‘Millionaires live here’: Breezy Point, unrecognizably

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Breezy Point. (Aaron Labaree)
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To buy a house in Breezy Point, a person needs to put 50 percent of the money down at the time of sale, or 40 percent if the buyer has a relative living there.

Breezy, as residents of the hurricane-devastated Queens hamlet call it, is a private community. Before a sale is approved, a prospective buyer usually must present three solid references to a co-op board, to which residents pay annual dues for maintenance and security.

It is a neighborhood of cops and firemen, and it prides itself on cleanliness and safety.

On the night of Oct. 30, John Cahill, an officer in Breezy Point’s private security force, returned to his headquarters to find a tree trunk, about two feet in diameter, parked solidly in the front doorway. Cahill, edging around the trunk, went in, made a quick canvass and came back outside. The building was deserted.

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Cahill had joined the force just last year, after retiring from a 20-year stint as a corrections officers on Rikers Island.

“Unbelievable,” Cahill said. “I hope I still got a job.”

His friend Patrick Keane, who had given him a ride, stood outside. Behind him was Rockaway Breezy Boulevard. The boulevard, which runs the length of the narrow spit of land on which Breezy Point is located, was lit by fire trucks and E.M.S. vans. The street, still underwater for long stretches, was too flooded for most cars to drive, so the New York Police Department was ferrying passengers to and from houses on flatbed trucks. In the early hours of the evening, some families were leaving their homes, dragging luggage, while others were returning to assess damage.

One resident, William Genoese, was hitching a ride with his 15-year-old son. They were returning to their house on 216th Street and Rockaway Point, where they’d weathered the storm. Genoese, 57, a construction worker, said he, like residents in the rest of the area, had received a mandatory evacuation order, but ignored it.

“Our house is made out of steel, so we didn’t think there’d be any problem,” he said, “But at 7:30, we went outside to look at the water and said ‘Holy mackerel!’”

The water from the bay had crept up to his door, and within the hour, there was five feet of water in his basement.

“Any place the water could find to get in through the house, it did,” he said.

Genoese’s damage had been limited to the basement, but from his house he could see the fires that had destroyed a large chunk of the neighborhood. A fallen power line had ignited one house, and the wind had pushed the flames to scores more. Firefighters, unable to ford the floodwaters with their heavy trucks, could only watch the flames spread. By the end of the night, 111 were ashes, dozens more damaged.

Curious about the damage, Cahill and Keane piled into Keane’s SUV and drove off to inspect the burned area. They picked their way through the streets, the water reaching at times halfway up the car’s doors. Every so often, the glint of a distant flashlight poked through the darkness. Cahill pointed to one of the hundreds of vehicles flanking the boulevard.

“That’s one of ours, a security truck,” he said. “Our whole fleet is destroyed.”

Many of the cars were still half-submerged in standing water. Others were dry, but stood at irregular angles. A few had their windows and trunks open. On some newer model cars, when certain interior circuits get wet, the car’s computer automatically rolls down the windows and pops the trunk, a function built in to make sure the passengers don’t drown.

“My God,” said Keane.

Keane, 48, had been staying at his brother-in-law’s the night before, on 216th Street, with his wife and his 21-month-old baby. When he’d entered the house, he left his shoes on the stoop, to keep the floor nice. A little after 7 p.m., he went outside and found his shoes had been washed away. As the water rose, the family tried to preserve the living room furniture by stacking it on paint cans, but they couldn’t move quick enough. Eventually, the family decamped to the second floor.

“My wife, she’d begged me to take her to Brooklyn to her sister’s,” Keane said. “I said, ‘Nah, we’ll be OK here.’”

Even after high tide at 8:30, the water kept rising, eventually reaching four feet on the first floor. It was until after 10 p.m. that the water finally began to recede. Sometime around midnight, Keane stood on the stoop, watching wooden planks, coolers, trash cans and propane tanks float by.

“It was a long night,” he said. “A scary night.”

Keane and Cahill pulled into a parking lot at the end of 208th Street that faced the charred houses. Cahill was familiar with the area, which he patroled on his job. Two days before, the blocks had been densely packed with homes. Now they could see straight through to the whitecaps of the Atlantic.

“I cannot fucking believe this, Jack,” Keane said.

“Unbelievable,” said Cahill.

Keane and Cahill stepped out of the car and walked across a two-inch bed of sand, pulled up from the beach and spread across the concrete parking lot like frosting. A television crew had set up a giant fluorescent lamp that threw a white light across the burned homes. A handful of brick fireplaces, still intact, loomed over the rubble. Keane picked his way through ashy puddles and stood at the edge of the charred lot, looking at the rising homes.

“There are million-dollar homes here,” he said. “Millionaires live here.”