Last Sunday was picture perfect in the five boroughs of New York City and beyond. The sun shining brightly, high atop a brilliant blue, benign sky, it was an ideal day to enjoy the warm autumn temperature with a leisurely walk on the beach, or brunch at an outdoor café.
That’s exactly what residents of the Rockaway Peninsula on the Atlantic Ocean in Queens would usually do on such a welcome day – that is, if they weren’t dealing with the crippling after-effects of a shockingly harsh Hurricane Sandy that ripped the physical structures of their tight-knit communities apart, but by no means deflated their determination to rebuild and emerge better than ever before.
“This is an Irish Katrina,” one Irish-born resident of the Belle Harbor neighborhood of the Rockaways told the Irish Voice on Sunday morning while waiting in a short, orderly line for a warm breakfast at one of the many centers where volunteers from all over the U.S. have lent a helping hand.
“But, you know, we’re not going anywhere. This is our place, and we’re going to rebuild and eventually we’ll be fine – eventually.”
Hurricane Katrina violently shook New Orleans and well beyond down to the ground seven years ago, and the very same can be said for the havoc that Hurricane Sandy wreaked on many parts of New York and New Jersey on Monday, October 29.
But talk about the worst of times bringing out the very best in people? That’s the case all throughout the Rockaways and nearby communities like Broad Channel and Howard Beach which were also devastated by the storm’s wallop.
For decades the Irish have made the Rockaways their home away from home – not for nothing is the island known as the Irish Riviera. The Rockaways, bordered by the Atlantic on one end and Jamaica Bay on the other, are a year-round base for many Irish American families, and a fabulous summertime playground for the rest of us – Hamptons views and beaches without the Hamptons pricetag.
Seeing the beach streets right off the ocean packed with mounds of sand and large wooden chunks of the famous Rockaway boardwalk was a jarring sight on Sunday morning.
The streets were full of furniture and other personal possessions destroyed by the storm, but the locals are truly remarkable people who, first and foremost, are glad to be alive and thankful that they still have each other.
“We’re all in the same boat. We all like to help each other around here and we’re doing that as much as we can,” lifetime Rockaway Park resident Brendan Brosh told the Irish Voice.
“There are so many acts of heroism going on all around us, but you’re not going to hear about 99 percent of them. We take care of each other.”
Brosh spent the days before the hurricane making plans to evacuate his Co. Mayo-born grandmother from her large white home at 140 Beach 123 Street, just steps from the Atlantic. She accumulated decades of personal mementoes – “a real pack rat,” Brosh joked – and now they’re gone.
“She went to Florida,” he said. “She wouldn’t have been able to cope with this.”
The home, he said, was surrounded by piles of sand that were still being cleared on Sunday morning. The basement was destroyed but the bones are still solid. Brosh’s mother also currently lives there, and he expects that one day he will do the same.
That’s not an unusual thing in the Rockaways. The family ties all around are incredibly solid, with generation after generation choosing to stay put.
Paddy Nee is another Irish-born resident of Beach 123rd. Originally from Louisburgh, Co. Mayo, Nee has lived there since 1980 and raised five children with his wife, who passed last year, in a neat two-story home with shamrocks on the outside. His children still live nearby.
On Sunday morning Nee, along with several others on the block, took time out from the massive clean-up to eat an Irish breakfast donated by Ciaran Staunton, proprietor of O’Neill’s in Manhattan and Molly Bloom’s in Sunnyside.
Powerless since Sandy, Nee, 81, was waiting for one of his sons to arrive with a coveted generator, and enjoying the company of his neighbors who he says are like family.
Nee chose not to evacuate prior to the storm – “it’s hard to leave your house,” he said -- but in retrospect he wishes he had, such was the level of fright he experienced.
“I will never, ever forget it,” he says in an Irish brogue as thick as the day he left Mayo. “My grandson stayed with me and we thought we’d never get out. The worst night of my life by far. All we heard was wind and huge noises and fire all night. There was sand and water everywhere.”
Nee’s home doesn’t have a basement and for that he’s thankful. But his ground floor living space was ruined and his roof is also in need of repair.
“That will all get fixed in time,” says Nee, a retired doorman who worked in the Upper East Side building where Ponzi thief Bernard Madoff once lived. (“I knew him well; he was very nice to me,” Nee shared).
“I’m just glad to live in the community that I live in here. There are so many Irish around here and we will rebuild.”
One neighbor called Nee the unofficial mayor of the Rockaways, and it’s not hard to see why. On a walk throughout the neighborhood to show an Irish Voice reporter some areas where Sandy’s wrath was particularly overwhelming, Nee knew just about everyone.
Practically the only ones he wasn’t acquainted with were the scores of volunteers from all walks of life – members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints were recognizable with their bright yellow t-shirts, two large busloads of helpers from Adelphi University in Long Island also took to the streets, and the U.S. Army, in large Humvees, was out in force.
That’s what it’s all about in the Rockaways – everyone knowing everyone else, sticking together through thick and thin. The sense of community is extremely strong, and the Irish are an integral part of what makes the area so vibrant and unique.
It’s a short walk from Beach 123rd Street along Rockaway Beach Boulevard to the local church and Catholic school, St. Francis de Sales. In the parking lot was a huge tent erected by the Irish construction firm Navillus. Inside people were eating meals and loading up on supplies, while outside volunteers were distributing warm clothing and blankets.
“We have to eat and get our things while it’s still bright because at night it can be scary because there are no lights,” said Nee.
Brendan Jones, a native of Co. Fermanagh, was at the Navillus tent having some lunch and talking to his neighbors. He left Ireland 42 years ago and loves the Rockaways, but much of his home was wrecked by the storm, as was the bar where he works, Roger’s Irish Tavern on Beach 116th Street.
“It’s pretty tough,” said Jones, clad in a green jacket emblazoned with an Irish harp and the words Rockaway Beach Irishtown.
Jones left his home and stayed with his brother during the storm. He was shocked to the core when he returned.
“I thought the worst,” he recalls. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It was like a bomb dropped.”
But like most everyone else in Rockaway on Sunday, his mood was jovial and upbeat.
“Oh, we’ll be okay,” he says with a smile on his face. “It’s going to take a lot of time, but we’ve got time. It’s hard now, very hard, but it will get better. We’ll make sure of it.”
The lines of people were especially long at St Francis de Sales school, where medical assistance was available for those in need. Volunteers were off-loading from trucks a huge amount of donated water which was being passed around as needed. The line was organized and people were clearly grateful of the help in their hours of need.
Heartbreaking is the only word to describe a walk along Beach 130th Street. Scores of houses are charred from wildfires, not to mention lifetimes of memories wiped away forever.
The only thing left of one home was the steps leading to the front door. A small doll in the likeness of a firefighter and a statue of the Blessed Virgin were placed at the entrance, a clear indication of just how devoted many Rockaway natives are to their religion and public service.
The Harbor Light Pub so popular with locals is gone too – but a shamrock-festooned flag from the Rockaway Irish Boys Club still flies high atop the wreckage. “It’s been around a long time, that place,” says Nee, shaking his head.
The warmth of the Sunday sun allowed homeowners and volunteers to make inroads in the massive clean-up. Residents in shorts and t-shirts were busy bleaching their water-logged basements; people were also busy shoveling sand, sand and more sand. Volunteers were walking the streets asking locals where they were needed most.
“Unfortunately winter is around the corner,” said Nee. “If we had more days like this we could do a lot more.”
Anti-looting signs – “You Loot, We Shoot” -- were posted on some streets. New York politicians are getting mixed grades from the locals, but the one group that has flunked on every level, not surprisingly, is LIPA, the power authority that completely mismanaged restoration in the aftermath of the storm.
There were scattered LIPA trucks in the neighborhood which elicited applause from homeowners forced to freeze in the cold, dark nights. Workers from a utility in Quebec were also walking around in bright orange suits trying to re-energize the streets, but the damage has been done and LIPA will never be respected again.
“It’s ridiculous,” says Nee. “We were forgotten about. People are suffering but LIPA, where were they?”
Though the maligned power company may have forgotten where the Rockaways were, so many others have not. Irish groups and businesses such as Liffey Van Lines and the Aisling Irish Community Center have led the volunteer charge over the Cross Bay Bridge and into the ravaged neighborhoods to provide food, supplies, manpower and comfort.
The Gibbons Home Irish pub in Maspeth, Queens had two large food stands open on Sunday, and a boombox blaring Irish music from the Wolfe Tones. The Gibbons family is no stranger to tragedy – George Gibbons, founder of the pub, was killed by a wrong-way driver on a Long Island Expressway service road last year.
His sister, Bernadette, was quick to give credit to the many Irish businesses that donated food and supplies to the stands. “We just were a drop-off point,” she said.
“People have been great. Everyone wants to donate and help and do their part. That’s the Irish.”
Briege Griebel from Co. Tyrone was doling out homemade soup under the Gibbons tent. She’s been in the U.S. for more than 40 years and has never seen anything like the horror inflicted by the hurricane.
“It’s shocking,” she says. “I’m going to keep volunteering and going to different places until there is no more need to do so.”
Gibbons agrees. “That’s what we’ve got to do. This is unreal. It’s not the Rockaways that I remember visiting while I was growing up.”
That’s certainly the case now, but after spending a few hours walking the streets along Rockaway Park Boulevard, with Irish flags flying high from so many homes, the Rockaways will rebuild. Of that there is no doubt.