Sandy Storyline evolves alongside recovery
Cordelia from Ortley Beach, New Jersey breaks up pieces of sidewalk cement outside her home. Photo courtesy of Sara Baicich/Sandy Storyline.
Celeste is an editor at OF NOTE Magazine and freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working on her book of short stories or interviewing social entrepreneurs, she occasionally participates in modern life and tweets @celestehdennis.
“It was kind of amazing to see how many people had documented their experiences of going through the storm just because everyone has a camera in their pocket,” said Falcone. “That week, my biggest observation, and [my film partner] Michael Premo’s too, was that this story was huge.”
Sandy flooded streets and damaged homes across the U.S. Eastern seaboard, displacing over 30,000 residents in New York and New Jersey alone. The storm was a wake up call for climate change and economic inequality — especially in New York, where an affordable housing crisis has been underway for years. Sandy made it worse.
Falcone and Premo, who’d worked on storytelling with the housing crisis prior, knew they weren’t going to be able to tell this story by themselves. Or that it even could be told through the static lens of only one character.
“One of the challenges, but also opportunities, was to create an art project alongside the recovery that was happening … Normally when you make a piece of media, you dream about it in secret and then you bring it out into the world,” said Falcone. “We’ve had no luxury like that. The whole project had to be made as we went. Because people needed to see it.”
In the wake of its aftermath, with dozens of volunteers, they created Sandy Storyline, a multimedia platform of first-person narratives exploring everything from the flood and displacement to altruism and rebuilding. The goal was to blend traditional reporting and documentary styles with a more open process where people could contribute their voices.
“It’s so important that people feel heard,” said Falcone. “That’s the driving force.”
The results are an intimate glimpse into the lives of those most affected by the storm – at times heartbreaking, other times hopeful. The stories stick with you. It’s hard not to wonder how Cecil is doing or if Turner ever transformed her gutted house.
“We really wanted people to come and share something with intention,” said Falcone. “And curate that in a way that really honor’s people’s stories by presenting them beautifully, and putting cell phone images next to professional images in a way that lifts them all up. That’s been really important to us.”
As if the stories weren’t compelling enough on their own, an interactive timeline created in partnership with Land of Opportunity places Sandy and Katrina side-by-side, reminding us that these events aren’t isolated and will likely happen again.
The goal of Sandy Storyline has always been to try and reach as many people as possible who were impacted by the storm, and the project has evolved alongside recovery.
For the first six months, the team hosted mediamaker potlucks and collaborated with other journalists and grassroots media professionals to help collect stories. When a big media program in Coney Island lost all their equipment and archives in the flood, the group pitched in to lead a semester-long youth program.
This type of deep community engagement has been crucial to the success of Sandy Storyline, as has building on relationships they’ve already cultivated. Because Falcone and Premo spent years working with different nonprofits documenting the housing crisis in NYC, a level of familiarity and trust already existed.
“It’s been meaningful because it’s our community,” said Falcone, who grew up on the Jersey Shore and now lives in Brooklyn.
They’ve also partnered with institutions like the New York Public Library since the project’s launch, and have done more intimate writing workshops with youth and adults.
“It takes a lot of capacity and energy to do that small touch engagement, but I think they’re some of the most meaningful experiences,” said Falcone. “People have the opportunity to reflect and have closure on something they’ve experienced, we understand each other better as neighbors.
It’s been three years since the hurricane hit and Sandy Storyline is still open for contributions. While the story has fallen off mainstream media, people are still fighting displacement and living in less-than-ideal conditions. There are also issues with rising flood insurance rates and fear that flood premiums are going to cause another wave of massive foreclosures.
“Most people think the city came back together. But there’s all these hidden crevices in the middle of Manhattan and outer boroughs that were the most vulnerable and impacted where people are really struggling. That’s going unseen,” said Falcone. “I knew we needed to exist because I knew no one was going to be talking about the storm three years later.”
Falcone and Premo are currently talking with people who have been part of recovery efforts and are in production for a more in-depth web documentary. Their goal in the near future is to share those stories, invite more response and wrap it up. They’d also eventually like to build a physical installation of the project that can travel around the U.S. and world.
“It needs to end, but I’m excited to figure out ways it can live on and be useful as a replicable platform that could be handed off to an organizer or mediamaker who’s looking to tell stories with their community,” said Falcone.
For Falcone, helping create Sandy Storyline has been a journey of deep listening and appreciation for people who have gone through the trauma of surviving a hurricane. It’s also been a lesson in redefining resilience.
“Often resilience can refer to bouncing back to the same. But what I’ve learned is that people don’t always want to bounce back to the same, they want to have better lives. A lot of response should help people do a better job of that,” said Falcone. “One tiny role we try to play, in the media landscape at least, is helping people understand how we might tell stories in the wake of these collective events and how we might do that better.”