered on the beach and street for blocks.
Even two days later, firefighters and displaced residents walked among smoldering ruins in Breezy Point and Rockaway Park, trying to piece together what was left of their neighborhoods. Police patrolled the streets as concerns rose about the possibility of looting.
Broad Channel, which was hardest hit by Irene last summer, was also devastated by Sandy. The storm surge washed away a number of homes and forced residents who stayed behind onto their roofs to wait for rescue. The floodwaters left behind a scene of destruction. A fishing boat sat in the center of Cross Bay Boulevard.
For the residents of Rockaway, the first days after the storm were a rough adjustment. Hungry and homeless residents lined up at the 100th Precinct Wednesday morning looking for food, clothes or shelter. A riot nearly broke out in Broad Channel on Wednesday when people gathered after hearing an unfounded rumor that representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency would be in the neighborhood to answer questions.
Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Far Rockaway), whose office was destroyed by the storm, set up shop at the office of his colleague Assemblyman Mike Miller (D-Woodhaven) on Woodhaven Boulevard near Forest Park.
Goldfeder, who surveyed the damage in his district on Tuesday, said the hurricane had altered it drastically.
“I think my entire district is underwater, except for Ozone Park,” he said the day after the storm.