Starting a Research Project: Creating a way to understand and engage

Growing up in Long Beach, hurricanes always seemed like exciting things. They promised days off from school, sleepovers with family in Queens, and hours spent reading by candlelight. A hurricane brought the possibility of higher than average high tides transforming our relatively tranquil coastline into a surfer’s paradise. While hurricane winds uprooted an occasional tree, devastation was far from our minds. Regaled with tall tales of hurricanes past, I envisioned the aftermath of a super storm like some sort of amphibian utopia or budget Long Island Venice. I saw myself crossing Park Avenue by canoe or developing the ability to breath underwater if the ocean was ever to meet the bay. The reality however, was far from my youthful aquatic fantasies.

Located on a barrier island off of the South Shore of Long Island, Long Beach is less than a mile wide from ocean to bay and about three and a half miles long. Home to more than 35,000 residents this high-density community was “one of the hardest hit areas in New York.”[1] The hurricane has been described as “the night the ocean met the bay and our homes and City were destroyed.”[2]

While I didn’t experience the storm firsthand, I spent those first days and weeks streaming local News 12 on my computer and scouring social media sites in order to keep my parents informed. Refusing or unable to leave, they hunkered down and tried to make do without power, reliable communication lines and limited transportation options.

The landscape I associate with home is forever changed. While power had been restored, when I returned for Thanksgiving families remained displaced, schools functioned at limited capacity, port-a-potties lined every street corner, traffic lights were being powered by generators, and the intimate contents of people’s lives were heaped in front of gutted homes waiting for the slow response of waste removal services. Sandy has left me feeling frustrated, guilty, and helpless.

I needed to find a way to do something.

To this end, I developed a research project/independent study (and this corresponding website) in order to add to existing literature on natural disasters and tell the particular story of Long Beach, New York. As an insider and a scholar, I am interested in giving back to my community by using my sociologically informed understanding of the world to conduct research that will enrich our understanding of the effects of disaster.

While my closeness to this subject might raise concerns regarding scientific objectivity, sociologists Timothy Haney and Kristen Barber assert that insiders can provide valuable insights (2012). Insider scholars/researchers have intimate knowledge regarding the particularities of place, are more likely to be trusted by residents, and have credibility both within the community and with larger institutional actors (Fussell 2008:65 in Haney and Barber 2012).

From my vantage point as a Long Beach native living in St. Louis, Long Beach is being overlooked. News coverage showcases Manhattan, Breezy Point, or coastal areas of New Jersey. The media latches on to working class towns heavily populated by 9/11 first responders or the bluster of a very outspoken governor with national celebrity. Long Island’s image as the playground of Manhattan’s elite leave us outside of the national conversation. Constrained by assumptions, we are expected to rebuild without fanfare. But Long Beach is not the Hamptons and many of us do not have the social, economic, and cultural capital of our elegant country South Shore cousin.

I come to this project not as a scholar of disasters. In my research I focus on ethnic and racial communities and understandings of heritage and ancestry in a global and transnational context. But the affective and emotional pulls of home and homeland can be seen in all my scholarly pursuits.

With the help of four eager and bright young scholar-assistants we intend to demonstrate how “emotionality does not have to distract scholars from sociological analyses, but can instead complement analysis while motivating human empathy and inspiring action” (Haley and Barber 2011:116). Throughout the semester we will share our findings, our questions, and our concerns and seek feedback from interested Long Beach residents and commentators from across all interested publics. So please, engage. Disasters are fundamentally social events that reflect the way we live and structure our communities and societies. I’m looking to understand, and possibly bear witness to the resiliency, the frustration, and the strength as well as the shortcomings and failures of one town’s response to the widespread community disruption, displacement, economic loss, property damage, injury, and profound emotional suffering caused by Hurricane Sandy.

What do you think is being left out? What is frustrating you? What has surprised you, or what stories do you think we need to know?

References:

Fussell, E. 2008. “Leaving New Orleans, again.” Traumatology. 14(4): 63-6.

Haney, Timothy J. and Kristen Barber. 2012. “Reconciling Academic Objectivity and Subjective Trauma: The Double Consciousness of Sociologists who Experienced Hurricane Katrina” Critical Sociology. 39(1): 105-122.


[1] “Long Beach Hit Hard by Sandy” by Benita Zahn. November 1, 2012, wnyt.com http://wnyt.com/article/stories/s2819954.shtml. Accessed December 7, 2012.

[2] Long Beach NY Hurricane Information Facebook Page. http://www.facebook.com/LongBeachNyHurricaneInformation?ref=stream Accessed December 7, 2012.

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monica byrne

writer . playwright . artist . activist . traveler

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