Published March 17, 2013
NEW YORK – Last year was a tough one, but all things considered, Richard Cannon, a New York City firefighter with roots to Ireland, says the luck of the Irish has been on his side.
After all, it was three years ago when he met his fiancée at a Long Island Irish Festival, which marks the year's half-way point before St. Patrick's Day.
He bought a home in Breezy Point, a modest one-story house in earshot of his father's, and renovated the property for the better part of three years.
He paid $50,000 on furniture, another $30,000 on a deck and spent hours working on the home that only three months after its completion, would be ruled unsafe by the New York Department of Buildings and be required to be torn down.
"I cried for days," Cannon said, wearing a blue cast on his right wrist as a result of tearing three tendons at work. "My home was a buffer for my neighbors' houses."
Breezy Point is a part of the Rockaway peninsula on the southern coast of New York -- and one of the areas hit hardest by last October's Superstorm Sandy. The small community made international headlines when a fire destroyed up to 100 homes.
Cannon visited his property on St. Patrick's Day and pointed his hand with the cast to Graham Place, the route the Atlantic Ocean took to flood his home.
"The water came in right there," he said, gesturing to the road like a witness would describe a crime scene. "It turned there and…well, here's my house."
Cannon said he had prepared for the Storm by stacking sandbags around his house before leaving for a trout-fishing trip in upstate New York.
"I thought, at worst, it would be like (Hurricane) Irene where we got a little water," he said. "I never expected this."
When you talk to Breezy Point residents, without fail, there's a point in the conversation where they demonstrate how high the water levels reached in their home. They raise their hands to their stomachs or knees, or chests, like they're measuring snow.
"My entire first floor was under water," Donald Ryan, who lived in the beachfront community for 67 years, said.
St. Patrick's Day in Breezy Point is traditionally subdued. Most residents either celebrate in New York City or, on the first weekend of March, at local pubs in the Rockaways.
This year, residents in the country's most Irish zip code, with 54.3 percent having lineage to Ireland, used the day to dress in some variation of green and take time to consider their post-Sandy lives.
"I think this year, there's a sense of a rebuilding spirit," Fr. Sean Sockiel, 27, who was assigned to Breezy Point's St. Thomas More Church. "The storm hit us on a Tuesday, and the church was packed on Sunday."
Sockiel, who was just ordained a priest months before Sandy, said he had something of a baptism by "fire, storm and water."
"My main mission has been to help the children," he said. "They've been very strong for their parents."
The 8 a.m. Mass on St. Patrick's Day at St. Thomas More was packed. Parishioners were there to see the Prime Minister of Ireland, Enda Kenny, read from the Gospel. He later had breakfast and took a tour of the area with his security detail. In one section, he saw rows of concrete foundations that are now markings of where bungalows had once stood.
Many residents have been displaced and make a weekly trip to their homes. The exact number is hard to quantify, but out of the 2,836 homes, just over 400 are occupied. Some homes appear abandoned and have Halloween decorations still in place, an eerie reminder of when the storm struck.
Jerry O'Hara, 70, is a Vietnam veteran who bartends at the Blarney Castle, the only operating bar on the Breezy Point peninsula after the two others were totaled. He recalled his front-row seat to the storm from the bar that sits along Rockaway Point Boulevard, the main road in town.
"The water got to the window and I saw an orange halo of fire to the west," he said. "Did you ever feel useless?… I felt useless."
O'Hara's son called him and confirmed that the glow was produced by the dozens of homes engulfed in flames. He spent the night in the bar with six others and left at 7:30 the next morning, when the tide receded. "It was devastating," he said.
The Blarney Castle had a thin crowd Sunday afternoon. There were six older men dressed in jeans and sweatshirts. A few were taking a break from working on their homes.
Betty Glennon, 94, swept into the bar and gushed over a worker for Habitat for Humanities named Matt who had been working on her home. "I wish I was younger," Glennon said. "Much, much younger."
She has been living in New Jersey and told the men that she just ordered a new three-wheeled bike that she can't wait to use at the beach next summer.
To be sure, many residents in Breezy Point look to the summer to get back to some sense of normalcy.
"I don't care if I have to sleep in a tent," Tim Devlins, an 18-year resident, said at the bar. "I'll be here this summer."