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Paddy Nee outside his home on Beach 123rd Street. Photo by: Handout

Fighting Irish spirit emerges as the Rockaways stay strong and united after Hurricane Sandy

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Paddy Nee outside his home on Beach 123rd Street. Photo by: Handout

Hurricane Sandydid her best to destroy the Rockaways, but the island’s fighting Irish spirit has come to the fore as Debbie McGoldrick discovered while meeting with the locals on Sunday.

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.”

Read more news on Hurricane Sandy here

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.”

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