'This is what the GAA does anyway back home . . . helping those who need it'

Tue, Feb 5, 2013, 00:00

Tim Devlin’s mobile phone rang at least six times during the half-hour drive from downtown Manhattan’s East River bank to the co-operative community of Breezy Point, the south-most tip of Queens.

“Someone’s offering the guys hot showers?” Devlin half-shouts into his Blackberry. “That’s great! Wait – what do you mean someone stole the diesel fuel from the generators?”

“The guys” in question are the 20 or so volunteers from the Gaelic Players’ Association who, with the support of Aer Lingus, came to New York to help rebuild Breezy Point’s youth centres and three volunteer firehouses.

The group includes Cork hurler Dónal Óg Cusack, Tipperary hurler Lar Corbett, Galway hurler Ollie Canning and former Dublin manager Pat Gilroy.

The “hot showers” would be happily received, Devlin says, given the cold and the long hours of manual labour the players have worked since they arrived last Thursday.

As for the theft of diesel fuel – that’s indicative of the persisting dire condition that subsumed Breezy Point when Hurricane Sandy hit three months ago. Of the 111 homes that burned down on the night of the so-called super-storm, every single one remains crumbling, uninhabitable and abandoned.

Among the dozens of other remaining houses, uniquely designed and painted and still half-standing, only a dozen are occupied. Hurricane floods forced most people, including Devlin and his family, to neighbourhoods such as Bay Ridge in Brooklyn.

“We call it ‘Breezy Ridge’ now,” jokes Devlin, explaining how the two predominantly Irish neighbourhoods share strong familial connections.

Close-knit communities

A contractor with more than 25 years of experience, Devlin, from Co Tyrone, has become Breezy Point’s de-facto repair man. Among the close-knit beach neighbourhood of 3,000, two-thirds are Irish and Irish American.

The calls Devlin regularly receives range in theme from food delivery notices to building logistics to co-ordinating with Habitat for Humanity, whose help, he says, is “a blessing”.

“It all started to prove the naysayers wrong,” says Devlin. “Once I heard Long Island had electricity back, I got a subcontractor in to my house to get my electric up again.”

Devlin recounts how he turned the lights on for the first time days after Sandy, for the whole neighbourhood to see: “A great sign, that light was for us,” he says, adding how it quickly mushroomed to sourcing subcontractors of all kinds for the whole neighbourhood.

Muscle and hope

The volunteers that greet Devlin’s car in front of the Monsignor Connolly Parish Center in Breezy Point are the latest muscle to pump some hope into the neighbourhood’s long, emotional clean-up effort.

“We couldn’t have imagined the state of things,” says one of the volunteers, Ger O’Brien, piling into a white pick-up with three co-volunteers.

Devlin is sending the four to finish insulation work on a youth centre near the Connolly Parish Center. The sharp sound of chain saws harmonises with a recurring thud of wood on concrete as the players pass deserted streets scattered with heavy machinery used to take down demolished houses.

More than 300 people will not return to rebuild the homes they lost, according to the chairman of the Catholic Club board, and second-generation Breezy resident Martin Fahy.

“If they’re getting $300,000 [€220,500] each – what’s that going to do someone who has lost everything, their clothes, their furniture, car, their house?” Fahy asks. “And then just think about those that didn’t have insurance.”

Coupled with the $9.7 billion flood insurance Bill that US president Barack Obama passed in January, the $50 billion Sandy relief package approved last week by the Senate would effectively give appropriate insurance holders compensation of about $300,000. Like Fahy, many New Yorkers say it’s too little too late, with the state’s estimated storm costs at nearly $42 billion.

“You know, some people said to me ‘Why are you boys doing this? It’s America, let them take care of their own’,” says Seán Potts, the Gaelic Players’ head of communications. “But this is what the GAA does anyway back home; get the job done, helping those who need it.”

The Irish Government announced funding of €250,000 last December to assist Irish-American communities affected by the hurricane.

Irish funds

On Sunday, Minister of State for Finance Brian Hayes travelled to Breezy to announce the first allocation of these funds – $50,000 – to the community’s infrastructural rebuilding project.

At the reopening of Connolly’s youth centre, which the players worked on extensively, Hayes praised them for boosting morale in Breezy, adding: “In the area known to generations of Irish people as the ‘Irish Riviera’, rebuilding and recovery will take many years.”

Devlin, Fahy, the volunteers and Steve Greenberg, chairman of the Breezy Point Disaster Relief Fund, all testified that Breezy “was beautiful, and will be beautiful again”.

“This neighbourhood isn’t giving up,” says Devlin.