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.