Two nights ago during Hurricane Sandy, while many New Yorkers were crying about having no internet, the people in Breezy Point, Queens, watched their neighbourhood become a water-logged vision of hell. First, the seaside community was lashed with six-foot waves, sinking the boardwalk, smashing bay windows and knocking beachfront bungalows to the ground. Then, around 7PM, a two-story house caught fire when a powerbox short-circuited. A few miles away, firefighters could see the flames from the second floor of their station – but their building had flooded too, their firetrucks were swamped in water, and they were unable to help stop the flames. The fire quickly spread to the rooftop of a neighbouring apartment building – where 25 residents were trapped – and the flames soon morphed into a massive neighbourhood inferno that, by 11AM the next morning, had burned 81 homes to the ground and terrified the 150 locals who lived through it. "Whatever is not flooded," local assemblyman Phillip Goldfeder said, as his own home was being reduced to ashes, "is on fire."
Curious to see the damage, I drove out to Breezy Point a day after the blaze. It's a long drive through Brooklyn and Queens, past Coney Island, past Brighton Beach and then across an abandoned toll bridge over the Atlantic Ocean. From there, a single road leads to town – a narrow, flooded path with the sea on each side. Its entrance was guarded by a cop.
"How's the road up ahead?" I asked him.
"Just take your car," he said, "and turn around."
I could see distant smoke rising behind him, from Breezy Point. The only other cars going in were ambulances.
"I'm a journalist," I said. "This isn't private property."
"Yes it is, pal," he said. "Now turn around."
I'm one of those people who tend to think all cops are liars, and that they especially like to lie to journalists, so I assumed this cop was lying, too. But later, I found out he wasn't. In 1960, Breezy Point's 4,500 residents had bought 2,000 acres of beach, dunes and marshes from the city for $11 million and formed the Breezy Point Cooperative, which governs the neighbourhood. Now, only members of the cooperative and their guests are allowed there. A private police force enforces this rule. Loads of FDNY and NYPD live here, and the neighbourhood has the 2nd highest concentration of Irish-Americans in the United States. Frank McCourt – author of Angela's Ashes – spent summers growing up here. It's basically a working-class gated-community; locals call it the "Irish Riviera".
After glaring at the cop for what was probably an excessive amount of time, I lurched my car around and drove back down from where I came. I thought – well, fuck, that's the end of that.
But then I looked at my map. Rockaway Point Boulevard – the road to which the cop had just refused me access – runs along the entire northern edge of the peninsula, connecting Breezy Point in the west with Rockaway Park about eight miles to the east. And, sure, it's the only real road in town.
But running exactly parallel to it, along the southern edge of the peninsula, is wild coastline and beach. There may not be roads there, I thought, looking at my map, but that didn't mean there wasn't a route there. So I punched it in on my iPhone: 3.5 miles to downtown Breezy Point. That's not a bad walk on the beach, I thought. It was 2 PM. It was sunny out. I had about four hours before it got dark. So I parked my car outside of town and headed down the beach on foot.
The beach was devastated. To my left was the ocean, the waves enormous as they smashed into the shore. To my right were sand dunes covered in wet underbrush. In between was a sliver of beach that was passable now but, obviously, had been totally underwater when the storm was passing through: my footsteps left deep imprints in the mud as I walked. I knew, at that moment, Sandy was somewhere over West Virginia, and so the chances of another surprise "surge" happening right then – of the waves to my left reaching the dunes to my right – seemed close to zero. But still, the thought crossed my mind: if there was a surge as I walked, I could’ve easily drowned.
The route I was on had once been a boardwalk. Storms and hurricanes over the years, though, had destroyed it and I occasionally passed enormous slabs of cracked concrete. It was easy to imagine how they ended up this way: the whole peninsula is unprotected from the sea, jutting out into the ocean. Whenever a storm rolls in off the Atlantic toward, say, New Jersey or Pennsylvania, Breezy Point and surrounding areas are the first speed bumps to slow them down.
The most recent of these disasters happened just two months ago, when a tornado destroyed a beachfront resort here called the Silver Gull Beach Club. I soon came upon this resort. It looked like a ghost town. Every window was broken, most of the buildings leaned heavily to one side; some had collapsed entirely. There were two swimming pools, each filled with rubble and rainwater. At one point, a man in a black hooded sweatshirt appeared out of nowhere and I figured he must have been a squatter. "Hey," I said to him as we crossed paths on the beach. We eyed each other suspiciously, the only people around for miles.
Eventually, I saw towers of smoke and the red-glow of ambulances in the distance. I climbed up a dune and beneath me was Breezy Point. The first homes I saw didn't look that bad: some collapsed bungalows, front yards that had become swamps, a jungle gym half-underwater. The police, as I understood it, were letting some journalists into a parking lot nearby, but only residents were permitted to enter the town proper. And that's precisely where I was now: downtown.
A score of tired-looking people walked along an oceanfront pathway that served as the town's main drag. They gawked at their own devastated homes, or carried out their soggy possessions by the armload. I met a woman lugging an oil painting through the wreckage. She was going to hang it on the wall of her sisters' house in Brooklyn, she told me, where she'd been staying since the storm hit two days earlier.
"Why is that the only thing you're taking?" I asked.
"It's the only thing that wasn't ruined," she said.
"Who's it by?"
"I don't know," she said. "I just like it."
Next I talked to a man and woman outside their home on Ocean Avenue. The kitchen floor was flooded, and all the windows were blown out. They stood with a Chihuahua, who had survived the storm with them. Last year, the man told me, before Hurricane Irene hit, they'd evacuated and their house hadn’t been damaged. They assumed Sandy was going to be the same. But it wasn't. They told me how their home had filled with water two nights prior.
"We climbed up onto our son's bunk-bed once the water got too high," the man said. "We brought this guy" – the Chihuahua – "with us."
Then I walked farther down the path to see where the streets had burned. Mayor Bloomberg, after the fire, had described Breezy Point as akin to those battlefields "we have seen at the end of World War II," and when I'd heard that on the radio the day before, I thought it was one of those ridiculously hyperbolic pronouncements politicians are prone to make. (I'd also heard a guy on the radio say that Hurricane Sandy was going to have a more lasting effect on New York City than 9/11.) But it was an accurate description of Breezy Point: for about a half-mile in each direction, in a beachfront part of town locals called "the Wedge", every single home had burned to the ground. A few chimneys remained erect; walls were reduced to knee-high piles of ash; the smell of melted plastic and siding and who knows what else made me gag. The Department Commissioner of Public Affairs for Breezy Point's district says they have no idea when residents will be able to move back in. "I couldn't even begin to give you an estimate," she said when I called her later.
In front of one of the charred homes – where a mailbox and porch had somehow survived the fire – I met a chubby, bearded man. "Who would've thought the goddamn porch would hold up?" he said, patting the resilient structure with his hand. He explained that he'd left town on Sunday night, to stay with family in the city, and he was glad that he had. "We're used to storms," he said, "but not like this one."
"Jesus," I said.
"Yeah, what can you do?" he sighed, and then patted the porch again. "Jeez, man. Look at this thing. Indestructible."
Now, a firefighter came up to us. There were tons of them around in the burned streets, helping residents cart off salvaged items and driving people to the parking lot on the other side of town where the journalists were. That's where Rockaway Point Boulevard would've taken me if I'd been allowed to drive in, I realised, and there were cops in the parking lot checking peoples IDs to ensure only residents of the Wedge were allowed to enter. I saw a news van out in the lot and I'm assuming that's as far as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal reporters made it (or maybe only I had been turned back out on the road?): to the edge of the parking lot. Now that I was inside, though, I was worried this FDNY guy was going to arrest me, or hassle me, at least.
"You guys need a hand?" he asked.
"A hand with what, buddy?" the bearded guy told the firefighter.
The firefighter shrugged and moved on.
Still, I figured it was a good time to leave.
On my way out of town, I tried not to draw the attention of the other cops and firemen, and I also tried not to smirk at the ridiculous ironies of the disaster zone, like the house I passed on the edge of town that was devastated except for a sign over its front door, which was unharmed and read: "It's a wonderful life."
A guy in a Yankees jacket saw me taking a photo of it. "That's my house," he said. "A wonderful fucking life, right?"
I walked back up the dune and left town. On the beach it was getting dark, and I followed my own footprints all the way back to my car.