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The days after the disaster -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

The days after the disaster

On Oct. 29, 2012, Superstorm Sandy ravaged the town of Breezy Point, NY, with water, wind and fire. Several homes were thrown into each other, many
more have basement and first-floor water damage, and 100 others burned to the ground. ©William Neumann/Habitat for Humanity International

One New York community begins the long process of recovery and rebuilding
By Shala Carlson


Volunteer James Butler surveys the destruction. ©William Neumann/Habitat for Humanity International


Habitat volunteer Kenny McDonald removes damaged drywall from a home. ©William Neumann/Habitat for Humanity International


Slideshow: Habitat responds to Sandy

Series homepage: Why We Build


Breezy Point is a place that is used to giving help, not receiving it.

Many of the residents of the small shoreline community in the New York City borough of Queens work as first responders — FDNY, NYPD. On Sept. 11, 2001, Breezy Point lost 33 residents.

Two weeks ago, Superstorm Sandy ravaged this town with water, wind and fire. Nothing seems untouched. On one side of the peninsula, houses have been tossed about, thrown into each other. A few have collapsed. Many more have basement and first-floor water damage. Already, huge piles are forming on the sidewalks out front. Baseball cards and Christmas decorations mingle with tufts of insulation and the sand that came in from the sea but never receded.

On the other side of Rockaway Point Boulevard (one way in, one way out) is the area shown frequently on TV during recent days. Here, as many as 100 houses burned down during the storm. The FDNY chief of marine operations — a lifelong Breezy Point resident — tells me how firefighters fought the fire and rising tide at the same time, standing in Sandy’s surge until it simply was too high.

What the water and the fire left behind is like nothing I’ve seen before, although much of it does call to mind post-Katrina scenes from New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. It’s similarly unreal. And the people I meet are similarly reeling.

Homeowner Valerie Claps and I aren’t even talking about the storm or the damage to her home, but tears roll down her cheeks the entire time we spend together. Clifford Baumann and his son sift through the ash and twisted metal of their home; Clifford’s broad shoulders shake as he gingerly stacks charred and fragile family photos, but a few moments later he is vowing to rebuild.

Nearly everyone I meet talks about other communities in the area with similar damage, places that aren’t making it onto the national news. In Breezy Point, there is a fear that people will forget about them or not know what they are experiencing. But these families — schoolteachers and firemen and city workers — are truly buoyed by the presence of Habitat for Humanity.

What joy there is in this community right now centers on those who have shown up to help. When I meet Kathryn Sebade, she tells me that earlier this morning she was in the middle of a complete meltdown, but that her husband walked up to her and said, “You can’t do that right now. We have five Habitat volunteers.” She claims those five as part of her family — anyone from Habitat, really — and then, standing in the center of her completely gutted living room, she tries to feed us.

Habitat Westchester has marshaled these volunteers, somewhere between 300 and 400 during this first weekend. I meet Boy Scouts, church volunteers, West Point instructors and cadets, Cox Communications employees, Cisco disaster and emergency response workers, Goldman Sachs representatives, individuals from the city and surrounding areas who just came out to see who they could help. These groups clean up and gut as many as 90 houses their first day. More efforts are planned.

Homeowner Mary Demic knows much about Habitat — her two sons have helped build houses in Mexico and Tennessee. She marvels that now, so unexpectedly, someone else’s sons are helping her take the first steps to restoring her home. “I can’t thank you enough for coming here,” she says. “It’s heartwarming. You have no idea how it lifted me up to see Habitat yesterday.

“We know we’ll get through this,” she adds. “This community is good at coming together. We’ve had to do it before. We’re not afraid. And now we know that we have help.”