December 12, 2012
Breezy Point, Queens~For sheer damage and devastation none of the Superstorm Sandy-hit outer borough pockets can match this tight-knit enclave on the western edge of the Rockaways—famously dubbed the “Irish Riviera” after its demographic make-up and beachfront-vibe. Now buzzing 24-7 with contractors and sub-contractors who have converged from across the US and Canada to rehabilitate the upended infrastructure, it still looks like a World War Two bombsite. One anonymous resident, who calls Breezy “the best place I ever lived by far,” says, “the heart has been ripped out here.”
The bombed-out aura is due in no small part to the 120-houses that burned down to the cinders in the center of the neighborhood hours after the height of the storm—the fire widely thought to have been sparked by an overheated generator attached to a pole near Oceanside Ave. Surrounding the ruins are blocks of homes stamped with the city’s dreaded red sticker, which signals “unsafe to enter.” Many of these units have been ripped off their foundation, and now bump into each other or jut into the street. “The houses that weren’t burned down were flooded,” says Anne Heslin, an 85-year-old Breezy resident whose home, on Irving Walk, burned down completely just after she and her daughter escaped into the flooded night with only their lives.
For weeks, rumors have been circulating that the condition of the neighborhood is so bad that some governmental agency might condemn it entirely. Fueling such speculation, on December 3rd, Rep. Eleanor Norton (D-DC) ominously asked FEMA suits at a committee devoted to post Sandy preparedness if there was anything the “governors of New York and New Jersey could do to keep people saying the hell with what the government says we’re going to rebuild anyway.” Closer to home, the city has been sending mixed signals. Speaking about hard-hit shoreline areas at a press conference on December 6th, Bloomberg said: “We’re not going to abandon [those areas] but we can’t just rebuild what was there and hope for the best.”
Despite such pessimistic statements from officialdom and the dire straits of the Point, numerous residents I spoke with have expressed expectations to be back in the neighborhood in the next six months. Breezy in its entirety operates as a giant co-op and like nearby Sea Gate is described in the press as a “gated community.” While technically this is true, it is a decidedly middle class one. Heslin is a typical resident. A widowed retired phone company employee with “virtually no income,” her son who lived blocks away was flooded out of his residence. She now lives along with her daughter in a Marine Park apartment, which is being paid by her homeowner policy, which incidentally has not paid out yet. So when Heslin’s house burned down she “lost everything.”
Asked about her expectations for where she’ll be next year, Heslin says, “oh I hope by summertime we’ll be back in our home. Some people are thinking Easter but that doesn’t seem possible given where we’re at.” Her hopes were buoyed by a “standing room only, packed to the rafters” co-op meeting that took place on the night of December 6th, at Bishop Ford Catholic High School, in which the board floated a tentative plan to replace the burned out houses with “prefab” or “modular” houses by a company called Westchester Modular. This would be in stark contrast to having to “build a new house from scratch,” which might not be entirely covered by insurance. Because Heslin has a “good policy,” she has not received any FEMA money, nor does she expect to see any.
Up until 20 years ago, Breezy was still mainly a summer community, but in the ensuing years people began winterizing their bungalows to the point that according to one person familiar with the area’s makeup, who wished not to be identified, “eighty percent of people lived year round as opposed to the other way around before.” In tune with this trend, in the early 1990s, Heslin bought what was then a summer bungalow from her childhood best friend, winterized it, and moved in with her family full time. Such transactions among friends (or family) were par for the course in Breezy: units are so valued that members of the community quickly buy them if someone wants to move out.
On a recent brisk day, several blocks west of the burned out area, an elderly couple comprised of Peter Trapani and his wife took a contractor for a walk around their recently refurbished house, which is now stamped with a red sticker for “unsafe.” Since their house is at least standing, the Trapanis’ hope is to be back living there sooner than later. Right now, says Trapani, they’re “stuck in an apartment in Bayridge and we have a house.”
After ticking off the relatively minor looking damage inside, the group’s attention finally came to the glaring reality that the house is knocked more than four feet off its foundation. The insurance company, Narragansett, had tried to tell Trapani water damage was at fault but he’s extremely skeptical. He said: “water couldn’t do that! Wind did that!” Then he grew silent for a moment and added, “we’re gutted here,” sliding his finger across his neck. “Do you think you can do anything for us?” The contractor just stared at his clipboard.