Published November 13, 2012
NEW YORK – When Sandy's storm surge plowed into the seaside neighborhood of Breezy Point, New York City police Officer and volunteer firefighter Tim O'Brien was part of the small band of first responders who kept the flood from becoming a slaughter.
As the tide lifted beach homes off their foundations and started a terrifying fire that devoured more than 100 buildings, he was among the rescuers who tried to contain the inferno and hauled boats through the streets to carry residents to higher ground. Dozens of people were literally dragged to safety clinging to the sides of fire trucks.
Only when it was over did he have a chance to tally his personal losses. His own apartment house in the Rockaways had been severely damaged in the flood. His parents' home was inundated, too. So was his mother-in-law's.
"It's heartbreaking," he said. "We all grew up down here."
Superstorm Sandy devastated people of every walk of life, but it has upended things in a unique way for first responders. Many are spending their working hours helping a battered city get back on its feet, only to return home to find destruction as bad as any in the city.
The NYPD says an estimated 1,300 officers suffered a "catastrophic" loss during the storm. And the Fire Department says 500 firefighters have registered their homes as damaged or destroyed. That figure doesn't include people who lost vehicles or were displaced from homes still without power.
"This whole community is devastated, but they've still got to go to work," said Roy Richter, president of the Captains Endowment Association, an NYPD union. "Give your wife and children a blanket and a candle, and say, 'I'll see you in 12 to 16 hours."
For generations, police officers and firefighters heading home exhausted at the end of their shifts have found tranquillity in Breezy Point, which sits in sandy, wind-swept isolation at the tip of the Rockaway peninsula that protects parts of New York City from the Atlantic surf.
Here, the barrier peninsula is less than 1,100 yards wide in some spots from sea to bay. There is only one road in and out. Many houses sit on sandy walkways, rather than paved streets. Homes are bunched so closely, they nearly touch. Everyone knows everyone.
It would be an exaggeration to say everyone there has a badge or bunker gear, but not by much. Only about 5,000 people live in the community, yet it has three volunteer fire departments and lost 32 residents in the Sept. 11 attacks.
When the storm came, it rendered this community of bravest and finest nearly helpless.
The sea washed over the entire peninsula. Strong winds fueled the fire like a blowtorch, hurling baseball-size embers block after block, setting roofs ablaze, while chin-high floodwaters kept the FDNY from bringing in reinforcements.
Many of the neighborhood's residents had ignored the evacuation order and were home when the fire and water came. Yet somehow, no one died.
"I did two tours of combat duty in Iraq, but this was the most disturbing thing I've ever seen," said Jimmy Coan, a captain in the NYPD's aviation unit. He spent the night in a diver's dry suit, sloshing door to door in waist-deep water.
Since the storm, O'Brien has been putting in his full shifts at the NYPD, and then going back to work for the volunteer fire brigade in Breezy Point, which has thrown itself into relief and recovery work. His wife and children have been staying in Staten Island.
"It's tiring, but it's got to be done," he said of his 18-hour days.
He counts himself among the lucky. Some other members of the volunteer fire company have been sleeping behind a tarp curtain in a building that smells of soot and is being used as a warehouse for relief supplies.
Coan didn't lose his home in the storm, because he lives year-round on a 52-foot boat. But he had to haul the yacht out of the water before the storm as a precaution, and his marina was badly damaged, so for now he has been displaced, as well.
"I'm sleeping in an Army sleeping bag at night," he said.
NYPD Sgt. Kathy Cowan, another member of the aviation unit, had 4 feet of floodwaters and sewage course through her home during the storm.
Since then, she has been staying with a colleague, while quietly stewing over suddenly finding herself on the wrong end of the kind of emergency scenario cops and firefighters deal with at work all the time.
"It drives me crazy to be the victim," she said.
Richter is also a longtime Breezy Point resident. He returned to the neighborhood the next morning to find his beachfront home, which he had finished reconstructing only a year ago, an unsalvageable, half-flattened mess.
His father's house, a short walk away, also suffered severe flood damage but stayed on its foundation.
"He dug that foundation himself — 2,142 wheelbarrows of sand," Richter said.
The five unions that represent NYPD officers and commanders have set up a charity, the New York Police Disaster Relief Fund, to get aid to the hardest-hit members of the department.