The Irish enclave of Breezy Point bore the brunt of Hurricane Sandy, and volunteers were out in force on Saturday to help the stricken community. Debbie McGoldrick reports.
The narrow laneways that contain many of the charming beachside cottages in Breezy Point were fairly quiet on Saturday morning, save for the hum of some generators and the sounds of sheetrock being ripped from the homes that were beaten up by Hurricane Sandy.
There are so many inviting nooks and crannies in Breezy just off Oceanside Avenue that lead to paradise – a pristine beach with forever views of the Atlantic Ocean.
I asked one elderly homeowner who was surveying the outside of his home if he had seen a group of Irish people in green and white t-shirts offering their services. He seriously looked at me like I had two heads.
“You’re asking if I’ve seen Irish people in Breezy Point?” he smiled.
“EVERYONE in Breezy Point is Irish.”
The gentleman who suffered minimal damage to his home on Oceanside – a first floor semi-destroyed and landscaping erased by the sand is what qualifies as minimal these days – was right. Just about everyone in Breezy Point, which sits on the westernmost end of the Rockaway Peninsula, is Irish.
Many of the homes – a mix of cute, cabana-like residences to larger, two story moderns -- contain nameplates posted by the proud owners. The Mahoneys, the Ryans, the McMahons, the Morans, the Kennedys, the Cavanaghs . . . and, of course, the Murphys.
All seemed to live side by side in peace and harmony until Sandy’s aftermath required that each house has to have a colored inspection sticker from the City of New York. Given that reality, there aren’t many residents enjoying the late autumn weather at their Breezy beach homes these days.
“It’s pretty self-explanatory,” the homeowner I met explained. “Green means the home is safe, yellow means caution and red is an unsafe area.”
Sadly, there are an awful lot of red and yellow stickers plastered on residences in Breezy Point – that is, if the homes exist at all.
More than 100 homes – actually, it seems like so many more – were burned to the ground as Sandy-induced fires raged. Vast areas, only a stone’s throw from the Atlantic, simply don’t exist anymore.
All that remains are foundations filled with burned out wood frames, downed wires all over the place, and charred family mementos that will never be recovered.
The mind boggles. The heart breaks.
Mickey McCreesh, a native of Co. Armagh who now lives in Sunnyside, Queens with his wife and two children, has made several visits to Breezy Point in the days since Sandy with his business partner, Nick Murphy of Co. Offaly. McCreesh and Murphy own Bar 43 in Sunnyside, which has served as a drop-off location for those donating food, clothing and other supplies for storm victims.
“I was watching people earlier today over there,” says McCreesh, pointing to a home that no longer exists. “They were just digging around, looking for any family items they could find. They found some Christmas ornaments and were so happy.”
McCreesh and Murphy have worked with Sunnyside Cares, a group of volunteers that’s been going back and forth to the hard-hit Rockaway Peninsula offering assistance. Though he has a new one-month old child at home, McCreesh says he can’t stay away from the Rockaways.
“I just can’t believe it. I’ve made so many trips here and I still can’t believe it,” he says.
“The free time that I have – this is where I want to be.”
The volunteers who packed buses organized by the Irish Day of Action feel the same way. Two busloads of workers from Westchester and Pearl River arrived before 9 a.m. on Saturday and received direction on where they were needed from Habitat for Humanity volunteers who each day man a tent on 208th Street.
Nora Keaney lives in Yorktown Heights. Originally from Farranfore, Co. Kerry, shopping for Thanksgiving weekend sales held no appeal for her on Saturday, not when so many people are still suffering.
“I really wanted to give back,” says Keaney, who came to America in 1965. “I had heard all about the Rockaways and what a popular place it was for the Irish to go many years ago. I brought a pitcher of Holy Water with me, and rosary beads each with a decade.”
Keaney was scrubbing the walls of the Christ Community Church, just behind the Habitat tent, with fellow volunteers Cara Dennehy, 11, and Colleen Kelly. All of them departed from the Hudson Valley Irish Center at 7 a.m. sharp.
“Of course we had seen everything that was going on, but it was tough for us to get down here on our own,” says Kelly.
“So when we heard about the Irish Day of Action it was great. It gave us a chance to make an impact with an organized group.”
“It’s so different from what you see on TV,” said Cara, a sixth grader whose parents Siobhan and Dan helped organize the Irish Day of Action.
“I feel really good that I got to come here with my sister Ashling and my family to do something.”
Siobhan Dennehy is the executive director of the Emerald Isle Immigration Center, with offices in Woodlawn and Woodside. Not reaching out to those in need was never an option, she says.
“You can’t really describe what you see here. All I kept thinking when I was watching it on TV was, if that was my home, or my school or my community, I would really want volunteers to come and help me out. So we’re all more than happy to be able to do whatever we can really.”
Jim Whelan, a member of the AOH Division 3 in Pearl River, was shocked by the aftermath of the storm.
“The amount of destruction is unreal,” he said while taking a time out to warm up with a coffee.
Whelan grew up in the Bronx – his father was a native of Co. Carlow. He spent the morning cleaning up houses. “I hope we made a dent, however small, in all the suffering around here,” he added.
The robust Rockland GAA was well-represented in Breezy Point. Emmett Woods, the organization’s chairman, spent his morning demolishing someone’s bathroom.
“I feel so sorry for these people,” says Woods, a native of Co. Tyrone and now local entrepreneur who owns Emmett’s Castle restaurant in Pearl River and Mahoney’s Irish Pub in Poughkeepsie.
“We don’t know how lucky we are that we escaped the worst of the storm. These people here really need our help.”
Everyone, it seems, is Irish in Breezy Point – even the Habitat for Humanity volunteers. Tom Naughton works with the Habitat branch in Westchester which has a maintained a daily presence. His mother was from Kilkenny, father from Galway and he was raised in England and Ireland until he was 10 years old.
Retired from a bank for seven years, Naughton has volunteered for Habitat ever since. He’s been to various disaster areas, including New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and says that ensuring the safety of the volunteers is of the utmost importance.
“It’s always tragic,” says Naughton, while directing a group of volunteers from Goldman Sachs who traveled to Breezy Point for the day.
“But they will rebuild here. There’s no doubt about it.”
Habitat for Humanity Westchester director Jim Killoran agrees. “We will rebuild the Rockaways. We will rebuild it green, and we will rebuild it smart,” says Killoran, whose paternal grandparents emigrated from Ireland.
“You know, we celebrate all diversity around here. But really, Breezy Point is like another county in Ireland. And for sure, the spirit of the Irish is what’s going to get us through this.”
The Irish Tricolor flew on the beachfront, right under the Stars and Stripes, not far from where Killoran spoke. Breezy Point is indeed infused with Irish DNA, and the volunteers who donated their time on Saturday have every intention of ensuring it stays that way.