Burned-out foundations and blown-away walls are all that’s left of some of the houses in the oceanside community of Breezy Point in New York’s Queens borough.
Fire Commissioner Sal Cassano said 111 homes were destroyed and 20 more damaged in Breezy Point in a fire that followed widespread flooding in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
“The damage was massive and widespread,” said Dennis Dier, director of security for Breezy Point. “This is New York’s Katrina.”
About 85 percent of the community’s homes were empty at the time, as residents heeded calls to evacuate the peninsula, Dier said. He and Mooney said they didn’t know of any fatalities there. The area’s congressman was among those who lost their homes.
In nearby Belle Harbor, a muddy stripe five feet off the ground across the still-intact garages showed why city trucks had difficulty getting to the fires.
“There was so much water, four or five feet, that the apparatus couldn’t respond through it,” said Battalion Chief Jim McNally.
Commercial buildings in the area of 116th Street also burned, as fire trucks from Brooklyn found it impossible to get through the water, McNally said. A dozen houses burned down on 130th Street and Newport Avenue, he said.
The fires broke out in homes near Oceanside Avenue and Irving Walk and were mostly under control by 6:45 a.m., said Deputy Assistant Chief John Mooney, who estimated that more than 200 fire-fighters were battling the flames at one point.
The department said the cause of the blaze was under investigation.
“The place was supposed to be evacuated so hopefully it was,” said Mooney.
John Whelan, 49, who decided to ride out the storm in his home, fled to a neighbor’s when the water was waist-deep, then watched from a second-story window. Flames were “jumping from house to house,” he said.
A water main went out, making it impossible for volunteers to tap the hydrants, said Dier. Eventually, city trucks were able to draft ocean water to bring the flames under control, he said.
The “terrible fire” was one of 23 serious blazes in the city during the storm, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said during a news conference today.
“The search and recovery operations there are ongoing,” he said. “If any of you saw the pictures on television, it looked like a forest fire out in the Midwest. The winds were just devastating, blowing from one building to the next one and those buildings were close together.”
Tim Smith, 50, who lives across the intersection from Belle Harbor’s Harbor Light Pub, which was razed by fire, said buildings burned for about three hours until the water receded enough for the trucks to get through.
“They couldn’t get the rigs in,” said Smith, whose home was spared while three others a block away on 129th Street were leveled.
The Breezy Point home of Republican U.S. Representative Bob Turner was among those that flooded and then burned, according to his chief of staff, Michael Giuliani.
Before the fire, the community was already overwhelmed by the storm surge.
‘Like a River’
“It came like a river,” said Bob Fitzsimmons, 75, who stayed in his home last year during Hurricane Irene and decided to stick it out again for Sandy. One minute his home on the northeastern edge of Breezy Point was dry and the next minute the water was four feet deep, he said.
Travis Rivera, 22, said he had two cars parked outside his Belle Harbor home, a 1999 Pontiac Grand Am and a 2008 Cadillac DTS. Both were completely underwater at one point, he said.
Sometimes referred to by the local population as “Cois Farrage,” Gaelic for “by the sea,” Breezy Point sits near the western tip of the 11-mile-long, three-fourths-mile wide peninsula, which is bordered to the north by Rockaway Inlet and Jamaica Bay and to the south by the Atlantic Ocean.
The residents of the communities banded together in 1960 to save the peninsula from developers. They purchased about 400 acres for more than $11 million and formed the Breezy Point Cooperative to run the community, which has about 3,500 homes today.
“You see that chimney there? That’s where I grew up,” said Brendan Gallagher, 42, as the bond broker surveyed the remains of charred cottages on Breezy Point, a neighborhood known as the Irish Riviera. Packed with cops, firefighters and Wall Streeters, the neighborhood had been hard hit on 9/11, losing 37 residents.
Last year, Hurricane Irene came through, and last month, a tornado.
Now the neighborhood will have to rally again. Gallagher, whose house wasn’t damaged by the fire, sits on the board of the neighborhood association. “What happens now?” he asked.