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An oasis for generations, wrecked

After Superstorm Sandy, a close-knit New York beach community is trying to pick up the pieces.

November 18, 2012|Tina Susman
  • Residents of New York's Rockaway Peninsula reach for candles being handed out by a group called Dream Center two weeks after Superstorm Sandy hit.
Residents of New York's Rockaway Peninsula reach for candles being… (Spencer Platt, Getty Images )

NEW YORK — Bill Diffendale's grandparents used to come here at the turn of the century, when the only access to Breezy Point was via boat and when most visitors pitched tents in the sand.

Diffendale's father met his mother here in the 1950s. Years later, Diffendale met his wife here, and like earlier generations, he embraced the community of narrow lanes and bungalows painted the colors of the sea: green, blue and stormy gray.

His neighbor Mary Bosch met her husband here. Scott Winik's wife came here as an infant. Ted Feimer Jr. has them all beat: The main drag is named after his late father. "Ted Feimer Sr Promenade" reads the sign pointing down a lane that offers a dazzling view of Jamaica Bay, with Manhattan rising in the distance.

"It's very family-oriented here," Feimer said, "and, as the storm pointed out, that's a blessing and a curse."

He ticked off the relatives living near one another, whose homes Superstorm Sandy damaged or destroyed: a brother, a sister, two nephews and his mother-in-law -- for starters -- all scattered and bunking with friends and family or in hotels across the bay.

It's a tale heard all along the Rockaway Peninsula, a spit of land that averages less than three-quarters of a mile in width, and that was largely marooned as Sandy sent torrents washing over it.

At least eight people were killed here, and no section of the 11-mile-long peninsula was unscathed. Not gritty Far Rockaway on the eastern end, where shivering residents from public housing projects that lost heat and power lined up hours in advance Tuesday for a coat giveaway. Not working-class Rockaway Park, beneath the elevated tracks of the A train. Not the newly adopted hipster hangout along the oceanfront boardwalk, which was trashed as Sandy made landfall the night of Oct. 29.

But no area was devastated in as dramatic a fashion as Breezy Point. Like the rest of the Rockaways, it's part of New York City but seems a world apart, with its colorful beach houses, its boogie boards and barbecues, and the families who arrived generations ago and have vowed never to leave. Not even now, as they accept that it could be months before power is restored, and as generators and earth-moving machines drown out the sound of the sea gulls and waves.

"Yeah, it's a mess, but you've never been here for a summer's day," Winik said as he sat in his car waiting for someone from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to show up so he could begin applying for help to rebuild his home, which was shoved off its foundation. He and his wife fled with their dog and two cats before Sandy hit. They are living in a hotel.

"This is God's country," he said. "Where else are you going to find beachfront property in New York City?"

Nearby, Diffendale cleaned debris from the porch of his home, whose front door opens onto the sand. "We've been here forever," Diffendale said of his family.

His 89-year-old father lives nearby, as do several cousins. Diffendale recently sold his house on Long Island to live here year-round, in a newly renovated home designed to accommodate visiting children and grandchildren. Asked whether he had second thoughts about the move, he said: "Sandy puts a new light on it."

The last time the Rockaways saw such flooding was in 1960, when Hurricane Donna hit Long Island. Still, the people stayed.

"The family has had a presence in Breezy Point since the 1920s, and we'll never leave. Never," Bosch said.

Bosch lives here with her husband, Rich, whom she first laid eyes on in 1966 when he was playing softball in the Breezy Point sand. Her brother, Robert Jahrnes, a retired police officer, also lives in the neighborhood, as does a nephew. So does Bosch's best friend, Nancy, whom she met when they were 10 years old and summering on the Rockaways.

Unlike most other residents, the Bosches and Jahrnes have stayed in their homes despite the destruction. A daughter living in El Centro, Calif., sent a care package that included flashlights and hand warmers. They barbecue their meals, dress in layers against the biting cold and walk their dog, Maya, through an apocalyptic landscape of gutted homes, splintered porches and fallen trees.

Still, it's better than it was. Just a few days earlier, downed branches and ruined household belongings blocked the sidewalk. Now, city crews come each day to cart away debris. Insurance adjusters roam the twisting lanes, snapping photographs and searching for addresses.

"I wouldn't put anything up here," one said as he eyed an especially bad stretch of Bayside Lane, where several homes showed the dreaded red fliers posted by Department of Housing inspectors declaring them unsafe for habitation. "But I'm from Kansas. What do I know?" he added with a laugh.

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