Photo by Steve Mosco
By Steve Mosco

Residents in storm-battered Far Rockaway have learned to expect the unexpected and even a large hole in the ground can appear without much fanfare at all.

While spending yet another day cleaning out his house on Beach 67th Street, Jorge Howard glanced toward his garage where a gaping sinkhole had appeared between his and a neighbor’s house. Barely acknowledging its existence, Howard shrugged as he bent down to pick up more debris.

“I can’t worry about that right now,” Howard said of the hole, which measured close to 6 feet wide. “I’m trying to make my house liveable again. That hole is on my neighbor’s property and it looks like it goes right under her house. She better check the foundation.”

Howard’s neighbor was not at home, but a friend who was at the house said the homeowner had called a few different city agencies about the sinkhole and she was expecting an inspection soon.

A spokesman with the city Department of Environmental Protection said it had received phone calls about sinkholes in the Rockaways, but the department can only recommend that residents call the city Department of Buildings to inspect any damage.

The DOB did not return requests for comment.

The nonchalant Howard, too busy to inspect the pit himself, was preoccupied with thoughts of growing up in Panama playing tennis.

“Those days were definitely better than today, that’s for sure,” said Howard, as he donned a breathing mask and headed back into his house.

Residents reminiscing about better times are a common occurrence these days in Far Rockaway, but there is plenty of optimism about the future as well.

Arlene Phipps, who ran a day care center on 67th Street for two years before Superstorm Sandy struck, had her spirits lifted from the doldrums after deciding that she wanted to rebuild — bigger and better than before.

“I keep thinking, ‘OK, this thing happened, it wasn’t welcomed, but I’m glad for a new start,’” she said. “Out with the old, in with the new.”

And the old went out in a hurry. Phipps said the hurricane took everything, as her day care, which she also calls her home, was completely gutted by a squad of eager volunteers.

“What I’ve seen is people from all walks of life chipping in to help one another,” said Phipps, who has worked for the New York City Housing Authority and as a matron with the NYPD in charge of detained women and children. “It’s a shame that a catastrophic situation pulled everyone together.”

While this experience is something she never wants to go through again, she cannot deny she has learned a lot in the month since the storm. She learned how to text out of necessity and she also learned to appreciate long-ago lessons from her Uncle Leonard, a military serviceman.

“We moved a lot and I hated it,” she said. “But the discipline he showed helped me cope with my situation. I texted him, ‘thank you for teaching me the strategic art of survival.’”

Phipps is surviving these days with the help of friends, strangers and the mayor’s Rapid Repairs program, a free assessment service that expedites home repairs. She said she is grateful for the work being done, but wishes it could get done a lot faster.

But she continues to look forward, and Phipps said that is a lot more constructive than looking back to those first few harrowing nights after the storm.

“I have never experienced anything like this before, it was horrifying,” she said. “Those first few nights I slept in my car so that I wouldn’t freeze to death. It was a grimy, dirty, filthy life. I can still smell it.”

Reach reporter Steve Mosco by e-mail at smosco@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4546.

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