Close-knit community of Queens' Breezy Point unravels in Sandy's wake

 

New York

In Manhattan, Sandy mostly happened to buildings. In the New York City borough of Queens, it happened to people.

From Breezy Point at the tip of the Rockaways there is a perfect view of the skyline, capped by the spire of the Empire State Building. The police officers, firefighters and electricians who live in the small wood homes on Breezy Point came for the postcard-cutout view of the city that they service, and the cheap waterfront. "It's a nice, safe place to live," said Bill Witt, a human resource administrator and lifelong resident. "Unless there's a hurricane."

Before the storm, Rockaway Point Boulevard was a wide-open main thoroughfare of what's known as "the Irish Riviera," a 500-acre stretch of barrier island lined by small clapboard beach bungalows with asphalt tile roofs, packed as closely together as the heavily Roman Catholic family lines of brothers, sisters and cousins who have passed houses down for two and three generations.

But on Wednesday the street was choked with salvage vehicles, steam shovels, equipment trucks and flatbeds from the New York Police Department, shuttling residents into a blasted and drenched landscape to sort through their few intact possessions. The storm surge seemed to have left none of the 3,500 homes untouched, and in one section 80 to 100 houses burned to their foundations in the aftermath late Monday night. "Everybody took a beating. Nobody got off scot-free," said volunteer firefighter Peter Morgan, a resident of the island for 36 years whose grandparents first moved there.

Morgan was among those who tried to put out the flames when firefighters from the mainland couldn't get there through the storm, leaving the locals to combat it. "We tried our best with one hose," he said, while laying out wet boots and turnout jackets to dry in the fire department's parking lot. "We were the only ones who got water on the fire. We did our best with what we had."

Morgan's home was inundated with floodwater that carried away all his furniture. "But at least the house is on the foundation," he said. "There are houses here that don't have walls."

Residents in plastic boots and parkas trudged along the boulevard, which was lined by American flags on every light pole, and Ford and Chrysler SUVs with bumper stickers that read "Loyola," or "Support Our Troops," or in one case, "Get Out of Hell Free," and in another, "I'll Keep My Guns, Freedom, and Money and You Can keep the Change." The road was littered with Sandy's signature, a leftover line of debris that at first glance looked like seaweed but turned out to be a sodden compost of straw, leaves, sand, torn plastic and smithereened wood.

Some of the residents pushed carts filled with soaked belongings. Others simply carried a small plastic bag. Lifelong resident Peggy Lynch and her husband, Al Castillo, a retired physician, stood by their car and peeled off muddy rubber gloves. They didn't have a cart, or even a bag. Their four-bedroom home on the Atlantic side of the island was gone. "We salvaged a snow shovel and an extension cord," she said.

In better days, instead of walking the sandy two-mile boulevard from Gil Hodges Bridge to the point, residents might ride the Blue Goose, a cheerful blue shuttle paid for collectively by the residents, who formed their own cooperative. Or they might go to the Sugar Bowl, a favorite waterfront bar, which is now collapsed, its roof lying on the floor. Every year on the Fourth of July there is a beachfront fireworks display, and every winter the residents have a bonfire, dragging their dried-out Christmas trees to the beach to burn them. "It's an excuse to have a few toddies in a very nice and moderate way," said Joann Witt, whose family came to Breezy Point in the 1920s. "No one is driving, and if you stumble on the wrong porch, people point you to the right lane."

In better days, it's a place where there are dinner dances on the beach, children run barefoot without anyone worrying what they might step on, when someone gets sick there is a fundraising drive, and there hardly ever is a crisis. An exception was Sept. 11: At the end of Breezy Point there is a memorial to the 37 locals who died, many of them firefighters.

It's a place where every family "has one to five kids," Dawn Dyer said, and everybody knows everybody, their houses built on narrow lots and their porches separated by only six or eight feet, a neighborliness so close that it actually compounded the damage. As the storm surge came up, bringing thousands of pounds of water and sand with it, one house crashed into another, and then another, knocked down like dominoes. The porches collapsed. The roofs caved. Cars wedged into living rooms.

"It's like everything just got pushed," Joann Witt said. Even the houses that at first glance seem all right aren't. "You look closer and they're listing," she said.

You could hear the neighbors familiarity with each other as they sloshed through the parking lots, still knee-deep in water, and slogged through sand that two days earlier wasn't there, and dug through collapsed walls. "How did you make out?" they asked. And, then, "I guess it'll be awhile before we see you again."

Breezy Point was just one of many peninsula communities in Queens and Brooklyn that were hit hard by Sandy.

The storm battered the southernmost communities in Brooklyn, including Coney Island. The sound of saws and pumps filled the air outside the Original Nathan's Famous hot-dog eatery. "We're as devastated as anyone else in the neighborhood," said a company employee, who identified himself only as Bruce, as two men inside cut plywood to board up windows. "It came up like a tsunami."

All the food had been lost — hot dogs, french fries, fried clams — and the restaurant was closed for only the second or third time in a century.

- - -

Suzanne Sataline contributed to this report.

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