The Irish Rebuilding the Rockaways

A resident of Breezy Point Queens looks over what was once his home after Hurricane Sandy, and a fire that erupted at the height of the storm, destroyed over 100 homes in New York. Photo: Peter Foley.

By Patricia Harty, Editor-in-Chief
December / January 2013

The devastation of the Rockaways has been well-documented in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. In many stories in local papers and international news, Irish Americans featured large. In spite of the destruction, the message they sent was one of determination to rebuild. And lending a hand in the rebuilding effort are many Irish immigrants.

The Locals
There’s James Brennan, one of many Rockaway ex-pats who returned to help clean up after the storm. There’s Sean Herron, who looked after his wife’s sister and sister-in-law and four children on “the scariest night of my life.”

There’s Mike McDonald, who sheltered with his neighbors when a tidal wave rushed down the street. And when a gas line blew and house after house burst into flame, he led the family of six through the flood, making a rope out of extension cords and twine and lamp cords. (“First of all we are being chased by fire and then the alternative is to jump into raging water that looks like a tsunami.”)

There’s Jim O’Connor who, when the house across the street caught fire, jumped into the water and helped three women and a three-month-old baby to safety. (“My wife likened it to the Titanic meets Gone With the Wind when Atlanta was burning.”)

And there’s the Brady family, mother Susan and father Denis, brothers Billy and Brian, both firefighters, and Patrick who is applying to the FDNY.

These Irish Americans, profiled on 60 Minutes, were among those who talked to the press about the havoc wreaked on their Rockaway community by Sandy.

Over a hundred houses in Rockaway’s Irish enclaves of Breezy Point (also known as Cuis Farraige, Irish for “by the sea”), Belle Harbor and Neponsit, burned to the ground, and many homes still standing have extensive flood damage. Yet, in equal measure, the devastation is being met with determination to rebuild. A constant theme throughout the press coverage following the super storm was that the Rockaway Irish stick together, neighbors look out for each other, and family and faith are paramount.

Susan Brady put it this way: “It’s the 3Fs: family, friends and faith.”

Mike McDonald explained,“Rockaway has a great fabric running through it. It’s a community of first responders, there are firemen and police officers. They don’t mind putting their lives on the line if there’s a possibility to save another.”

James Brennan, born in Rockaway, now the owner of a successful restaurant chain in California, is one of the many who returned home to help with the clean-up and arranged for five mothers with 15 children to fly to San Diego and stay there until things improved. This way the kids could go to school while the fathers stayed behind and did the clean-up.

A childhood friend of Sean Herron, Brennan talked to 60 Minutes about his start as a busboy in Herron’s father’s Harbor Light Pub. The restaurant was the epicenter of life in Belle Harbor – a place for first dates and first communions, anniversaries and christenings. And after 9/11 it served as a kind of memorial, with a wall of photographs showing that the 50 people from the Rockaways who lost their lives on that 2001 day were not forgotten. One of those photographs was of Charles Herron, Sean’s brother.

Photographs of another disaster were added just two months after 9/11, when an American Airlines jet on its way to the Dominican Republic crashed across the street from Harbor Light, killing all 260 passengers and five people on the ground, including Charles Herron’s best friend, Chris Lawler, and his mother, Kathy.

Harbor Light Pub survived that crash but did not survive Hurricane Sandy. A raging fire caused by exploding gas lines consumed the building. It burned to the ground. But luckily no one connected to the Herron family died. “Charlie was watching over us,” Sean Herron said.

Michael Daly wrote in a report published by the Daily Beast how the Harbor Light awning, which had miraculously  survived the fire, was raised by off-duty firemen. It was attached to the brick stoop, all that’s left of the pub, as a symbol that Rockaway would rise again.

Daly’s was one of many excellent articles by Irish Americans chronicling the aftermath of the storm.

Cory Kilgannon for the New York Times wrote a story on Ed Shevlin, a sanitation worker who called the storm “an tabaise mor” – Irish for big disaster. Shevlin, who learned this Irish phrase and others as a boy growing up in Rockaway, was assigned to take part in the immense clean-up and found himself clearing away contents from the houses of friends and neighbors. He said of the battered sections of the boardwalk where he used to play, “If these piles could talk, they’d be screaming.”

Sanitation workers have become the new heroes of Rockaway, most of them doing double shifts. “I’ll be wearing this uniform every day for months,” Shevlin said. “We were the first boots on the ground and we’ll be the last to leave.”

The Gathering Places
The devastation did not settle on Rockaway alone, but was widely distributed around the New York, New Jersey area. Receiving front-page coverage in the New York Times, in a story entitled “A Loss of the Finer Things,” was the fate of Michael “Buzzy” O’Keefe’s up-market restaurant the River Café, which had occupied a barge in the East River at Brooklyn’s Fulton Ferry Landing for 35 years. Buzzy’s other restaurant, the Water Club on the East River at 30th Street, also suffered severe flood damage and it’s still not known when they will re-open.

Across the Hudson, Hoboken’s Irish pubs were flooded, including the Nag’s Head pub, opened 14 years ago by Irish immigrants Ruth Finnegan and her husband, Barney. A later CBS News clip showed Ruth sanding down barstools and getting rid of the muck. “Our bartenders are not making any money. They have to pay their rent. We have to pay our mortgage,” Finnegan said. “There’s no money coming in, so we have to get ourselves up and going as soon as possible.”

The Saddest Story
One of the saddest stories happened in Staten Island and was carried in several newspapers, but Irishcentral.com added a new dimension, when they identified the father of two young boys who slipped from their mother’s grasp and drowned as she tried to get help. He’s a Donegal man, Damien Moore.

Moore, a city worker, had been called in to work, and his young wife, Glenda, alone  with Connor, 4, and Brandon 2, left their flooded home and was driving towards her sister’s house in Brooklyn when her SUV became stuck. As the water swelled, she lost her grip on the boys and they were swept away.

Anatomy of a Disaster
Millions of people in the New York area were without power for at least a week after the storm, some for several weeks. So as the world watched in disbelief the destruction of the storm, many New Yorkers missed out on the news and didn’t know the enormity of what had hit them.

Nova’s “Inside the Mega Storm” aired on PBS two weeks after. It showed the anatomy of the disaster from beginning to end, tracking Sandy from her birth as a tropical depression in the Caribbean to her growth into a super storm carrying the energy of five Hiroshima bombs and reaching an expanse of a thousand miles, as she crashed into the East Coast.

Belle Harbor residents featured large on the 60 Minutes special, while Nova covered Breezy Point.

Marty Ingram, a local volunteer fire group captain who was one of those interviewed, explained how despite their best pre-storm efforts, Breezy Point had become one of the worst hit areas of Sandy’s fury.

The storm surge submerged the entire town two and a half hours before high tide, and even the community center where many residents had taken shelter started to flood.

When a house burst into flames and the fire spread, firemen trapped by rising flood waters could do nothing but watch as the neighborhood burned. When the tide began to recede, the firemen found, in the cruelest of ironies, that low pressure in the fire hydrants had left them without water to fill their hoses.

Ingram said he will never forget watching his men walking into the fire. “That memory of seeing my men just un-restrained and motivated, without any fear, so dedicated to others and not themselves, that is so outstanding. I am so proud of them.”

The History
The Irish started going out to Rockaway, a peninsula about 45 miles from New York City, around the 1900s, renting summer bungalows and staying in boarding houses.

Rosemary Rogers, whose family used to spend summer vacations there in the 1950s, talked to Irish America. “Rockaway was a great place to meet people from home in Ireland,” she said. “We sometimes stayed in the home of our cousins, Bridie and John Duigan who, like my father, were from County Longford. On weekends our families went to 103rd Street, Irishtown, the hotbed of Rockaway nightlife where the dance halls were named after counties – Leitrim House, Sligo House, Dublin House, etc. The entertainers – the McNulty Family, Ruthie Morrissey and Mickey Carton.”

Labor leader John Sweeney, who served as head of the AFL-CIO from 1995 until 2009, and whose family used to vacation there in the late 30s and 40s, recalled: “Some of my favorite memories are from the Rockaways. There was such a great sense of family values there. When I was a child, my family would rent a room or a cottage during the summers. We loved to run on the beach, swim in the water, ride bikes and play handball. We especially loved to visit the amusement park. I truly miss those days.”

The number of Irish vacationers dwindled in the 1960s, but many Irish had already settled into the Rockaways, winterizing summer cottages and building new homes in Neponsit, Belle Harbor and Breezy Point, which today has the second-highest concentration of Irish Americans in the U.S. (Quincy, MA is higher).

Help Arrives
The Rockaway Irish, three and four generations removed from Ireland, are deeply proud of their Irish heritage. And it is only fitting that Irish immigrants are helping with the clean-up.

The Emerald Guild, a New York City group of Irish building managers and superintendents, were able to mobilize quickly and distribute supplies through the Irish Center in Long Island.

Owen Rogers, from Co. Tyrone, who had done three consecutive weekends of clean-up work with other volunteers from the Emerald Guild when we spoke, said that the group planned to keep on working and organizing.

“We are building managers and supers who deal with leaks in our buildings, and this was one big leak. We organized around fifteen teams; some of them were volunteers who went out with generators, pumps, tools and supplies like garbage bags, and bleach [for the mold],” he said.

Volunteers from the Aisling Irish Community Center, which provides services to Irish immigrants, young and old, in the Bronx and Yonkers area of New York, went door-to-door in high-rise buildings without power, to check on residents, many of whom were elderly and unable to leave their homes.

Orla Kelleher, Aisling’s executive director, explained: “We put out an appeal through social media on November 1 to make donations of clothing, non-perishable food, cleaning products and other critical supplies. The response was overwhelming and we had a truck full of donations within 24 hours, which was then transported by Liffey Van Lines to the Rockaways. Since then, we have donated a further 4-5 truck loads of supplies.”

A group of Irish construction workers from Navillus Contracting, whose president is Kerryman Donal O’Sullivan, were also among the first-responders. O’Sullivan went out to Rockaway the day after the storm and, stunned by the damage, offered his company’s services. By the following night, over 100 families had asked for help, and by the second week in November, Navillus had dug out 300 houses.

“Navillus is fantastic along with volunteers from Rubicon, former military men and women, who come and help at disaster areas, and also a group of Mormons. Each and every one of these groups has helped our community, we will be forever grateful to all of them,” Rita Mullen, a Breezy Point resident wrote in an email to Irish America.

And on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, hundreds of Irish immigrants, on buses organized by the Irish Consulate, Irish-Central.com and other organizations, descended on Rockaway to help out in any way they could – from preparing food to clearing debris.

And of course, the locals are pitching in. Denis Brady who was in Florida when the storm hit, drove 19 hours to get home, bringing with him every generator and water pump he could find. “I figured if I couldn’t use them all the neighbors would,”  he told 60 Minutes. The Brady boys are helping to get local businesses up and running, and repairing their own home.

“Do you think of yourselves as victims?” they were asked. “Not at all,” they answered in unison. “We are alive and we are here together,” Brian continued. “We are the lucky ones.” What was lost, he explained, were just “things” but “the neighborhood is still here, people are still here. It brought us together and brought countless other families together. People have flown from all over the country  – the storm brought everyone back and grounded us again.”

“Are folks around here so self sufficient that it sometimes prevents them from getting the help they should be getting?” 60 Minutes reporter Scott Pelley asked James Brennan, who had left his California home to return to his birthplace to help out.

“I think it’s two-fold,” Brennan answered. “Number one, there’s a lot of pride involved here, and number two, I think there’s a general perception that ‘those guys will help themselves,’ and to a degree that’s true, but right now we need some help.”

He talked about all the money that was spent on the recent election, with millionaires contributing to whatever candidate, and said, “We’re here with a plan that’s probably going to cost us another seven hundred thousand bucks to get these houses of firefighters and NYPD and sanitation workers heated up. I’m hoping that there are some people out there who will recognize that this is America, no matter what party you are in, and rise to the occasion for something that matters.”

Photos from the Rockaways:

One Response to “The Irish Rebuilding the Rockaways”

  1. Evert Bopp says:

    Great story reflecting the strong Irish community spirit. Did you know that there was an disaster response organisation working in the Rockaways that came all the way from Ireland?http://disastertechlab.org/2012/11/20/hurricane-sandy-response-update/

Leave a Reply to Evert Bopp


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