Two hours or so west of the Hamptons lies a beach community in ruins. It has long been a summer getaway for New York City residents, it has protected piping plover breeding spots, extremely limited beach development, and family histories that go back for generations. Breezy Point, Queens, is a small town that could be mistaken for any of the Hamptons hamlets if you didn’t know where on our island you were.
During Superstorm Sandy, Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic rose up on either side of Breezy Point and swallowed the small town in water. As if that were not horror enough, a six-alarm fire burned as many as 111 homes to the ground during the storm. Less than 125 miles from Montauk, the destruction spread a “there but for the grace of God go I” sentiment throughout the East End. Instantly, the East End reacted in kind, adopting Breezy Point as its “sister community” with an outpouring of support, donations and ongoing dedication.
Volunteer groups such as East End Cares and Occupy Sandy formed immediately, specifically to aid Breezy Point. Fire departments from Sag Harbor and Montauk sent teams west to help. Mark Smith and Joe Realmuto, whose business group runs Nick & Toni’s, Townline BBQ, Rowdy Hall and other East End dining locales, served hot meals there. Montauk’s Dennis O’Reilly, a Breezy Point native, filled cars and trucks with supplies collected from businesses and residents while such locals as East Hampton Village Superintendent of Public Works Scott Fithian, Richard Osterberg Jr. of the East Hampton Fire Department, East Hampton Police Chief Edward Ecker and others got behind the volunteer efforts on numerous fronts.
East Hampton’s Main Beach Surf + Sport held a volunteer support trip to bring supplies and people to help clean up. East Hampton Town Supervisor Bill Wilkinson dedicated a section of Town Hall for use as a collection site for donations, as did the Montauk Community Church, the Omni in Southampton, and countless small businesses on the South Fork. There were fundraising events at local restaurants and concerts by East End musicians. East End Cares continues to share information about how to help via Facebook, and O’Reilly created a Facebook page for “From Montauk to Breezy,” focused on the ongoing needs and philanthropic effort that unites the East End and the small Rockaways community.
“The outpouring has been overwhelming, as has the initiative people have taken to just get in there and find ways to help,” Melissa Berman of East End Cares told Dan’s Papers. “Our East End community knows how to get things done—it has been awe inspiring to watch.”
Yet for all the effort, while most other Sandy-damaged areas in New York are slowly returning to some sort of normality, Breezy Point still looks and feels like a disaster area. The volunteer work has helped tremendously, and the need continues as we face the icy heart of winter, but it is now time for Breezy Point to start seriously rebuilding. And that will take more than volunteerism. Now that insurance payments have begun to trickle in, a number of homeowners and businesses have money to undertake larger-scale projects. But with licensed contractors and builders in the Rockaways already spread too thin, Breezy Point is wondering who will come in and begin putting their community back together before summer arrives.
Jay Schoerlin is an East End builder and lifelong Hampton Bays resident. A few weeks ago his wife Kate received a very emotional call from her cousin Tracy Hubbard, who lives in Breezy Point. Eight weeks after the storm, Hubbard’s home was still not suitable for living. She had to burn her china closet for heat to stay warm. That was the breaking point, and she called Schoerlin hoping he could make the commute and would take the job to rebuild.
“We took a ride to see the job,” Schoerlin said. “Everything is devastated—it was heartbreaking.” Houses are in the middle of the street, hundreds of feet away from their foundation. According to the Schoerlins, Breezy Point looks like a warzone. Schoerlin estimates it would take two to five years, at the current rate of progress, before the community returns to normal.
“There are not enough contractors to do all the work,” he says. “People can’t get help.”
Schoerlin said he couldn’t leave Breezy Point without saying yes to Tracy Hubbard. Everything in her house below four feet had to be gutted—and the Hubbard’s home was one of the lucky ones in the neighborhood. Most homes have to be gutted and have new insulation, electric and floors installed. Doors and windows all have to be replaced. Mold and mildew are spreading like wildfire and must be removed by specialists. Most people still don’t have electricity or heat; they use space heaters to stay warm, which is causing the mold grow more rapidly.
The sentiment on the East End was that we got very lucky with Sandy, and we did. Months later, it may be easy to forget about the storm here, but it should not be so easy to forget that our “sister community” needs serious professional help—and sooner than later.
As for any concerns one might have regarding working in what has been described as “a warzone” by more than one observer, Schoerlin reports that security is not a concern. “There is a huge police presence to prevent looting,” he says, adding that the neighborhood is watching everything that goes on—and watching out for one another. The people of Breezy Point are very proud of their community watch, and they want contractors to know they can work safely even amidst all the devastation. Many people came out to tell Schoerlin that his truck and tools would be safe, and they have been. “Now I work with my truck open in the middle of the street,” Schoerlin says, confident that the locals there will remain vigilant. “They really want contractors to come and work because the local guys are so overwhelmed.”
Even the lumberyards and other supply facilities are completely behind because of the enormous demand. It takes about 8 to 12 weeks to receive needed building material, so Schoerlin buys the material he needs at Riverhead Building Supply and brings it with him. By helping a community very much like our own, Schoerlin believes, we could also give our local economy a bit of a wintertime boost.
“The place needs help,” Schoerlin says. “If guys are slow around here they should go to Breezy Point and get work. I definitely get a sense that I’m really helping by working there.”
—Additional reporting by Oliver Peterson