'A fireman who helped clean up 9/11 - and he's crying'

Fri, Nov 2, 2012, 00:00

STREETS WHERE water is so high only four-wheel-drives can wade through them and skeletons of houses stripped of windows, doors and walls – that’s what residents in the storm-ravaged Irish-American neighbourhoods of Breezy Point and the Rockaways in Queens are trying to cope with.

“Three-foot water on the main road, the puddles are ponds,” said AJ Smith, a community leader and life-long resident of Breezy Point, whose family emigrated to New York during the Great Famine.

“I met a friend yesterday, a fireman who helped clean up 9/11 – and he’s crying, talking to me. His house just isn’t there anymore. People are just stunned.”

Apart from flood damage, 111 houses in Breezy Point were destroyed by a fire that broke out during the hurricane late on Monday night.

“Our firemen fought in waist-deep water and extremely high sustained winds,” a spokesman from the New York Fire Department told The Irish Times.

Smith described the morning after the storm as one of the “most emotional” for anyone from the community, comparing it to a war evacuation scene: “People being rescued on the back of pick-up trucks, people being ferried to look at what’s left of their homes, trying to pick things from piles of debris.”

A sense of disbelief lingers throughout the neighbourhood. Another resident, Christina Fischer, whose family comes from Sligo, said that she hopes the government realises how much help is required of them.

“We’re a strong little town, with a faith in God and belief in the community. But we really are in need of immense assistance. I’ve got five kids and I don’t know where to put my little ones in school – there was irreparable damage to the local one.”

When he visited the area two days ago, New York’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg, said, “To describe it as looking like the pictures weve seen of the end of World War II is not overstating it. It was completely levelled.”

Fischer said that, in hindsight, the city should have issued martial rather than mandatory evacuation notices, forcing people to leave their homes before the storm.

“Some of the elderly residents, like those from the former summer bungalows, wedged between the bigger renovated houses, insisted they’ve waited out 70 years of storms and wouldn’t leave,” said Fischer.

“One neighbour diagonally behind us, Danny Sullivan, is a fireman and his folks refused to leave. So in the middle of the night when ember from the fire across the street started hitting their home, he carried out his parents. Neighbours started helping the people that stayed.”

The local fire department said up to 25 trucks were lost trying to get through floodwaters to the fire. Public transport to Breezy Point and the Rockaways remains closed, and there’s still no power or electricity, with very limited running water.

“You can get close, but they’re trying to keep just residents coming in, and since there’s no power, the bridges close when it starts getting dark,” said Jarad Astin, a Rockaways local.

Astin and his wife Christel Rice, an Irish flute and tin whistle musician and teacher, said they were trying to drive to their home yesterday afternoon but could not find a station stocked with petrol anywhere in Brooklyn or Queens.

“I feel so helpless,” said Rice, fighting back tears. “All those people, who have nothing now . . . We’re very fortunate, we just had flooding.”

The couple added that the situation was turning particularly dire for people from the poorer downtown Rockaways neighbourhood, saying they wouldn’t be surprised if looting started very soon.

Dan Dennehy, a chairman at the Ancient Order of Hibernians in America, said that the most important thing for every community is to reach out and check in on its members.

“Like right now, we in the Irish community are waiting for the smoke to blow away, so we can start getting the people what they need, “ said Dennehy.

“Those guys that have no homes, we’ll help them to rebuild.”