In the Rockaways, a Nonchalant Response to the City's Evacuation Order

As we reported earlier, Mayor Bloomberg announced a mandatory evacuation of all low-lying areas in Zone A this afternoon in a press conference. All residents of Zone A, which includes Coney Island, parts of Staten Island, Battery Park City, parts of the Bronx, and the Rockaways (which are actually Zone B) are required to get packed and get out by 5 p.m. Saturday, before Hurricane Irene gets here. People have to either go to someone else's house or to a designated evacuation center after undergoing an "initial intake process" (the flawed "reception center" system we referred to earlier).

Once we heard the news, we got on a train to Queens to find out the extent to which residents would obey the mandate. We discovered a startling contrast in mood between an evacuation center in Ozone Park, which was supposed to accommodate refugees from the Rockaways, and the Rockaways themselves, where the general vibe was one of total indifference to the impending storm.

Runnin' Scared arrived at John Adams High School in Ozone Park, one of the evacuation centers for low-lying areas in Queens, at around 4 p.m., two hours after the Bloomberg press conference. The neighborhood seemed calm, but signs of tension became more obvious as we got closer to the school. A man in a red shirt and red Yankees hat trailed two officials down the sidewalk, yelling "What's going on? People keep asking me, what's going on? No one knows what's going on." The officials didn't engage with him.

A group of women carrying bags crossed the street towards the school. Turned out they were the very first group of evacuees to reach John Adams. We entered at the same time but only stayed for about five minutes, as the orange-vested organizers and School Safety cops weren't letting press in. An official with pinkeye kicked us out unceremoniously before we ever got to see where the evacuees were staying. Although the lobby of the high school had 15-20 people in it, tops, the prevailing mood was stressful and chaotic -- lots of yelling and brisk pacing around to no apparent end.

John Adams HS, evacuation center for areas in Queens.
John Adams HS, evacuation center for areas in Queens.
Rosie Gray

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An attempt to sneak in through the back failed. Runnin' Scared re-convened with the red-shirted self-described "community leader," still yelling outside the school, who told us that the evacuees would be kept in the gym. The gym's floor has recently been re-lacquered. "I'm worried about the fumes," he said. He was also worried about the fact that, according to him, John Adams doesn't have a generator.

How would all the people get to the school, did he think?

"The city will have to pick them up, or they're taking the bus," red shirt said.

Did he know that subway and bus service would be cut at noon tomorrow?

"That's a lie," he said, sweating and gesturing. "They can't expect everyone to get here by noon." A nearby worker putting up signs pointing to the parking lot agreed. "There's no way," he said. "They have to get everyone out here."

We stopped at a deli on the way to the subway, bought some water, and chatted up the deli guy. Was he frightened of Irene?

"In my country [Bangladesh] we have this a lot. I've seen five hurricanes like Katrina. People are scared here -- I'm not scared," he said.

"You know what it sounds like?" he asked. Nope. "It sounds like a fighter jet over you."

Runnin' Scared got back on the subway out to the Rockaways. A man at the Broad Channel stop talked on his cell phone: "It's crazy. Everyone's evacuating. Everyone's panicking." But no one seemed panicked; a surprising number of people were heading to the Rockaways.

Surfers make a beeline for the pre-hurricane water.
Surfers make a beeline for the pre-hurricane water.
Rosie Gray

It was now about 6 p.m., four hours after the evacuation mandate was announced. Once we got to Beach 90th Street, it could have been any other late-summer day; total calm, sunshine bathing the streets, the only interference a couple loudly fighting ("Get the fuck out of here, bitch!"). The afternoon was peaceful, a pleasant breeze drifting along. There were -- swear to God -- two or three monarch butterflies flitting around someone's flowery tree in their yard. Families lounged on porches.

At the beach, there were a healthy number of surfers in the water and heading towards the water. People strolled the boardwalk. "Beach Is Closed" signs could be seen here and there; no one heeded the warning, and no one seemed to be enforcing it.

In the Rockaways, a Nonchalant Response to the City's Evacuation Order
Rosie Gray

Runnin' Scared stopped in at Ripper's, a boardwalk cafe, for a drink, and ended up chatting with Tommy Burke, the bartender, and Carol, a local who's been living in the Rockaways for 35 years. We asked if they planned to evacuate; the answer was a resounding no.

"My bungalow has been here since 1912," Carol said, which means it's seen a number of hurricanes already, including Gloria in 1985. "I'm not scared."

"I've been in the Marine Corps," said Tommy. "I'm not leaving. This is Bloomberg trying to make up for the fact that he screwed the pooch with the blizzard this winter."

Runnin' Scared pointed out that Bloomberg's press conference especially stressed the importance of evacuating the Rockaways.

"He had a press conference yesterday too, so what?" said Tommy. "We don't like Bloomberg very much here. We boo him when he comes to the neighborhood."

Carol and Tommy thought that most locals would stick around for the storm, and that the surfers would be out every day this weekend.

We wished them luck and headed back to the subway. On the platform, a young mother told her boyfriend about an exchange she'd had earlier with a cop.

"Cop was like, 'why you don't got any bags?' I was like, 'I don't think it's gonna be that bad.'" Hopefully she has the right idea.

[rgray@villagevoice.com] [@_rosiegray]

Go to Runnin' Scared for more Voice news coverage.


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