A year after Sandy, resilience defines Breezy Point

5:23 PM, Oct 27, 2013   |    comments
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BREEZY POINT, N.Y. -- Standing on the sandlot where her home of 20 summers once stood, Helen Graham was remarkably cheerful for a 78-year-old widow who'd seen the house built with her husband's life insurance reduced to cinders.

A few hours earlier, despite her age and the risks of seaside building, she had signed a contract to replace what she lost one year ago in an inferno amid the tempest that became a prime image of the second-costliest storm in U.S. history.

As Sandy stormed the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to Long Island, it touched off a fire here that consumed 135 homes even as rain fell and seawater advanced.

With her decision this day, Helen Graham finally settled a wrenching issue that faced or faces many others from Amityville to Atlantic City: Stay or go?

For Helen, it came down to her love of Breezy Point, "the Irish Riviera,'' a peculiar settlement at land's end in a far corner of the nation's largest city.

"I was on the fence, but I was lonely this summer. I missed the smiling people,'' she said. "Even if you don't know someone, they'll say, 'How ya doin?' In the rest of the city, they don't say that.''

The rest of the city is not Breezy, which sticks into the Atlantic at the western tip of the Rockaway Peninsula. It's reachable only by bridge and a single road. A guardhouse blocks the main entrance. Each street has its own gate. The hoops on the public basketball courts have nets.

It was settled a century ago as a summer colony by police officers, firefighters and other city workers, most of them Irish. Today, homes range from founders' humble bungalows to proud, new, two-story houses bristling with picture windows and decks. More than a third of residents are year-rounders.

The fire that broke out when the storm hit Oct. 29 burned out of control for hours. About 350 of Breezy's 2,837 homes - 12% - were destroyed by fire or flood or subsequently demolished. Hundreds more were uninhabitable for weeks or months.

Some of the displaced full-time residents are renting a temporary place while paying a mortgage and taxes on an unlivable or destroyed home. A few continued to receive estimated utility bills for homes that no longer existed.

Although a third of the homes are still unoccupied, Artie Lighthall, manager of the residents association, sees a community two-thirds' full; six months ago, 85% were empty.

"Maybe it's taken a little bit of time, but it's underway now,'' he says. "The word that comes to mind is resilience.''

USA TODAY

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