NEW YORK — Superstorm Sandy caused one of the worst residential fires in New York City history, a blaze that burned unchecked for hours because floodwaters spurred by Sandy's 13-foot storm surge blocked firefighters from responding. Strengthened by wind gusts upward of 80 mph, the fire ultimately consumed nearly 130 homes in the heart of this tiny oceanfront neighborhood in Queens.
It was a horror story that resulted in some of the most memorable images of Sandy’s wrath, including an iconic photo of a singed Virgin Mary statue that stood amid the ashes of homes that once were standing.
What the fire didn’t destroy, the water tried to — and in many cases, did. Of Breezy Point’s 2,800 homes, roughly 200 were destroyed by the flood and more than 1,500 were severely damaged.
That includes Peggy Smith’s home along Atlantic Walk, where the entire first floor was washed away by Sandy. But she knows it could have been worse.
“I am one of the lucky ones,” said Smith, whose family roots in Breezy Point date back nearly 100 years to before there was even a bridge connecting the tiny peninsula to the rest of New York City.
Her home sits just one house away from what locals have come to call the “fire zone” — which one year after the storm remains an open gash where none of the residents has returned and only a handful of homes have started to be rebuilt.
But for Smith and other community residents, Sandy's biggest effect is not just the missing houses — but the missing people whose fate seems uncertain.
Most of Breezy Point’s homes are densely packed together, linked to the road only by a sidewalk that also connects to the oceanfront. Within those clusters are houses damaged in the storm and that have remained largely untouched ever since. Some still have the “restricted” stickers that were slapped on their front doors by city inspectors in the weeks after the storm. Some are for sale, some are still in limbo as residents wait for insurance money for repairs, and some are just empty — and have been for the past year. No one really knows who is coming back and who is not.
“The mailman may be the only person who knows what happened to people,” Smith said.
A year after Sandy, local officials estimate that about half of Breezy Point residents are back. But among those who have returned, there's a sense of uncertainty around a neighborhood once so close-knit that few residents even bothered to lock their front doors because they felt so safe.
There is a fear that after Sandy, Breezy Point won’t ever be the same — and a fear of what another storm could mean for a community that has proven so fragile to the elements.
“Everybody is worried,” said Steve Greenberg, a longtime resident who once served as chairman of the Breezy Point Coop, which oversees the neighborhood. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘This is a once-in-a-700-year storm.’ Well, that doesn’t mean it can’t happen two years in a row.”
But, Greenberg added, “that doesn’t change the fact that we still want to be here.”
Greenberg’s home on Oceanside Avenue barely escaped last year’s fire. The blaze burned right toward his doorstep but was somehow contained at the house directly next door — something he describes as a “total miracle.”
His neighbors weren’t so lucky. Many didn’t have insurance, in part because they’d seen their relatives haggle with insurance companies over paying claims related to previous storms. And those who did have been slowed in their attempts to rebuild by insurance disputes and state and local bureaucracy.
Several residents whose lots were cleared by federal officials after the storm filed permits with the city months ago to rebuild, but they were rebuffed by building inspectors asking why they hadn't filed a proper demolition permit for their existing homes.
“Their homes burned down, and the debris was dragged away by the Army Corps of Engineers,” said Greenberg, who launched a disaster relief fund to help Breezy Point residents rebuild. “You would think somebody would know that, but those are the kind of snafus people have been dealing with.”
The neighborhood hasn’t been the same for those who have returned. Many of the local institutions were destroyed, including the Sugar Bowl, a popular beachfront bar that had been around for nearly 40 years. Kennedy’s, one of the few local restaurants, remains closed.
Residents talk about the neighbors they don’t see anymore — the people they might not have known but whose faces they recognized.
“People are back, but they are not back,” said Larry Deemer, another longtime resident. “You would normally hear life all around you. ... But some days, you don’t hear a sound. It’s been very odd."
Deemer suffered minor damage compared with many of his neighbors. His basement was flooded by more than six feet of water, which, among other things, destroyed his art studio. He was among the first to return to Breezy Point, moving back just weeks after the storm, as he rebuilt his basement living space.
He estimates that about half of those who live on his block are back. One house is for sale, after the family decided not to return. Another is empty while its owner waits to learn if he’ll have to raise his house to meet new flood zone height requirements enforced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the city. Other neighbors he hasn’t seen at all.
“It’s like the year has gone by, and I’m back to doing some of the things I was doing. ... But it’s still not quite the way it was,” Deemer said.
Over the summer, city and state officials worked to cut some of the red tape that had slowed rebuilding in Breezy Point. A permitting process that once threatened to be as long as 18 months was cut down to 110 days and, more recently, just 30 days. And within the past two weeks, on the eve of the Sandy anniversary, construction has launched on about a half-dozen homes.
At least two homes are in the advanced stages, including one owned by former Rep. Bob Turner next door to the home where the fire first started. While the area had been under mandatory evacuation during the storm, Turner and his wife tried to stay — but they quickly fled into floodwaters that were nearly up to their necks when they spotted flames next door. Within minutes, their home was on fire, too.
“We were prepared for the flood, but we weren’t prepared for the fire,” Turner said. “It just happened so quickly. You just felt helpless. There was little you could do but just concentrate on getting out of there.”
Turner, who left Congress in January and has been living in Brooklyn for the past year, hopes to be in his new home by Christmas.
“Where we’ve been for the last year, it’s nice, but it’s not Breezy. It’s not home,” Turner said.
A half-block away from Turner’s new home, Smith has been back in her house since the early summer. She was among those in Breezy Point who didn’t have insurance, and she emptied her retirement account to rebuild her home. She declines to say how much she spent but said she is applying for grants to help cover some of the costs.
“I took a chance, and I lost,” Smith said. “I’ll never be able to retire. It’s a good thing I like my job, right?”
She doesn’t want to think about what might happen if another storm like Sandy came along. If it did, she admits, “It would be over for me here.”
But Smith says she never considered not rebuilding. She likes the quirkiness of the community — how a siren rings at noon to alert residents that it’s time for lunch and how most people get around by bike, as opposed to car. She wants future generations of her family to enjoy Breezy Point just as she has.
“There is no place like Breezy,” she said.