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Photo by Christina Santucci
By Phil Corso

A year has gone by, but the name “Sandy” has remained on the tip of everyone’s tongues in Howard Beach since the devastating hurricane battered the New York area, residents said.

Even Jonah Cohen, chief of the West Hamilton Beach Volunteer Fire and Ambulance Corps, had to break early in an initial sit-down with TimesLedger Newspapers to field a phone call from a Howard Beach native asking how they can help with the ongoing recovery efforts.

“You’re always finding people who want to help,” he said. “The community is coming back — slowly but surely. A lot of people have come back and are still rebuilding.”

Cohen’s group lost a big chunk of equipment on the lower level of its Davenport Court headquarters during the storm as well as three fire trucks and two ambulances, he said.

And after an entire year of trying to put Sandy behind them, the Howard Beach community made plans to commemorate the storm’s anniversary with a vigil planned in Hamilton Beach. Cohen said his group would be joining with area elected officials and groups like the Hamilton Beach Civic Association at an Oct. 28 vigil to reflect on how far the community has come since the storm brought Queens to its knees.

Cohen said that while residents’ homes have been largely rebuilt and most people’s lives have returned to mostly normal routines, there were still under-the-radar issues that needed to be addressed. On any given drive through Hamilton Beach, the volunteer fire chief said he still encountered hazardous potholes in the streets and severely damaged or rusted fire hydrants on quiet residential streets.

“I know the city is strapped, but they have to start thinking about how to get more aid to firefighting and helping people,” Cohen said.

State Sen. Joseph Addabbo (D-Howard Beach) has kept his fingers on the community’s pulse as residents continued to recover and said he noticed two separate stories unfolding in southern Queens.

“I see it as a tale of two worlds,” Addabbo said. “One world is just about back to normal. There are parts of my district where stores have returned, residents are back in their homes and back to work, while their children are back to their normal lives.”

But at the same time, the senator said there were still evident effects of Sandy that could be seen while driving down the commercial strip of Cross Bay Boulevard, where businesses have still been on the mend.

“Then there is the other world, which is far from being back to normal,” Addabbo said. “In that world, the stores are still closed and possibly never coming back due to the damage from Sandy. Some of those residents who worked at those stores are out of work and some are out of their homes.”

Some popular storefronts and commercial spots have reopened since the storm, including the Howard Beach Post Office Substation B near Coleman Square, Lenny’s Clam Bar and the community staple, Cross Bay Diner.

But that was not to say they were back to the way they were before Sandy.

Since the storm, the Federal Emergency Management Agency remapped parts of southern Queens, including many parts of Howard Beach, into high-risk flooding zones. It was the first time FEMA had updated its flood maps since the early 1980s, the agency said.

Cohen, however, said he was not convinced that any sort of remapping would benefit the greater Howard Beach community.

“Nobody expected the kind of surge we saw from Sandy,” he said. “New evacuation zones won’t help if they don’t address other issues, like parking concerns at different sites. We still need to be able to respond accordingly.”

The rezoning also has the potential to pose new risks for residents if final maps are approved in the forms of new building requirements and flood insurance premium hikes to come as residents continue to rebuild.

Reach reporter Phil Corso by e-mail at pcorso@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4573.

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