It’s been a long, hard year on the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, but Hurricane Sandy-battered residents stood proud along their pristine Atlantic coastline on Sunday to mark the 12-month period since the ruinous storm made landfall.
More than 3,000 members of the heavily Irish Rockaway community gathered on the ocean at Beach 129th Street in the Belle Harbor neighborhood and well beyond to join hands and show the world that Sandy’s immense physical punch has not deflated their spirit.
The “Rockaway Rising” event was organized by Lily Corcoran, a native of Tullamore, Co. Offaly whose house was overwhelmed with 18 feet of water from Sandy’s wrath. Corcoran, who came to the U.S. in the 1960s and plans on retiring in Offaly in the next few years, said the wreckage of her home and the suffering of her neighbors left her in a total state of shock.
“I can’t describe what I saw,” she told the Irish Voice on Sunday while watching thousands of residents linking hands on the beach.
“My mother and I didn’t evacuate. We lost my father not long before the storm and we were thinking that we’d soon be seeing him again. We prayed the Rosary to survive.”
Corcoran, the mother of two sons who she raised in the Rockaway Park/Belle Harbor neighborhood, says her community is far from healed. Though the destroyed homes are being rebuilt, the emotional scars linger.
“How could we ever forget?” she asked. “Today is not a day of celebration. There is nothing to celebrate. We want to reunite and pray and reflect.”
A man with a megaphone urged those gathered on the beach at 4:45 p.m. to join hands and “send a message that we are here. Hug your neighbor and thank them for everything. And thank the Mormons who were here to save our lives.”
The one group universally beloved in the Rockaways and neighboring Breezy Point is the Mormons. Volunteers arrived in the storm’s aftermath and have not left in the year since. In their signature suits and yellow vests, they were out in force on the beach, showing unending support for those whose lives were upended by the storm.
The skies were a vibrant blue on Sunday, and the Atlantic was as calm as could be. Whitecap waves were tiny and unthreatening. The Atlantic seemed like a best friend instead of a worst enemy.
“We can’t forget that this ocean could swallow the Empire State Building if it wanted to,” one man with an Irish brogue remarked.
Rockaway Park resident Ed Shevlin, a member of the New York Department of Sanitation, a drummer and a scholar of the Gaelic language, was joined by piper John McManus as they solemnly marched along the sand past members of their community observing a five minute period of silence.
On Beach 100th Street, a large group of locals assembled at the coastline to link hands and commemorate all that was lost with paper lanterns.
“We have to remember all those who died and suffered,” Yarrow Regan, clad in an “Irish Strong Rockaway Beach” sweatshirt, told the Irish Voice.
“We have to show everyone we are still here. We are Irish strong, and we are Irish American strong.”
Ginny Connolly Moogan agreed. “My husband was trapped in a car during the storm,” she related. “I thought I would lose him.”
In the immediate days after Sandy struck, Beach 123rd Street right off the ocean was in ruins. The Irish Voice spoke with residents at the time who were coping with massive mounds of sand on their street and at their doorsteps. Their broken homes were flooded with several feet of water and rendered uninhabitable.
The nearby beach boardwalk was annihilated, its wooden planks scattered in heaps of rubble. Electricity was non-existent, and hope was hard to come by.
Fast-forward to Sunday, October 27, 2013, two days before Sandy’s first unwelcome anniversary.
Beach 123 was spotless, and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect. A new, killer hurricane was the last thing on anyone’s mind.
Instead of tractors shoveling sand and residents desperately seeking fresh food and supplies, one of the homes had a bouncy castle in the front yard for a Halloween party.
Paddy Nee, a native of Louisburgh, Co. Mayo who came to the U.S. nearly 60 years ago, refused to evacuate his neat little two story home on Beach 123 with shamrocks next to the street number. He stood his ground on the terrifying night of October 29 when Sandy landed, and he’s still very much standing to this day.
“When I met you last year I told you I was sorry I didn’t evacuate,” Nee told the Irish Voice while waiting for the Rockaway Rising event to begin.
“And I’m still sorry. But I’m still here,” he said in a brogue that sounds as if he left Mayo yesterday.
Accompanied by his daughter Mary Nee, who lives only steps away in an oceanfront condo on the ocean, Nee reflected on the year that was.
“Well, there’s been lots of building and lots of good, but people are still suffering very badly,” he said.
“There’s a lot of depression around the place. People lost everything.”
The Irish government through its two Irish Days of Action at the end of 2012 brought much needed physical and moral support to the Rockaways and Breezy Point. Hundreds of volunteers took part in the clean-up effort, and residents haven’t forgotten those helping hands.
“They had their Irish t-shirts on and they were wonderful to us,” Nee recalled.
Agencies receiving low marks from locals include FEMA and the administration of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“FEMA forgot about us. That’s a fact. So did Bloomberg,” Corcoran said.
Noreen Ellis, a native of Co. Limerick who is active in many Rockaway civic societies, is upset that so many of her neighbors had to dip into their pensions and college funds to pay for home repairs.
“It’s been very frustrating for us,” said Ellis, who lives steps away from the ocean. “The middle class people around here were forgotten about.”
Over in nearby Breezy Point, which was overcome not only by Sandy but by wildfires that burned several homes to the ground, residents took advantage of the Sunday autumn sunshine to continue exterior work on their residences. Some homeowners were decorating for Halloween; others were painting and doing maintenance work.
There’s no question that the rebuilding in Breezy has been impressive. Many of the quaint beachside cottages boast new decks, fences, siding and fresh coats of paint.
But equally true is that there is still a long way to go to make Breezy whole again. There are a large number of homes that haven’t been touched since the storm. Many of them have been condemned by the city, and the future remains uncertain.
Tim O’Regan, a Breezy Point resident and member of AOH Division 7 in Manhattan, says the natural beauty of his community could never be taken by Sandy or any other disaster.
“The sun is shining. Everything is peaceful. The view is beautiful,” said O’Regan while enjoying an afternoon walk along Oceanside Avenue.
“This is paradise no matter what. And there’s no better place to live.”
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