It was a sobering start to St Patrick’s Day for Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the visiting Irish delegation in New York as they toured the Superstorm Sandy-ravaged Breezy Point neighborhood this morning.
Five months after Sandy hit, Breezy remains an eerie ghost town with more generators and construction material than returning residents.
There was no Breezy Point St Patrick’s Day parade, no children with Irish-themed face paint, no one dressed in green.
"Were you here when it happened?" the Taoiseach asked Steve Greenberg, head of the Breezy Point Relief Fund. Standing in what was once Mr Greenberg's living room in a battered, run down house, Mr Kenny heard the long list of things that both Mr Greenberg and his community lost and saw ruined.
“I wasn’t here but not everyone evacuated. The water rising from the basement was the biggest problem for everyone,” Mr Greenberg explained, pointing out the window to the ocean about half a mile away, sparkling in the early light of the sun:
“The water came all the way here and past you see. The fire that followed only complicated things.”
Led by Mr Greenberg and local contractor Tim Devlin, the Taoiseach’s tour of Breezy Point, a heavily-Irish co-operative, continued with a walk down Oceanway, a narrow street wedged between what were once homes, and now half-erect, skeletons of houses.
“It’s a tremendous honor to have the Taoiseach here,” chairman of the co-op Joseph Lynch told The Irish Times. “It means a lot to have people see how much work remains to be done,” he added, trailing the Taoiseach his black shoes crunching on the mounds of sand scattered on the pavement.
Throughout the morning, the phrase "work remains to be done" became almost a plea impressed upon Mr Kenny, as everyone he encountered, from the coordinating relief worker from Habitat for Humanity to the president of the Christ Community Church board of directors commented on the long path of rebuilding that remained.
“We’ve made progress, for example my guys arrested the two main culprits in the burglary stint we had at first,” said Dennis Dier, director of security for the co-op. “So we keep out the scavengers and squatters, and we have those red containers for trash.” He paused. “But people still don’t know whether they can come back home.”
Making his way to St Thomas More church to attend St Patrick’s Day mass – the “fifth Sunday of Lent” as the officiating Bishop would point out—Mr Kenny stopped to greet a handful of local residents and contractors.
“It’s a community effort,” said Glenn Pfister, who runs an engineering company, addressing Mr Kenny in a community church hall stripped of pews and littered with relief supplies.
Breezy local Tim Devlin, who comes from Co Tyrone, has been overseeing the incoming stream of subcontractors and contracting companies – most with Irish names splashed across their trucks, which now permanently line Breezy’s sandy streets.
Inside the St Thomas Moore Catholic church, Monseigneur Michael Curran began Mass by commenting how "this is a community founded on hard work – the hard work of immigrants, and especially the Irish".
When it was the Taoiseach’s turn to offer a prayer to the packed church hall, he read from the book of Isaiah, reciting “Remember not the events of the past.”
And the congregation, from this mostly blue-collar, hard working community, no doubt looked forward to next St Patricks Day, when perhaps the fruit of all their hard labor and rebuilding effort will be more visible.
Speaking to crowds at the newly re-opened Msgr. Connelly Parish Center, Mr Kenny nodded to the role of Irish and Irish American volunteer workers saying that he was proud of and looked forward to continued connections between Ireland and a community like Breezy.
As the music from the Breezy Point pipes and drums Catholic Club died down, the Taoiseach reaffirmed the Irish government's commitment to helping post-Sandy rebuilding:
"What we cannot provide in monetary terms, we can help with the visible presence of those who come, roll up their sleeves, and get to work."
The Taoiseach continued his St Patrick's Day tour of New York with a visit to the 9/11 memorial at Ground Zero.