April 29, 2013 at 7:58 AM ET
Six months after Hurricane Sandy delivered a devastating mix of water and fire that brought Breezy Point to its knees, the tight-knit community in Queens, N.Y., is only just beginning to put the town back together.
The storm brought Category-1 hurricane winds and caused a 250-year flood plus a six-alarm fire that nearly wrecked an entire neighborhood. Almost 500 homes have been destroyed or are slated to be demolished, including 126 that were engulfed by the massive fire.
“We were very fortunate we didn’t lose the entire community that night,’’ Point Breeze Fire Department chief Marty Ingram told Willie Geist in a segment that aired on TODAY Monday.
Once the fires began, the 70-mph winds from the storm blew the flames from home to home. Firefighters unable to cross the 12-foot floodwaters had to watch as homes in the working-class community founded by police and firemen burned to the ground.
Ingram called it a “miracle’’ that everyone survived that night, with only two minor injuries reported. “My biggest fear was somebody was going to die,’’ he said. “Being the decision-maker, I wanted to make sure nobody died because of a bad decision that would have come from this firehouse.”
Six months later, there is still an eerie silence over the town of beach bungalows affectionately known as the “Irish Riviera."
“There’s voids where homes used to be,’’ Ingram said. “One of the homes was a friend of mine’s in the Army reserves. Just came back from Afghanistan, loses his house.”
Yet in the midst of the devastation, there were some blessings.
“My wife swears when we evacuated, she forgot to take her father's ashes,’’ one resident told TODAY. “Her father was a fireman. She swears her father's ashes protected the house. She'll go to her grave believing it. I guess I have to believe it, too.”
Local groups are trying to help with the relief effort, including the Graybeards, a nonprofit organization founded by a group of men in Rockaway Beach. The organization was created in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, which claimed the lives of 70 Rockaway residents, and the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in November 2001 that killed five local residents in addition to all 260 people on board.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the Graybeards have been able to quickly distribute donations to help the local residents most in need. "They're nowhere near normal,'' Graybeards president Steve Stathis told Geist. "The economy is suffering, the small businesses are really hurting, (and) everybody is fixing up their homes. When you drive through the streets, it appears that this neighborhood is back the way it was, but if you drive up and down the blocks, all you see are construction vehicles. Everybody is working inside their homes. On the exterior you don't see it as much."
Stathis is hoping that tourism this summer can help the area rebound financially.
"We need people not to forget us,'' he said. "Rockaway was on a big roll economically (before the storm). I hope that momentum doesn't die. It's not going to be the way it was this year, but we still are going to have plenty to do. The beach will be open, and we really need people to come down and support us."