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Parting with life's props: A tough cleanup begins in Breezy Point

Residents of Breezy Point, N.Y., are beginning the long hard task of rebuilding their community, pumping water, clearing debris and reflecting on what they've lost.

BREEZY POINT, N.Y. — The Allens hauled out the fridge, board games and the many other everyday objects that were the props of their lives on Thetford Avenue before Superstorm Sandy flooded their bungalow and turned their world upside down.

The possessions were piled high on their deck on Sunday in front of their one-story home, which now has a slight but noticeable tilt. Many of them were headed for the dump, but they were determined to keep the most important ones, such as a heart-shaped photo of KeriLynn Allen’s deceased mother, Ann Marie McCarron, who owned the home before her daughter and husband bought it upon her death six years ago.

"We both went house shopping together and as soon we walked in here, we fell in love with this house," Allen, 41, said Friday of the mother-daughter search for a home 16 years ago. "We both said, 'This is it,' you know. We knew there was no more searching, no more looking, it was done. So, it’s hard to see it in this shape."

A difficult cleanup has begun in Breezy Point, a tight-knit community nestled between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean in a small corner New York City, days after Hurricane Sandy unleashed raging floods that damaged thousands of homes and triggered an inferno that burned more than 100 others.

Outside of Manhattan, New York residents are still facing a power outage as temperatures drop and the region braces for another storm. NBC's Stephanie Gosk reports.

Some families can get inside their homes, while others are still waiting for the waters to recede to make a first assessment of the damage. Still others have nothing to clean up because their homes were consumed by the six-alarm fire that blazed for hours.

KeriLynn Allen

KeriLynn Allen, 41, broke down into tears after seeing this heart-shaped photo of her deceased mother, Ann Marie McCarron, with Allen's nephew on the floor of her flooded bungalow in Breezy Point.

Over the weekend, the Sanitation Department began removing storm debris, an important milestone because the community had no dumpsters to throw out the spoiled food and soaked rugs and furniture. But a lot of the work is being left up to the people of Breezy Point and their bands of friends, as it is elsewhere in the disaster zone.

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"I was a basket case for the past couple of days but, you know, you come in here and you’ve got to put on your big girl pants and … you have to get through it," said Allen, who barely escaped the floodwaters during the night of Oct. 29 with her husband, Drew, and 12-year-old son, Ryan. "This is the first step in getting things together."

Residents are concerned about the threat to their water-logged homes posed by toxic black mold. Many are emptying out their first floors, including ripping out dry wall, floor panels and sheet rock, in a bid to salvage them.

In front of the nearby home of Rod and Anna Court, a slab of wood with the message "1 day at a time" painted on it leaned against the open hood of an SUV.

David Friedman / NBC News

KeriLynn and Drew Allen clean their flood-ravaged Breezy Point, N.Y., bungalow.

"We just got to do one day at a time because if you start thinking about it, it gets too depressing in the long term," said Dan Court, a 56-year-old nutritionist, who was helping his parents — Rod, 80, Anna, in her late 70s — clean their home, concentrating for the moment on mopping tiles with bleach.

Court began to list how many of the extended family’s Breezy Point homes were damaged, stopping when he got to eight. Then he started laughing.

"It’s a total disaster," said Court, who lives in Yorktown, a suburb north of New York City. "That’s what I’m saying, you can’t think that far. It's … unbelievable."

He noted one concern of many family members is what they should and shouldn’t do, "whether they’re hurting themselves, shooting themselves in the foot" regarding insurance claims.

David Friedman / NBC News

KeriLynn Allen looks through a family photo album rescued from the family's flooded home.

That concern also was raised by Ann Marie Campbell, who was cleaning out the flooded first floor of the nearby home of her 85-year-old mother, Kathleen.

"We’re trying to figure out what’s going on and what to do. I don’t know what to do, do you like save this, wipe it down with bleach?" Campbell asked as she cleaned furniture on Friday. "We’re really not being guided what to do … because I think the people who would be guiding us (the community’s cooperative board) also lost their houses."

The uncertainty of the road ahead is something that the people of Breezy Point, a tight-knit community founded more than a century ago by Irish immigrants, will have to come to terms with, said the Rev. Msgr. Michael Curran of St. Thomas More Catholic Church, where many residents and their pets — cats, dogs and birds — took shelter during the storm.

"We’re still making this up as we go along. Nobody knows exactly where we’re going. … It’s not going to be easy," Curran said after Sunday Mass. "The image I am using is like a very extended experience of Lent, that we go from ashes literally and water, to new and better life. And I think God will see us through it, and the nature of this community … will pull everybody through."

There have been some laughs as the cleanup proceeded, with Campbell joking about her Irish mother’s obsession with the Kennedy clan, as demonstrated by her hand-painted watercolors of the family. Dan Court’s brother, Ken, said he has been dealing with requests for offbeat items from relatives, such as brass knobs on a cabinet door, a check and a metal box.

David Friedman / NBC News

A bag of ruined possessions goes out the door of the Breezy Point, N.Y., home of Drew and KeriLynn Allen.

There has been heartache, too.

Mary Ann Dalton was out on Sunday to support her parents, Chris and Tom, who are in their mid-80s and have lived in Breezy Point for 55 years. They’re house is "down to wire and boards," with the couple having lost everything, she said.

"I was sitting there taking pictures of … my parents' dresser that they had when they were first married and it just went in the (dump) truck … and crumpled up as they do that turning thing. So it’s really been tough," she said, her voice trembling.

The Allens are hoping they can return to live in their bungalow, which KeriLynn said they bought after her mother’s death at 60 to "feel her presence."

"We almost died. … So, all of this is, this is nothing," she said of the aftermath. "I was praying to every angel I had in heaven to save us and somebody was with us that night."

"I just sat there with my family and we just prayed out loud, and I called in my parents and my grandparents," she said. "I said one of them had to be with me, so I think my mother was working overtime."

Comments? Questions? Email the reporter at miranda.leitsinger@msnbc.com

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