FAR ROCKAWAY, N.Y. — Chelsea Clinton knew from a young age how damaging severe weather could be. Growing up in Arkansas on the cusp of the nation’s tornado alley, Clinton had experienced firsthand the fury of bad storms and seen the severe damage left in their wake.
But she never expected to see that kind of devastation in her new hometown of New York City, where coastal areas were wrecked by Superstorm Sandy one year ago this week. Visiting the Rockaways only days after the storm, Clinton was stunned by the damage.
“So much of what I saw here was eerily reminiscent of what I had seen throughout Arkansas as a kid,” recalled Clinton, who had multiple friends whose parents lost their homes to Sandy.
Clinton returned to the Rockaways on Saturday, as she led several hundred volunteers in a “day of action” aimed at helping parts of the area that are still struggling. The event was modeled after a volunteer effort she had organized last year with her father, former President Bill Clinton.
The idea, Chelsea Clinton told Yahoo News, was to show that “here in New York City, we’re all in this together … even if we don’t live in the hardest-hit areas.”
But Clinton also returned to the Rockaways this year in a new position: as vice chair of the newly renamed Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. Since the spring, Clinton has taken on a more active role in her family’s philanthropic efforts and has at the same time started to turn some of the foundation’s focus toward issues she cares about — like Sandy recovery and leading efforts to build more resilient homes in areas around the country that are prone to deadly weather.
On Saturday, she helped break ground on a project partly overseen by the Clinton Global Initiative: a Sandy-damaged home in the Rockaways that will be rebuilt to better withstand future storms. The design of the home came about through a competition sponsored by CGI and the St. Bernard Project that encouraged architects to design a home that was both resilient and affordable.
Clinton hopes the house, which is set to be completed in July, could be a model for other homes damaged by Sandy and inspire other communities — whether in Tornado Alley or other hurricane-prone regions along the Gulf Coast — to build resilient structures.
“There are very different needs, but we are committed to building back better, to not abandoning these areas, ensuring that we will weather whatever the storms are in a more robust way than we did during Sandy,” Clinton said.
Like many New Yorkers, Clinton had been monitoring the track of the storm from the downtown Manhattan apartment she shares with her husband, Marc Mezvinsky. She was jogging on a treadmill when suddenly the power went out — and it remained out for days.
“I was incredibly grateful that my family was safe even though we all lost power,” she said. “I also was thinking about the millions of people who were so much worse off than we were. … It was a mix of grieving and gratitude that so much of the city felt.”
Clinton said she came back to the Rockaways to call attention to a neighborhood that is still very much in need.
On Saturday, she made several stops in the area — first at Brookville Park, which lost more than 150 trees during Sandy. But park officials later realized the storm damage was greater than they had estimated. In the spring, many of the trees that they believed had survived Sandy didn't bloom normally, so park officials had to focus on removing them. That took away from the park's normal upkeep — so Clinton and her volunteers spent the morning sprucing up the place, including pulling weeds, cleaning and painting fences.
From there, she went to PS 197, an elementary school where 40 percent of the students were directly affected by Sandy — including several who lost their homes. Clinton spent several minutes meticulously painting an octopus as part of a large mural on the outside of the school, while dozens of other volunteers planted trees and performed other upkeep measures.
An hour later, Clinton helped dig up two dead pine trees at a playground off Beach 29th Street — furiously working a shovel so new that it still had its price tag on the front.
While Clinton was busy putting in the sweat equity to her day in the Rockaways, she also brought perhaps her most important asset: her celebrity. It appeared to have played a major role in attracting the volunteers who turned out to help — including many who openly gossiped about the possibility her mother, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, might run for president.
At every stop, crowds clamored for pictures — including one woman who followed Chelsea Clinton into the bathroom to ask her for a photo. “Get in there,” one man said, as he posed his younger daughter behind Clinton’s back as she painted at the school. “Her mom might be the next president!”
But some on the scene focused less on Clinton’s mother and more on what her future might hold. A television reporter at one of the stops asked Clinton if she is considering a run for public office. Clinton deflected the question with her usual answer: For now, she’s happy working for her family’s foundation.
But her appearance here in a part of the city where residents have long felt ignored by elected officials did not stop the speculation — especially among those who lined up to meet her.
“We don’t get many elected officials or VIPs,” said Lintia Lyons, whose family is receiving the resilient home that Clinton broke ground on on Saturday. “The fact that she took time to come out here, it means a lot.”
Clinton said it would not be the last time she’d would come to the neighborhood. She vowed to return in July, to see the Lyons move into their new home and to continue to do what she could to help New Yorkers and the world to remember the areas still in need after Sandy.
“It’s important that we remember and that we recognize there are still communities that are recovering,” she said.