Discuss as:

Sandy-struck Breezy Point facing 'greatest historical challenge'

John Makely / NBC News

The Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens, where more than 100 homes burned when Superstorm Sandy hit.
Scroll to bottom of story to see a 360 degree panorama of the fire zone.

BREEZY POINT, N.Y. -- This private community, which has fended off previous existential threats, is now facing its “greatest historical challenge” as a result of Superstorm Sandy,  with some residents questioning whether they can afford to rebuild and others wondering if the resurrected beachside community will bear any resemblance to its bucolic former self.

A halting first step on what figures to be a long road back took place Thursday evening, when the Breezy Point Cooperative Inc. Board held its first post-Sandy shareholders meeting at a Catholic high school in Brooklyn.

More than 1,000 residents of the community founded by Irish immigrants around the turn of the 20th century packed the meeting, which was closed to the media and members of the general public.

According to residents who attended, the board discussed applications for emergency Small Business Administration loans, the status of efforts to restore various utilities, demolitions and a disaster recovery fund, planned infrastructure improvements and other topics.

But some of those interviewed as they left said that their biggest concerns weren’t addressed.

“In the long run, it seems like things are going to take a lot of time,” said Rob Moran, a 38-year-old construction worker who attended with his wife, Carinne Bach. “A lot of questions are still up in the air right now.”

Bob Esposito, a former police officer whose home sustained water damage, said he was pleased to hear about infrastructure improvements, but wished the board had at least touched on the bigger issues that are weighing on residents’ minds.

 “They were prepared to give a lot of information out, which we all needed to hear, but I think they are very reluctant on answering the hard-core questions,” he said.

Sandy smacked into the village on the southeastern tip of the city’s Rockaway peninsula the night of Oct. 29, unleashing floodwaters that surged through the bungalows and bigger, newer homes, tearing some of the former off their foundations. The flooding also may have sparked a fire that burned down more than 100 of the 2,800 homes in Breezy Point.

John Makely / NBC News

Heavily damaged homes along Oceanside Drive in Breezy Point, N.Y.

The tight-knit community, home to many generations of numerous families, is only beginning to grapple with the wide-ranging consequences. Debris is slowly being cleared and power restored, but the water system is still shut down and demolition of the roughly 200 homes that sustained the worst damage -- including what remains of those in the fire zone -- has yet to begin.

Breezy Point, which was largely self-sufficient before the storm, is receiving assistance from the city as it attempts to jump-start its recovery. But officials and residents acknowledge that they have only begun to regroup.

Cooperative board Chairman Joseph Lynch declined an interview request from NBC News to discuss the current situation, but in an online statement to shareholders posted Nov. 16 he wrote, “This storm and its destruction have presented our Cooperative its greatest historical challenge, which will take time to overcome.” 

In a later message posted just before Thanksgiving, he said that “the economic challenge for some in this regard will be a true test and hardship,” before ending on an optimistic note:

“In spite of this very serious setback I am confident that our Cooperative will also continue to grow, evolve, and prosper as it has over the past fifty-two years,” he said. “We also have no other choice.”

But other community members, including at least one co-op board member, are less sanguine about the prospects of the largely middle-class neighborhood, home to many firefighters, police officers and sanitation workers.

“Unfortunately, I’m afraid it may cause some people to leave the community,” said Marty Ingram, fire chief of the Point Breeze volunteer firefighters and a member of the co-op board, though stressing that he was speaking only for himself. “I hope it doesn’t. But it’s going to have an impact.”

Ingram said the community would pull together and he believed would offer some “quiet” financial aid to help people who can’t otherwise afford to rebuild.

Mary Elizabeth Smith, a lifelong resident and author of “A History of Breezy Point,” noted that the community, which started out as more of a summer getaway spot for working-class families and slowly morphed into a charming residential enclave with intimate sand lanes running between homes, has proven remarkably resilient over the years.

Courtesy of Mary Quinn

Mary Quinn, now 59, stands with her parents and older brothers as a little girl in Breezy Point in front of their bungalow, which was the typical type of housing in the community's earlier days. Quinn's family moved to the community full time in the early 1960s. She rebuilt the house in 1994.

The Breezy Point Cooperative was created in 1960 when residents learned that the 800-acres on which their homes stood had been quietly sold to a developer interested in building seaside high-rises. A group of homeowners went door-to-door collecting $500 from each family to raise an initial $75,000 defense fund, she said, and the group was ultimately able to buy back 400 acres for $12 million.

The co-op has been an oasis of economic stability in the decades since, paying off its communal mortgage years ago. That prosperity was in part due to the board’s initial ban on mortgage loans -- a requirement that was eventually relaxed to allow buyers to put 50 percent down on a home and finance the remainder. As a result, Ingram said that not a single Breezy Point home was foreclosed on during the housing crisis that erupted in 2008.

Smith said the credit belongs “to our ancestors … (who) really took a major chance, put up money in a belief in something that did not occur anywhere else in the United States: a community of houses that owned the land underneath them.”

The city briefly considered making Breezy Point a public park in 1962, but protests from residents and the developer scotched that effort. Then, after the National Park Service took title to land to the west and east after the same developer ran into financial problems, the cooperative went to federal court to battle with its new neighbor over ownership of newly formed sand flats, winning the rights to the land in 1982.

“A lot of people who live there today have no idea of the battles that were fought to get this property,” said Smith, 62, who was about 9 when the fight began to save Breezy Point, “and that’s why people really don’t want to leave the place. I’m certainly one of them.”

Moran and Bach are among the residents hoping they can rebuild their bungalow, which may have to be demolished.

The home, which was built by Bach’s deceased father, was inundated by a couple of feet of raw sewage and water, has a slight tilt and apparently some problems with the foundation. Though city inspectors indicated in two initial inspections that they should be able to rebuild, the couple fears it needs more than a repair and they may have to start anew.

John Makely / NBC News

Rob Moran, 38, cleans out the flooded basement of his home in Breezy Point, N.Y., on Dec. 1, 2012. Moran and his wife Carinne Bach, 38, are asking building inspectors to re-assess their home, which they fear may not be safe to live in.

With a Dec. 31 deadline set to apply for a free demolition provided by the city, they had hoped to learn at Thursday’s co-op board meeting how the building codes might change as a result of Sandy’s incursion, especially whether rebuilt homes might need to be elevated to lessen the likelihood of future flooding. But they left empty-handed.

“We got a little information, but I’m sure not quite as much as everybody had hoped,” said Bach, 38, a dance and fitness instructor who is several months pregnant. “I don’t think it’s for a lack of trying. I just think there’s so much red tape and so much unknown.”

“As far as where we’re to go from here, there’s not a clear road map,” she added.

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg hinted on Thursday that building code changes should be expected for waterfront areas, noting that “we can’t just rebuild what was there and hope for the best.”

John Makely / NBC News

A FEMA inspector works amid the burned homes in Breezy Point.

“As you can see, the yardstick has changed -- and so must we,” he added. “FEMA is currently in the process of updating their (flood) maps -- and those maps will guide us in setting new construction requirements.”

If new, more-stringent building requirements are put in place, many fear the expense will drive out some longtime residents, particularly the elderly and families that have kept summer or part-time homes -- about 40 percent of the residences -- there for decades.

Laurie Cerra is struggling to keep the small green bungalow that had been in her family for about 85 years. She swept the floors, filled garbage bags and struggled to hold back tears last week as volunteers used crowbars to rip down the walls. The home received a red card -- meaning it was unsafe to enter -- from inspectors, but she was doing the work in a bid to save the damaged foundation.

“I’m trying to separate myself from this, I really am. I spent every summer here … growing up. I’m really hoping I can repair the foundation,” said Cerra, 54, a dietitian from Greenfield Township, Pa.

But because she can’t get coverage from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which doesn’t provide emergency aid on second homes, and has not heard from her homeowners' insurance for wind damage coverage in three weeks, she can’t afford to rebuild in the short term.

John Makely / NBC News

Laurie Cerra, a registered dietitian from Pennsylvania, stands in the living room of her Breezy Point, N.Y., home on Dec. 1, 2012, as volunteers help her remove debris. Cerra is hoping she can save the damaged foundation and rebuild the home, which has been in her family for about 85 years.

“Maybe in, I don’t know, three or four years, if I get (the) foundation, then I can do it myself. I can try and do sheetrock myself,” she said. “At this point, no, it’s just going to be out of my savings account to rebuild.”

The co-op board is implicitly acknowledging the financial threat. In a statement posted online on Saturday, it said Breezy Point homeowners can now borrow, over the next two years, up to 80 percent of their home’s appraised value, or up to $500,000, to repair or replace their properties.

It also waived one part of the “carrying charges” -- monthly fees that include garbage collection, road and building maintenance, property tax and security services -- for the owners of about 300 homes that were destroyed or significantly damaged.

Lynch, the co-op board chairman, had upset some residents by reminding them that it is “really important” that shareholders continue to pay the fees “as our corporation will face real financial challenges and pressure in the immediate future.”

Lifelong resident Kim Dillon was among those who felt the tone was wrong so soon after the disaster.

“Our lives are in disarray and I don’t think their first contact with us should have been … ‘we’re still expecting maintenance fees’ when there’s people that don’t have houses,” said Dillon, 43, whose family is one of two that have moved back onto their block, even though there is still no running water.

But Dillon said her neighbors, who were like family, would be back, though she acknowledged her hometown would change as a result of the devastation.

“It’s going to be sad to see the bungalows gone, because that was like old Breezy Point,” she said, referring to the area known as “the wedge,” where the six-alarm fire burned so hot that stormy night. “I don’t think there’s going to be many -- if any -- left.” 

The Breezy Point neighborhood of Queens, where more than 100 homes burned when Superstorm Sandy hit. (John Makely / NBC News)

Follow this link to view the panoramic of Breezy Point full-screen.


More content from NBCNews.com:

Follow US news from NBCNews.com on Twitter and Facebook