It was said, in the brutal aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last October, that a casualty of the mega-storm could be the annual St. Patrick’s parade in Rockaway, one of the areas in New York ravaged by pounding rain, winds and wildfire.
But residents of the Rockaways, one of the most Irish neighborhoods in the U.S., proved their resilience on Saturday afternoon with a raucous march that was as big as any of the 37 parades that preceded it despite the obstacles stemming from the devastating storm.
A host of marching bands, bagpipers, stepdancers, county organizations and, of course, politicians proudly marched through the streets of Rockaway Beach which were thronged with onlookers cheering their heroes (the New York Department of Sanitation), and jeering Mayor Michael Bloomberg for what they said was his indifference in their time of despair.
“This parade is exactly what we needed,” said Patrick Delaney, a resident of nearby Howard Beach who lived in the Rockaways for many years.
“There was never a question in my mind that the parade would go ahead. We stick together out here.”
The march stepped off from its usual spot at Beach 130th Street and Newport Avenue and proceeded through some of the areas decimated by the storm, including a long stretch on Rockaway Beach Boulevard that remains charred to the ground.
Businesses that also felt Sandy’s financial pinch did a brisk trade on the cloudy, chilly afternoon, including pubs like the New Kerry Hills which re-opened last month after flooding damage was repaired.
The New York City Department of Sanitation and its Emerald Society were the stars of the day, receiving huge applause along the parade route for their round the clock efforts to clean up after Sandy.
“This is a real fine day for our department,” commissioner John Doherty said from the reviewing stand.
“And we will move forward next year to make this parade even bigger and better.”
Most of the contenders for New York City mayor lined up to march, but the current occupant, Bloomberg, was loudly booed by many of those on the sidelines.
“Go run in the marathon,” one furious green-clad man shouted in reference to Bloomberg’s decision to continue with the New York Marathon in the days after Sandy before bowing to pressure to cancel the event.
Others blasted Bloomberg for marching in close proximity to the Sanitation Department. “He’s a coward, he’s got to hide behind the real heroes,” another watcher screamed.
Mike Benn, the Co. Limerick-born chairman of the Queens County Parade Committee, had kinder words for the billionaire mayor who will leave office at the end of the year and has been targeted by Rockaway boos in prior parades.
“He’s been a big supporter of ours, marching in our parade for 11 of his 12 years [as mayor],” Benn pointed out to a crowd that remained largely unimpressed.
Bloomberg, clad in green socks and a sash, kept his reviewing stand remarks short. “I don’t think anyone could have done the job you guys did,” he said in reference to the Sanitation Department.
“Happy St. Patrick’s Day, and by order of the mayor, everybody is a little Irish today.”
Other politicians on the march included mayoral front-runner Christine Quinn and fellow Democratic contenders John Liu and Bill de Blasio. Republican candidate Joe Lhota was also there but maintained a relatively low profile.
New York Senator Charles Schumer marched well after the mayoral contenders, with megaphone in hand and an aide holding a sign saying “Senator Schumer Salutes the Irish.”
“I love the Irish,” he shouted, stopping at one point to tell a group that he was once named Hibernian of the Year. “I was so proud that day,” he added.
Though some parade-goers roared at Schumer about FEMA grants, others were in a better mood. “Come here, you’re so handsome,” one woman said with outstretched arms. A grinning Schumer duly obliged, stopping for a photo and a chat.
“Of course, this is a great day for Rockaway,” Schumer told the Irish Voice.
When asked if the Irish can expect visas this year, he enthusiastically replied, “Yes, definitely yes!” before marching toward the reviewing stand.
Planning for the Rockaway parade was impacted by Hurricane Sandy and fundraising efforts were slowed, but Benn and his committee pulled out all the stops to ensure the march went off without a hitch.
“It’s a great day. I’m very proud,” Benn said. “We’ve come a long way.”
Some of the marchers also traveled a distance to participate in the parade, one of the largest in New York State.
“This is our first time here, and we really wanted to come because we had heard so much about Rockaway in the past,” Michael O’Connor of the Newport AOH Pipes and Drums Band told the Irish Voice.
The group took a bus from Rhode Island early in the morning, and were heading back in the evening to prepare for more parades.
“It was special being here considering all the devastation that happened,” O’Connor said.
“These people deserve a break and a good time, and I think they had that today.”