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Sandy suffering still acute in the Rockaways


A year on, the suffering wrought by Hurricane Sandy is still acute on the Rockaways, the narrow peninsula of Long Island once popular with day trippers and tourists.

Supermarkets are boarded up, many homes are not repaired and hundreds of people still rely on church handouts to survive.

When Hurricane Sandy slammed into the East Coast on the evening of October 29, thousands of homes were flooded, burnt or blown apart in the Rockaways.

Boardwalks were pulverized and thousands of people, many of them elderly, were left without electricity or heating as winter was starting to set in.

Jutting into the Atlantic, the Rockaways was one of the worst-hit areas, but there was a huge expression of solidarity.

Actors, sports stars, celebrities, rich New Yorkers and volunteers from across the country visited to help hand out clothes and supplies and assist the clean-up.

"We served over 80,000 meals, tons of water," said Reverend Les Mullings of the Church of the Nazarene.

Thousands of blankets and other emergency items were handed out as his church became a hub for a huge aid operation, he remembered proudly.

Repairs far from complete

In the affluent neighborhood of Belle Harbor, a five-foot (1.60-meter) high cement wall, reinforced with sandbags, has now been built to protect homes from the ocean.

Tonnes of extra sand have been shipped in to bolster flood-water defenses. Numerous damaged houses have been flattened entirely and others are being repaired.

But the boardwalks, particularly loved by the elderly, have yet to be fixed. The large "Key Food" supermarket next to a public housing project is closed and up for rent.

Noah Barth, a coordinator for Doctors of the World which has opened a free clinic for adults without health insurance, said there is no longer a supermarket for the 35 blocks between Beach 115 and Beach 69.

"People have to take the bus to get fresh food. Nutrition here is a big issue, it has an impact on health," he said. Diabetes and hypertension rates are high, for example.

Outside the shut-down supermarket, Margaret Lacy Cunningham, who is in a wheelchair, said that her daily life has become much more difficult since Sandy.

"We need a grocery store, we need a Burger King or a McDonalds, we need a diner, a restaurant where people can sit and talk," she said.

Daily disruptions exacerbate the health side effects of the hurricane, said Barth. Sandy has caused mental depression, post-traumatic stress and anxiety, he said.

In the Rockaways, there are some wealthy residents but even before Sandy, 20 percent of the population lived below the poverty line.

For the poorest, life has got worse.

"Some people were struggling to make it, now they are not making it," said Reverend Mullings.

"All the social ills that plagued us all these years, all that Sandy did was compound it," he said.

Mullings said the money disbursed by the federal authorities has not necessarily helped.

Families who lived on $800 a month, suddenly found themselves eligible for payouts of $30,000 to $50,000 -- but "without adequate supervision," he said.

They splurged the cash on new cars, clothes or on jewelery and "now the money is gone," Mullings said.

These people are now back in line at the church, among the 500 people still given food packages each week.

"They needed help to manage the money," he said. "They are still hungry and that is our job to feed them."

'Takes a lot to get us out'

But the 123,000-member community in the Rockaways is strong and determined.

In Breezy Point, where more than 100 small homes were burnt during the hurricane, dozens of others are being build, if still on the sand.

This week also marked the reopening of the Madelaine chocolate factory, which was the largest employer on the peninsula before Sandy.

The factory, which gave jobs to more than 400 people, was completely flooded, stock worth more than $8 million was destroyed in minutes and tonnes of unusable chocolate was packed off to feed the pigs.

Little by little, machines are being prepared and so far more than 120 people have been re-employed, just in time for Christmas.

"It takes a lot to get us out of here, I don't think Sandy accomplished that," said a smiling Jorge Farber, CEO the Madelaine Chocolate Company.

"It's only one storm like that every 50 years, maybe we can relax for the next 50 years!"