Breezy Point Faces Long Road to Recovery After Sandy
"I thought I was going for a night," said Strong, 59, a school secretary.
On Wednesday, she returned home to find a pile of charred wreckage where her two-story home stood in the tight-knit community on the western edge of the Rockaways, in a scene officials have described as looking like a war-zone.
Surveying the smoking remains of her beachfront neighborhood, Strong couldn't believe the landscape was the place she called home for four decades.
"You look out and you say, 'It's just not real," she said.
With blue skies overhead and the ocean still churning, Breezy Point was in pieces Wednesday, with homes torn open like dollhouses and residents wading through streets blocked by knee-high water.
At least 80 homes burned to the ground after the storm in a wind-whipped fire, and a strip of 20 businesses on Rockaway Beach Boulevard in Rockaway Park continued to smolder through the day Wednesday.
Ankle-high black water sat inside the foundations of what were once homes to dozens.
Stunned residents pored over the wreckage of their homes Wednesday, with little idea of when they might be able to restore electricity, gas and water to the neighborhood. The area's septic systems will have to be repaired as well.
Officials did not immediately respond to inquiries about when residents can expect the services to return.
"It's a tremendously tough road here," said volunteer firefighter John Nies, 55, who said he didn't expect life in the neighborhood to return to normal for years.
Mike Bracci, a 72-year-old retired construction worker who has lived in the neighborhood for 20 years, said he was still shocked by how much damage the storm did.
"[Tuesday] morning I got up and walked through the fire area for two hours and was just crying," he said.
Bracci said he rode out the storm in his house even though his wife urged him to join her in an evacuation.
"It is not even in my mind to leave. This is my home," he said, adding that though he has no water, no electricity and three feet of water in his basement, he has no regrets about staying.
Resident Jennifer Pappas, a 47-year-old nurse who grew up in Breezy Point, spent Sunday night in the home of a friend in Bay Ridge. She drove back to Breezy Point Wednesday for the first time.
She began to sob as she stepped onto the buckled concrete boardwalk that overlooked the ruined seaside home she had lived in since age 4.
"I really didn't think I wasn't coming back to a house," Pappas said.
Despite the devastation, Pappas and many other hurricane victims say their close community will band together to rebuild.
"I hope to demolish and rebuild here," Pappas said.
And Strong said that "there are too many pluses about this place to leave."
Volunteer firefighter Ricky Savage, who struggled to control the seaside blaze, said he would stay in Breezy Point despite the water damage to the home he has lived in since childhood.
"I would never leave here," said Savage, 55, citing the main draw of Breezy Point as its "brotherly love."
"We're going to rebuild and be back again," he said.
Lucille Dwyer, whose two-story home burned to the ground, said seeing the debris where her house once stood gave her the impetus to build stronger.
"I'm heartbroken," said Dwyer, who lived in the house with her husband and son for 23 years. "But I feel better since I came and saw it. I can move on and rebuild."
Dwyer's son poked through the wreckage of the family's home with a metal rod he found on the ground, recovering little more a few bottles of liquor and an untouched rack of DVDs.
As Strong dug through the wreckage of her home Wednesday in search of the number plate that marked her address, she found a survivor like herself, a sturdy vine that she said would take root again and bear blue flowers.
She carried the vine close to her side in a white plastic shopping bag.
"I'm going to keep this and plant it in front of my new house," she said.