TYLER BREUER: After Hurricane Sandy
BIG SKY WIRE is a regular Coastalwatch column produced by Michele Lockwood & Andrew Kidman. This week, Michele Lockwood speaks to a member of the Long Island surfing community, Tyler Breuer.
Tomorrow is Thanksgiving in America. Many people along the Eastern Seaboard, including two of my cousins and a handful of friends, are without homes. Without a doubt, everyone affected by Sandy will be sitting down at their tables and have real reasons to give thanks.
Hurricane Sandy came with a message, a wake-up call to reassess how we live, what we consume, our dependencies on oil, electricity, our need for clean water, food and how quickly all the things we take for granted can be whisked away. Sandy grabbed the world by the collar and screamed, “Climate Change Is Real! Are You Listening Now?”
The positive side of this is the opportunity to now approach new ways of living- the choice to go greener, more sustainable and progressive. I saw a photo of a community that was wiped out by Katrina and they had completely rebuilt with solar powered homes. Good things do come from bad.
Tyler Breuer has grown up in the Long Island surf community. He is one man who has taken on the role of getting out into these battered communities and giving a helping hand. I asked him a few questions about life on the front line of the Sandy clean-up effort. And his ideas of how these places could possibly rethink where they rebuild and how they live.
CW: Please describe your daily occupation and other ways surfing is threaded into your life.
TB: I work at my family business, ‘Sundown Ski and Surf Shop’ which is a chain of ski/surf/and patio furniture shops on Long Island. The surf shop is one of the oldest surf shops in NY. I handle everything from the buying to social networking, to sales and training employees.
On the side, I organize surfing events in NY under the name SMASH (Surf/Movies/Art/Shaping/History). I guess you can say I’m neck deep in surfing one way or the other. Throughout my life, surfing has played a pivotal role in my life. There are too many ways to describe how surfing plays a role in my life. It helps guide or influence certain choices I make. I like to think that I can turn to surfing for philosophical answers to my life. Many of the friendships I have made over time have been built on a foundation of surfing and mutually shared experiences through surfing. It has taught me to be selfish and one trackminded at times.
On the other hand, that one track minded focus and enthusiasm has been one of my greatest strengths. Through surfing, I have connected to a greater community and have learned that community is one of those things I have learned to value more and more as I grow older. So, when a disaster strikes your community whether it’s someone’s passing, or a Hurricane destroying the homes and lives of loved ones, it forces you to spring into action.
Where do you live? How was your home or the area where you live affected by Sandy?
I live in Brooklyn. My wife and I were very lucky. We had power the whole time and escaped relatively unscathed. I have survivor’s guilt. A lot of my friends lost everything. Their homes, all their memorabilia, surfboards, photos, clothing, cars… A lot of people lost their whole lives and have to now start from scratch. Only now, a lot of them are behind the eight ball. Their houses that they had invested in are ruined; so many of them are being condemned and they will never get back what they put into their homes. It’s really heartbreaking.
Being so far away from home when a disaster like this takes place, you get a long-distance perspective on things. I couldn’t help but wonder why so many people were rushing to get back to work when there were no means of transport, no fuel, no electricity, heating, little water or food. Do you think it was a form of being in shock and wanting to resume normal life? What was it like for you to return to work post-Sandy?
I think it depends on the area you live in. Some people on Long Island and NYC were not really affected by the storm and so there was a bit of this out of sight, out of mind thing going on. Some people were without electricity and information but their homes were intact. Those people were just in the dark about things and had no clue as to what was going on, right in their backyard.
Then there are those who live in the areas that were destroyed and they were heading back to work as soon as they could. I think some people just wanted to get some sort of normalcy. A routine that could help them feel like there was some sort of structure. I mean, if you lost your house, a place where you felt secure and safe, and now you didn’t have that anymore, the only thing you could do to recapture that is to go to work. I think there was a lot shock and denial. I think a lot of people didn’t know what to do and the clean up task at hand was so big and daunting, that it might be easier to just go to work and avoid the traumatic recovery.
Then you’ve got people who have to go back to work, because in the States, we have this work culture where bosses expect you to show up to work, even if you just lost your home. Nobody can afford to lose a job at the moment and the fear of being let go is another motivating factor.
I think a lot of people went back to work right away for a lot of different reasons and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. For some, that is how they deal with uncertainty.
I had actually gone to my shop the day after the storm passed to check out the damage. We were lucky. We just lost power. It was really eerie driving around that first day on Long Island. Roads were empty. Everything was closed. It had a very post apocalyptic feel to it.
How prepared were you for the hurricane? Did you think it was going to be as bad as it turned out to be?
Because our area remained fairly close to normal, we were fine. But had we lost power like they did in the city or experienced flooding like some parts of the area, we probably weren’t as well prepared as we should have been. We made sure we bought the essentials and enough non-perishable foods to last us for a few days but had the area where we lived been more affected, I don’t think we would have been as prepared for sure. I had a feeling this was going to be a bad storm and I thought there would be some major damage, but I never expected anything like what had happened. I mean, the whole downtown of Manhattan was under water. The whole barrier island of Long Beach was submerged for a short time. Not too many people expected Rockaway to look like a war zone. This storm really caught many of us off guard.
The relief efforts have been amazing, inspiring and I know you have taken on a very active role in organizing efforts to many coastal areas that are in dire need of help. Can you describe some of the work you have been doing to help people whose lives have been literally turned upside down. What are some of the things you’ve seen that perhaps weren’t broadcasted on television that you think people should know about?
I had talked to my friend Joe Falcone who lives in the Rockaways a day or two after the storm. I never had heard him sound so shaken and sad. He lost almost everything. Some of his friends had lost everything except the shirt on their back. That one phone call inspired me to start collecting supplies for Joe and his friends.
Social media is an amazing thing. The next thing I know, a small clothing drive turned into this big effort. When we got out to Rockaway, we were blown away by the destruction and lack of government there to help.
We met up with the Rockaway Beach Surf Club and saw the incredible work they were doing. That just got us to connect with more and more people doing amazing work.
Then Jon Rose from ‘Waves for Water’ arrived in town and helped organize all the incredible people doing great work to help their communities by gathering them together and offering his organization to help support their work. It’s actually amazing what they have been doing. They are not trying to take charge at all. All they are doing is finding the people who are organizing locally and supporting them by offering resources and funds to purchase the supplies they need. It’s really empowering for the local communities and helping all of us to coordinate and share best practices.
I have been working with an amazing crew who have been organizing volunteer missions to Long Beach and Rockaway, helping people clean out their homes, collecting information and trying to adapt to the changing conditions to figure out what people need and then getting them the supplies and help they are asking for.
On top of that, a group of us are organizing a series of fundraisers for ‘Waves for Water.’ Part of the goal of these fundraisers is to bring the local surf community together and boost morale. The first event is called, ‘New York Surf Stories.’ It’s an evening of NY focused surf films all made by local filmmakers. I think that is going to be an amazing event.
As far as what I have seen on the ground, it’s definitely much worse than it appears on TV or the internet. I think one of the toughest things we have been witnessing is going into peoples homes and having to explain to them that most of their belongings that were left in flood water have to be thrown out due to the sewage, oil, and gas that got mixed into the water. There are lot of people whose whole lives are now strewn all over the curb side.
I met one woman, Robyn, who was a school teacher that worked with special needs kids. Her home was flooded in Long Beach. I was with an incredible group of volunteers. When we went into her home, we knew right away that she was a hoarder. That was really difficult and emotional. She was a widow and we had to throw out a lot of her husband’s belongings. I can’t tell you how hard that was. I can’t imagine how difficult that must have been for Robyn. She was really sweet and nice and understood what we needed to do and let us help her.
A day later her cousin wrote to ‘Waves for Water’ thanking them for the work we did and how it really had helped her. There are so many stories like that. There is a lot of sadness mixed with flashes of wonderful compassion from everyone who has been out helping.
I heard one woman’s perspective in Jersey, she was saying that she’d spent 40 years of her life living near the sea and loved every moment of it but she always knew something like this could happen and it has, despite this, she will rebuild and keep living there. Being a surfer, you are aware of the power of the ocean and the storms that develop in it. It was shocking to see how unaware a lot of people were of the possibilities of that storm.
And now to think this is the first in a possibly very bad pattern of storms to come and having the gift of hindsight, what are some ways that the intensely damaged areas can be made to better weather future storms, also considering how so many houses on the East Coast are built on the water?
I wish I knew to be honest. This is something I have been talking about since the storm hit with other volunteers and organizers. We are just starting an initiative to help bring those communities together to start discussing how they want to see their towns and cities rebuilt. I’m trying to bring in some friends who are urban planners and come up with solutions. I think a lot of homes are going to need to be raised higher if they want to continue living near the water. I think those with basements a block from the beach are going to need to get creative on how they can keep water and sand from collecting in there.
The city and towns need to adopt a stricter policy on buildings and homes and some places may have to look at creative ways to help stem the beach erosion. Manhattan needs to seriously take a look at Amsterdam’s Loch mechanisms and wonder if it’s something they need to do to prevent the level of flooding that we saw. I mean, the whole FDR drive was under water! Battery Tunnel was filled up completely. We really need to reassess how and where we are going to rebuild.
I’ve heard that the pollution levels in the ocean are dangerously high and the line-ups are loaded with debris. What does this mean for surfers who want to return to the water and catch the best of the winter swells they wait all year for?
For me, I’m not thinking about going in the water for at least 1-2 months after they stop pumping semi raw sewage in the water. By the way, they are still dumping sewage into the Reynolds Channel (the waterway that separates Rockaway and Long Beach).
I was once hospitalized for a sinus infection that almost turned into Meningitis years ago. That all came from surfing in polluted water. It’s not worth it to me to go in the water. But, a lot of surfers are not smart about things and tend to let their impulses guide them and many have already started to surf again. A lot of them are coming out of the water talking about how bad their wetsuits smell. I think a lot of surfers are going to be taking surf trips to the Caribbean this winter.
I also believe we could see in the coming year a lot of people getting sick not just from the water, but the mould and other toxic particles that is hovering in the air and in many of the homes. A lot of people are not wearing the correct facemasks and are exposing themselves to some very toxic stuff. I’m really scared of that.
How’s the wildlife been affected?
Don’t know. I’m pretty sure a lot of it is in trouble.
Are there efforts being made re-build the boardwalks? They are such a romantic part of the lifestyle of the East Coast: Rockaway, Coney Island and in New Jersey… I can’t imagine life by the sea there without them.
I haven’t heard of anything official yet, but I can’t believe any of these cities and towns would abandon their boardwalks. I believe they will rebuild the boardwalks and the communities are rallying to make this happen. The strength and compassion that has been seen in the aftermath of Sandy is amazing and that is what it will take to help rebuild.
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