Published October 29, 2013
On the morning of the day Hurricane Sandy left the Queens beachfront community of Breezy Point charred and submerged under five feet of water, Eddie Valentine drove his SUV to the edge of the Atlantic Ocean.
"There was something about the heaviness of the sky," said Valentine, the Rockaway Point fire chief. "It wasn't 8 a.m. and the water was above flood levels. I knew we were in for it."
Valentine had assembled a few dozen volunteers to man a control center on the second floor of one of two fire houses in the community. This would serve as a command center and a primary emergency response to the 2,800-home community. There were earlier evacuations but many residents decided to ride the storm out. By 6 p.m., there was chaos.
"Our fire engines were totaled. Just totaled. We used two small boats to try to get to people we knew were stranded and yelling from their decks."
The Atlantic Ocean had merged with the bay surrounding the peninsula. Electrical wires were down and water levels in some homes reached the height of grown men's chests. A transistor exploded later that night and engulfed 122 homes in flames.
"We had one volunteer firefighter trying to put out a fire at his own house," Valentine said. "Let me tell you, seeing that is one of the worst things you could ever see."
One year after the historic storm struck one of the easternmost communities of New York City, George Angle, 62, who has lived in Breezy Point since 1953, pondered the date he'll never forget.
"Anniversaries are ironic," Angle said. "They can mark something wonderful and something like this."
Angle remembers the anniversary of his father's death, the day he broke his femur in a car accident and the day Sandy flooded his home. "Those three hits," he said. "I'm taking those with me."
Nowadays in Breezy Point, there's a sense of a community struggling to regain its equilibrium.
"My father always told me to wait a year after anything tragic and things will be better," Janis Minett, 58, whose family has been visiting Breezy Point since when it was merely a sand dune in 1910. "But it's been a year, and I'm still waiting."
Minett's home was razed after it shifted from its foundation. The demolition team that became friendly with her managed to salvage a lamp passed down from her mother. "When they brought me that lamp, it was the nicest thing they could have done," she said.
Kathy Dady, 56, who lives in Breezy Point and operates a lumber yard there, remembers vividly the day Sandy hit because it also marked the two-year anniversary of her husband's death.
Dady stayed in her house during the storm, but was evacuated the following day by the NYPD, which drove around the community in a flat-bed truck picking up residents due to concern that another storm surge could develop.
"It was the feeling of really not knowing," she said. "We left the beach and we didn't know what we were going back to."
She lost $500,000 in inventory and regained only a faction of what she lost because her accountant's office was in the nearby Rockaways, and his office was flooded and computers ruined, she said.
"It was just so much paperwork and problems," she said.
Of the 2,836 homes in Breezy Point, about half are now occupied. The community has been aided by a wide range of charities and volunteerism they say helped them get through the most difficult times.
"We had Mormon groups and Amish," said Jane Deacy, who moved to Breezy Point with her husband in 1984. "They would do large and small things, like sweep the sand in front of your house. That little help gives you so much hope. Kind of like seeing how normal is supposed to be."
There are now wooden structures in place where empty foundations rested six months ago, and it seems every block on the peninsula has some construction work being done. One person said walking down these streets with empty lots where homes once stood looks something like a mouth missing a few teeth. But like any disaster, the victims walk away only with their perspective.
"I think the hardest part is the looting of spirit," Minett said. "But I guess sometimes you get taught humility from a higher power."