It is an image that more closely resembles rapture than the Rockaways: the iconic AP photo of Robert and Laura Connolly, above, appeared on the front pages of nearly 40 daily newspapers around the world, in broadcasts and on blogs.
Laura grew up in Breezy Point, with her four brothers and parents. She and her husband met on the beach and fell in love as teenagers; they moved a town over, to Belle Harbor, but her parents have remained in Breezy Point, a small peninsula in the Rockaways, for more than 40 years. The families met here on holidays and spent evenings at the local bar, the Sugarbowl. Now, Robert and Laura use the burned out foundations of neighbors’ homes as landmarks to figure out exactly where their parents’ homes stood.
On October 29, Sandy hit. The superstorm sparked a massive six-alarm fire in the beach community of 2,800 homes. Winds blew embers from home to home, separated by narrow sand lined paths and just six or eight feet on either side. Firefighters were hamstrung by 12-foot floodwaters. According to local firefighters, as many as 500 homes in all were demolished because of storm damage, but everyone survived.
The next day, Robert and Laura returned to Breezy Point to survey the damage.
“When we came down, we walked down the promenade you know, we weren’t really ready for what we saw,” Robert said. “We met some friends and one of them said, ‘where are you going?’ And we said, ‘we’re going down to the house’, and he said ‘there is no house.’ But you really can’t imagine that until you see it.”
Street after street was simply gone. They oriented themselves and tried to sift through the still-smoldering debris of what was Laura’s childhood home.
An AP photographer asked them what happened, and then asked for their names and if they would mind having their photo taken. Soon thereafter, the Connollys started getting texts, emails then newspaper clippings from Florida, Boston, Texas and California with their photo, but had no idea how pervasive it was.
“There were a few people who told me they recognized me from the back of my head in the photo,” Robert Connolly said. “I guess they got my best side.”
Six months later, little construction is underway. A gaping hole remains where 125 homes burned down. Driving along other roads, there is spot after spot where homes, badly damaged in wind and storm surge, have been leveled and only sand remains.
In March and April, the Breezy Point co-op announced they had hired a construction consultant and architects to develop new model home types. Laura’s parents, who have been living in Manhattan, do not know when or if they can afford to rebuild. They estimate they have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Far greater is the loss of personal mementos, and the blow to a community that prides itself on not just being close, but familial.
“Some people just have up and moved permanently, Robert said. “It’s just sad because you just don’t know if it’s ever going to be the same again. It doesn’t feel like it’s ever going to be the same and that’s hard to accept.”
‘The house right in front of me burned down’
Breezy Point redefines tight-knight community. Founded in large part by firefighters and police, it was originally a getaway from the summer swelter of the city. Even now, many people you meet are from long lines of first responders. But more than half who live there in the cozy bungalows are full-time residents, not weekenders.
As some residents put the finishing touches on their houses, others have barely begun.
Ed Scott is ready for flooring and appliances to be brought in. He knew he had to leave when he saw the ocean rising and winds blowing violently at sea, and told his wife, Margie, to pack like they were never coming back.
“The house right in front of me burned down and all my neighbors. My house wasn’t touched, except I flooded out,” Scott said. “My wife swears when we evacuated she forgot to take her father’s ashes. Her father was a fireman. She swears her father’s ashes protected the house. She’ll go to her grave believing it. I guess I have to believe it, too.”
Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department Chief Marty Ingram still has three firefighters living in the fire house.
Their homes were destroyed in the storm and they have not been able to move back. One of the homes was a friend of Ingram’s who recently returned from Afghanistan after serving in the Army Reserves. His house, too, was gone.
Chief Ingram’s own home was flooded but the damage was mostly limited to the basement, and he was able to move back into it this month.
The night of the storm, with more than 40 evacuees in the fire station, they were forced to flee as floodwaters rose to four feet. He and 25 volunteer firefighters said the “Our Father” twice and Hail Mary. On a night of miracles where no one died, Ingram also proudly points to “Big Jack” and “Sand Flea”, their two trucks whose engines somehow started despite being swamped in water. Along with the Roxbury Fire Department, Rockaway Point Fire Department, and crews from the New York City Fire Department, they helped extinguish the flames hours after they began.
“My biggest fear was somebody was going to die,” Chief Ingram said. “Being the decision maker, I wanted to make sure nobody died because of a bad decision that would have come from this fire house.”
In the wake of the storm he has been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support from the community that is grappling with its own financial strain. Their station became a makeshift relief collection and distribution center. A neighbor saw him riding a bicycle to the station when the utility truck was destroyed. The neighbor promptly donated a new truck. Other departments from nearby even donated extra trucks for Point Breeze to use.
This comes as no surprise to most who live here, some who spent their youths leaving their baseball gloves on the Little League diamond, knowing no one would steal them.
“It’s the kind of place where you go to the beach, you leave your bike there,” Devon Collins, a volunteer firefighter said. “If you come back and your bike’s gone and somebody took it, they had to go to the bathroom and they’ll be back in 5 minutes.”