Just a few steps past the sign welcoming visitors to Rockaway Point, a shin-deep pond covered the roadway, leaving only the crest at the center of the street above the water line. Just off the road, a small group of fireman picked their way down what used to be a narrow alleyway separating the first of several blocks of homes. The houses are now detached by a canal deep enough to conceal the firemen’s legs. We were more than a third of a mile from what residents call the ‘bay side’ of the peninsula and an equal distance from the Atlantic Ocean. It was nearly 48 hours after Hurricane Sandy crushed the neighborhood of Breezy Point, and the prevailing sentiment among people surveying their shattered community was simple: it was so much worse two days ago.
When Hurricane Sandy slammed into the central Jersey Shore, New York’s public servants fought a series of pitched battles throughout the night all over America’s largest city. As the East River devoured Avenue C on Manhattan’s east side, firemen fought the chest-deep water as they pulled people from stranded, submerged cars. A dozen blocks north, nurses, doctors, EMTs and even medical students contended with gravity, narrow staircases and time as they evacuated 300 critical patients from NYU Langone Medical Center during the height of the storm.
And on the other side of the city, at the western tip of a narrow peninsula across a bay from the south side of Brooklyn, fireman battled floods and fires to rescue people from the neighborhood of Breezy Point. According to reports from the night of the storm, nearly 200 firefighters arrived at Breezy Point about 11 pm, and over the next nine hours beat back infernos that consumed more than 100 buildings. The firemen rescued people who had chosen not to evacuate, using boats to ferry them through the chest-deep flood as flames leapt from home to home. Other than a few minor injuries, the residents of Breezy Point escaped relatively unscathed.
The same, sadly, can’t be said of the neighborhood itself, home to scores of firefighters and first responders, many of whom served on 9/11. Late Wednesday afternoon, not quite two days after the storm, several Breezy Point residents returned to their homes for the first time. They packed what possessions they could salvage and lined up on the main roadway. With rolling suitcases trailing them, they looked like they could be waiting for an airport shuttle until they reached another pool of water and hoisted the luggage onto their shoulders.
“I grew up here, and I couldn’t believe the ocean front, the houses, how bad they were destroyed” says Rich Hennessy, one of Breezy Point’s “lifers.” “The debris and the carnage, it’s unbelievable.” Hennessy evacuated before the storm with his wife, Dawn, and their children. They were among the lucky ones. “Our foundation is there; our house didn’t move. We just have water in the basement,” Dawn says. After gathering much of what’s left of their lives into two suitcases, the Hennessys now worry about where they will settle for the next few months and where they can put their children in school.
On the bay side of the peninsula, which looks out on Coney Island and, in the distance, the towers of lower Manhattan, the damage was piecemeal. The storm ripped out walls on one house, then the home next door appeared relatively unscathed. One woman who said she has lived in Breezy Point for 60 years pointed to a twenty-foot tall monument on the edge of the beach and described how the waves crested over the statue and slammed into the sand behind her house.
“It was scary as hell,” says Anne Brennan, a resident of the bay side. “I could hear water and I went down to the basement and I could see water pouring in from the door.” She looked out the window and saw her car floating down the street. Several other cars littered sections of the roadway at odd angles, some with a wheel or two stuck in shallow ditches.
Over on the south side of the peninsula, the streets are named in roughly alphabetical order going towards the Breezy Point tip at the western end. Moving east, backwards through the alphabet, the devastation intensified. On Newport Walk, several of the houses had collapsed on top of each other, stacking side porches like Lincoln Logs over one of the narrow walkways. By Jamaica Walk, few homes were unharmed. Many of the houses on Irving Walk had been lifted entirely from their cinderblock foundations, then contorted at 45-degree angles on both their horizontal and vertical axes. The storm surge dropped them chaotically, with one of the four corners of the foundation buried and another pointing up away from the ground.
Between Hudson Walk and Gotham Walk, a charred expanse opened behind the first row of houses, then east of Fulton Walk the line of houses stopped. For a block and a half–more than 50 yards–along the shoreline and eight rows of houses back from the road there is now only a charred expanse. More than 100 homes no longer exist. In their place are rectangular concrete pads, some with small staircases that lead nowhere. It’s hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. The small ruble heaps are mixtures of fearsome colors: the plastic pieces appear mostly white; the metal and concrete are a dark gray. Everything else is black, including the sand and soil that is covered with ash from the charred wood.
The only structures left in this vaporized field are a few telephone poles. Power lines dangle from one to the next, but most of the wires disappear towards the ground, as if still attached to some piece of infrastructure that doesn’t exist anymore.
On the east side of the fire zone, Bernadette Brady came with her children to inspect the remains of their beach house. “It was the perfect spot, it really was, for 27 years,” Brady says wiping her eyes in the hope that she could staunch her tears. “My neighbor’s house is totally gone. My friend next door there’s nothing left in her house. We thought we were prepared for this, but I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.” When asked if she will rebuild, Brady said she isn’t sure. Her sons say they hope she will. They have too many memories of their childhood and their family in this place.
It’s a bit of a cliché to say that a community is connected. But nearly everyone we met in Breezy Point, whether they were “lifers” or tracked their time there in number of years, could point to a couple of houses nearby and say that they belonged to family. One of those was Muriel Zwick, a 50-year resident of the Breezy Point whose sister and aunt own homes in the neighborhood. In the days before the storm, Zwick decided to stay so she and her son could get a jumpstart on the flood and pump out the water as it came in. But when 14 feet of water submerged her first floor, Zwick moved up to the second. She was considering the attic when the swell finally stopped, then a short time later she saw the fire erupting down the street. Still surrounded by water, she figured she could jump into a kayak and paddle away if the flames reached her home.
Thanks to the efforts of the firemen who battled the blaze for hours, the inferno never reached Zwick’s house. She counts herself lucky, but she knows her community’s struggles have only begun. “I think we’re just all in shock right now,” she says. “Our big problem is we really don’t know what to do next. We’re looking for FEMA–food, lodging, any kind of help they can get us. We’re just all walking around in a daze basically. I can go in my house, but I don’t have anything here.”