Photo by Adi Carter
As I rolled out my yoga mat, I could still smell the muggy scent of Rockaways on it even after several attempts to scrub it clean. My mat, along with three surf boards, several wetsuits, an iPod, and some clothes, were the few possessions I was able to rescue after I evacuated from my surf bungalow on 91st Street at Rockaway Beach, my home when I'm in New York.
With Hurricane Sandy creating 30-foot high swells, there was little residents of Rockaways could do to protect our community. The entire boardwalk (30 feet wide and at least 80 city-blocks long) came detached, a measure of the surreal and powerful force of destruction. Large sections of it swept into the streets, taking out cars, trees, buildings, even a skatepark. Seawater raged across the peninsula, ultimately connecting with the bay on the other side. To make matters worse, a sewer drainage improvement project that was still underway was compromised, coating everything with filthy brown sewer sludge.
Two days after the storm I rode by bike to Rockaways from where I had waited out the storm in Brooklyn. My neighborhood was filled with trash. Cars were scattered everywhere, displaced from their parking spots by the flooding. There was sand all over the road, traffic lights and signs hanging off their posts, and large sections of the boardwalk and debris blocking the way.
Turning onto my block I saw my neighbors Kiva, Tim, and Mike tending to a firepit they had made in the middle of the street, making soup and tea for those who were cleaning up. I was literally made speechless by what I saw, and all I could do was accept their hugs and surprisingly cheerful greetings. “We’re taking over the block and providing our own disaster relief!” Tim declared.
Walking to my little bungalow I stumbled over three-foot piles of sand and around scattered remnants of the storm, including a Mini Cooper trapped under a lightpost. Some of the guys that I shared the house with were already there cleaning off surfboards and throwing out anything that was touched by the two feet of sewage that had flooded the house. The backyard was a universal shade of brown. The devastation to our bungalow (which was a bit of a questionable structure-wise to begin with) clearly rendered it uninhabitable.
The next couple hours were a blur of shoveling, washing, and tossing out stuff. As darkness fell, I knew I had to ride back out, which made my friends nervous. With so many homes and cars evacuated, there had been looting in the area, and it wasn't safe. Someone offered me a gun to carry for my safety. I nervously declined. Tim handed me a crowbar, insistent that I needed something to defend myself. Instead I promised I would ride really fast to get out of there.
Biking back in darkness through the debris was terrifying, and all I could think about was how to get the word out about what had happened here. I went to work, posting pictures on Facebook and sending email, telling people what I saw. Almost instantly there were offers to help. I didn’t know where to send anyone, as I knew little about what was actually being done in terms of relief. I listed my PayPal address so people could make donations— I would use the funds to take fresh food and provisions to people still there when I went back to remove my stuff.
I was hoping for $300.
Within a day, more than $1,000 had come in, and my friends Micah and Dave had offered their trucks to transport supplies. We bought containers for people to store their belongings in, propane tanks to cook with, fresh produce, and hot pizzas. Dave had also collected a truckload of donations from his Williamsburg yoga studio, Greenhouse Holistic, as well as neighboring drop offs in Brooklyn.
Support kept pouring in. Through Facebook, friends, students, fellow yoga teachers, and even high school classmates I’d lost touch with offered their sympathy and help. So many fellow yoga teachers and students chipped in through donation-based classes. Lilia Mead, the owner of Go Yoga in Williamsburg, raised $500. Ralph De LaRosa raised more than $400.
That these teachers were raising money for this cause was amazing. I know firsthand the financial challenges of teaching yoga for a living; this is partially why I was living at the Rockaways with anywhere from 12 to 25 surfers splitting the rent. It was incredibly touching to have the yoga family supporting us like this.
Meanwhile, the needs in the Rockaways were huge. Basic provisions of food, water, and clothes had come quickly, but there was no power, heat, or gas. Replacements for the cars and homes that were destroyed were far-off dreams.
I was scheduled to leave the next day to teach in Nicaragua. I would keep track of the progress in Rockaways and the donations that came in for whatever "what comes next" solution is needed. But I felt terribly guilty leaving my friends and community behind, and had no idea what would await me when I returned.
As I rolled out my musty mat that night, I offered energy toward a solution. While the answers still aren't clear, I know we're in it together. At the very least I have learned a powerful lesson about speaking up and asking for help. Feeling such tremendous support from the yoga community has made me feel at home and sheltered during this uncertain time.
Adi Carter is a New York based yoga teacher and surfer who conducts international workshops in Acroyoga and YogaSlackling.