|A group of Irish volunteers who took part in the first Irish Day of Action
for the Rockaways last November
Driving along Cross Bay Boulevard to the Rockaways for the Irish festival there on Sunday, I was struck by how incredibly different the scene was from just a few months back.
Back in October, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, there were small boats in the middle of the road, shuttered buildings everywhere, cops and ambulances every few hundred yards and desperate placards asking for FEMA to intervene.
It was like a scene out of Mad Max and reminded me of the aftermath of 9/11 when there were quite literally tanks on the FDR Drive in New York, and armed cops and soldiers every 20 yards.
You live long enough and you see such sights I guess, but New York has certainly seen its fair share of them in the last 13 years.
On Sunday all electricity was back on along Cross Bay Boulevard, the parking lots were full and sun worshippers were everywhere making their way to the nearby beaches.
In Rockaway itself the wear and tear was still evident. The broken boardwalk stands out like a bad dream, lancing along the length of the beach, a reminder of the power of Mother Nature. Even the ocean will never be seen the same, and the calm waters will never seem so unthreatening again.
On Sunday afternoon there was a hot wind from the south, mercifully cooling down the Irish festival-goers at St. Camillus schoolyard.
But wind and water will never seem the same again to those who lost loved ones or homes or possessions to Hurricane Sandy. The huge mounds of garbage and shards of houses torn apart are gone, a testament to the unsung heroes of the New York Sanitation Department who literally moved mountains to restore the Rockaways.
The summer breeze, the sunshine, the relaxed atmosphere helped erode the memories of that dreadful October day when Sandy struck in all its fury.
So too did the extraordinary work of the Irish all over New York and even from outside who held three days of action to help the residents of Rockaway and Breezy Point recover. The AOH, which hosted last weekend’s Irish festival to help St. Camillus parish recover and worked tirelessly on the days of action, has also surpassed itself, as has the Irish government who supplied much needed leadership to the mobilization effort.
The fact that it was St. Camillus, a mostly minority parish which has suffered greatly, that was the beneficiary of the Irish festival, is important.
There are those who will hold that the Irish only look after their own. That has not been the case at all in Rockaway.
Right from the beginning the decision was made to help every area of the Rockaways -- Irish, Black, Italian, Hispanic, Jewish.
That was what was done, and teams were sent on days of action to vastly different locations.
On Sunday all the proceeds were going to a church which has very few parishioners of Irish extraction but needed help the most.
The parish hall that was rebuilt by Irish money and effort will help restore community pride and activity in a neighborhood that badly needs it.
The 5,000 or so Irish who turned out for the Irish festival sent a powerful signal that the Rockaways is more united than ever after Hurricane Sandy.
While the hurricane shattered many lives, it also engendered a new spirit of community and togetherness in an area that now badly needs both. It was indeed an ill wind, but as usual the Irish have overcome.