Suzanne Surbeck

More than a year after Hurricane Sandy swept through the Belle Harbor neighborhood in New York City’s Rockaways Peninsula, one can still see the high-water marks on the front steps of the Belle Harbor Yacht Club. One can also hear and see signs of rebuilding everywhere, from the sounds of hammering coming from a front porch to the reconstruction of the area’s sand dunes.

As the houses and businesses come back to life, so are the neighborhood’s parks and gardens. On two Sundays this spring, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP) helped Belle Harbor continue this process of recovery, not by giving out money, but by giving out free trees as part of their tree giveaway program. To the local residents, many of whom lost almost all their trees and shrubs as a result of the hurricane, these new trees were much more than something to plant in the ground. They were living symbols of hope and healing.

“It’s a blessing,” says Marilyn Gelfand, standing next to her brand-new cherry tree at the first giveaway co-sponsored by the Beach 116 Street Partnership. Wind and rain did not deter her and husband Gary from picking up their newest addition. “It’s a new beginning. It’s a baby in there,” she says, proudly pointing to the tree.

After staying with family elsewhere in the city, the Gelfands came home after the hurricane to find six feet of water in their basement and garage. Not only have they lost trees and shrubs due to Sandy, but a number also died in this year’s brutal New York winter.

“It was very sad to lose my trees, which I had known for 30 years or more," she says. "It makes me cry because they put up such a special arrangement. I had three dogwood trees that died but a cherry tree survived. I went with survival.”

NYRP was started in 1995 as a grassroots urban environmental campaign founded by singer and entertainer Bette Midler. In 2007, NYRP joined forces with then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s city administration, along with numerous other local groups, and launched the MillionTreesNYC initiative. Their current goal is to plant one million new trees throughout the city’s five boroughs by 2015, two years ahead of their original schedule. There are free tree giveaways throughout the city this spring, including Belle Harbor’s neighboring community of Breezy Point, which suffered a catastrophic fire on the night of Hurricane Sandy.

“We had deep discussions regarding the types of trees,” says Mike Duran-Mitchell, NYRP’s director of giveaways. “We wanted to get in trees that would survive but also get in trees that were beautiful. The area is very windy,” he adds. “Once the trees we chose are planted and established, they should be able to withstand wind and storms.”

Magnolias, cherry trees and dawn redwoods were among those trees given away. Another, the very sturdy Japanese black pine, was chosen after NYRP members drove through the Belle Harbor area and saw mature black pines that had survived both the storm and the winter. People picking up trees were also given printed instructions on how to care for them after they were planted. They also had to agree to not plant the trees along city streets, in parks or on terraces, roofs and balconies.

“Absolutely!” Duran-Mitchell says when asked if one of the main goals of the giveaways was to help the Belle Harbor residents’ morale.

“They have so many other necessities to care for, including insurance issues. We are making sure that people can care about their homes without significant cost. We are just trying to help people get some normalcy in their yards.”

Rebuilding gardens and morale after Sandy isn’t NYRP’s only goal, he adds. Another is “to get people planting trees, interactive with ecology around them, make people aware that there is a lot of natural life and we can bring this life to New York City.”

One week later, the sun is shining at the second giveaway at the Belle Harbor Yacht Club, co-sponsored with the Rockaway Civic Association. Among the volunteers are some teenagers from the nearby Saint John's Residence for Boys. Dan Edwards, a local resident and FedEx courier, stands with a Japanese black pine. “I’m a tree getter,” he says with a smile. “My wife sent me to get a tree.”

He admits to having stayed in his home during the hurricane, adding that his house survived but he lost two cars. “We didn’t think it would be as bad as it was forecast,” he says, explaining why he stayed. “It was hair raising but the fires in the neighborhood were the most frightening.”

A number of trees died, he says, talking about his home. “We lost all the shrubs in front of the house.” As the area continues to recover, he says, the Rockaways are becoming even more popular, especially with young adults living in the trendy Greenpoint and Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn. “We have one of the best beaches in the United States,” he says proudly.

The second giveaway is so popular that NYRP runs out of trees. The people still standing in line are told they can pick up trees at one of the several other giveaways coming up in the five boroughs.

“This is why we have so many events,” says Claire Turner, NYRP’s tree giveaways coordinator. “We like it when we run out of trees. It builds excitement for the program and for the upcoming events.”

The tree giveaways will continue throughout New York City until Sunday, May 18, and will also be held in the fall.

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