GREEN

As Hurricane Sandy Whips Coney Island, Locals Fish, Fret, Stick It Out

10/29/2012 04:51 pm ET | Updated Oct 29, 2012

CONEY ISLAND, N.Y. -- The morning after New York City officials ordered people living near the water to pack up and leave, Robert Benetton, 49, and his 27-year-old son Rashawn Peterson hopped over a metal police barrier, screwed together a fishing rod, and jogged halfway down a thousand-foot pier stretching from the Coney Island boardwalk out into the Atlantic.

Benetton flung a neon green lure out into the storm-tossed sea –- he was hoping to land "the big beast," his son said. But the wind was refusing to cooperate, so Benetton made an executive decision: "We're going to the tip." He and his son ran down the pier as waves reared up and sent sprays of icy water up through the slats.

The residents of Coney Island are among the 370,000 New Yorkers who have received evacuation orders in the last 24 hours, and local leaders have been trying to hammer home the message that they need to take those warnings seriously.

Before the first raindrops fell, officials closed the subway system, opened 76 evacuation centers throughout the city, deployed buses to transport citizens to safety, and have been taking to the airwaves for hours. "If they are in an evacuation zone, evacuate!" said Governor Andrew Cuomo at a Monday morning news conference on Long Island. "If I was in that area, I would evacuate and I wouldn't think about it twice."

By the foot of the pier, as Benetton and Peterson cast their line, two female cops sat in a squad car and watched the dozens of people still milling about by the beach. Officer Colon, who would not give her first name, shook her head and laughed. "Some people are just stubborn fools," she said.

A little ways off, where the beach gives way to a housing development at the tip of the peninsula, Michelle Champbell and her two daughters, Bryana and Destiny, pressed their noses through a chain-link fence and admired the waves. "This is mother nature at her best," said Champbell, who lives on the fifteenth floor of a nearby tower. She said she had no plans to evacuate and didn't know of any neighbors who planned to leave either.

"Coney Island People are very tough and they've stuck it out through a lot of tough scenarios," said Jay Singer, also known as "Coney Island Jay," a "scare actor" at a Coney Island haunted house, who traces his family's local roots back four generations.

On Sunday afternoon, he and the show's house manager were boarding up the creaky 1923 home of Coney Island USA, a nonprofit arts organization that operates Singer's haunted house, the Mermaid Parade, the Coney Island Circus Sideshow, the Coney Island Tattoo and Motorcycle Festival, and other attractions.

The combination of Halloween, a full moon, and the approach of a storm nicknamed after a Victorian monster proved too powerful for the house manager, Patrick Wall, to resist doing a little carnival shtick: "This may be the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning! The alpha and the omega! Zombies will be coming out of the sea!" Turning serious, he pointed out that the haunted house would have to cancel at least a few dates.

Wall added that the sideshow performers stood to lose some big seasonal touring gigs: "Our sword swallower is at Six Flags. Our fire swallower, Insectavora, is in the Hudson Valley."

Back at the boardwalk on Monday, Eugene Green, 27, and Moshe Weiss, 34, took a last look at the beach before starting their shifts as medics with the local Hatzolalah, a volunteer ambulance service for Jewish communities. Weiss had cleared out his own family from Coney Island the night before and stocked up on basic supplies. "I'm not really worried, but you can't be naive and stupid," he said. His partner shrugged and gave a small smile. "I don't do anything." Weiss arched an eyebrow: "Apparently he's the latter."

By mid-afternoon, the winds on Coney Island were gusting to 53 miles per hour -- about 20 miles per hour faster than the minimum wind speed of a tropical storm -- and authorities were warning of imminent power outages. The beaches had reportedly cleared out, and the owners of Dino's Wonder Wheel had secured the historic ride with extra cables.

Coney Island Jay was, for the moment, Benshonhurst Jay, secure in his home three miles inland. But he was worried about the Wonder Wheel cars, which are stored in a barn that could flood; about the rickety wood rails of the Cyclone Roller Coaster; about the home of the Coney Island Creep Show, where he scares people for a living; and about the Coney Island people.

"Coney Island was created by these kinds of storms," he said. "The whole Long Island shore, from Fire Island to Coney Island, are sandbars that were built by these storms, and we built all these seawalls in the 20th century, but it's just not enough for a monster like this."

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