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Ravaged by Sandy, a close-knit beach community tries to hold on

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 20, 2012 9:15 a.m. CST

(MCT) — NEW YORK — Bill Diffendale’s grandparents used to come here at the turn of the century, when the only access to Breezy Point was via boat and when most visitors pitched tents in the sand.

Diffendale’s father met his mother here in the 1950s. Years later, Diffendale met his wife here, and like earlier generations, he embraced the community of narrow lanes and bungalows painted the colors of the sea: green, blue and stormy gray.

His neighbor Mary Bosch met her husband here. Scott Winik’s wife came here as an infant. Ted Feimer Jr. has them all beat: The main drag is named after his late father. “Ted Feimer Sr Promenade” reads the sign pointing down a lane that offers a dazzling view of Jamaica Bay, with Manhattan rising in the distance.

“It’s very family-oriented here,” Feimer said, “and, as the storm pointed out, that’s a blessing and a curse.”

He ticked off the relatives living near one another, whose homes Superstorm Sandy damaged or destroyed: a brother, a sister, two nephews and his mother-in-law — for starters — all scattered and bunking with friends and family or in hotels across the bay.

It’s a tale heard all along the Rockaway Peninsula, a spit of land that averages less than three-quarters of a mile in width, and that was largely marooned as Sandy sent torrents washing over it.

At least eight people were killed here, and no section of the 11-mile-long peninsula was unscathed. Not gritty Far Rockaway on the eastern end, where shivering residents from public housing projects that lost heat and power lined up hours in advance last week for a coat giveaway. Not working-class Rockaway Park beneath the elevated tracks of the A train. Not the newly adopted hipster hangout along the oceanfront boardwalk, which was trashed as Sandy made landfall the night of Oct. 29.

But no area was devastated in as dramatic fashion as Breezy Point, which like the rest of the Rockaways is part of New York City but seems a world apart, with its colorful beach houses, its boogie boards and barbecues, and the families who arrived generations ago and have vowed never to leave. Not even now, as they accept that it could be months before power is restored, and as generators and earth-moving machines drown out the sound of the sea gulls and waves.

“Yeah, it’s a mess, but you’ve never been here for a summer’s day,” Winik said as he sat in his car waiting for someone from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to show up, to begin applying for help to rebuild his home, which was shoved off its foundation. He, his wife, their dog and two cats fled before Sandy hit. They are living in a hotel.

“This is God’s country,” he said. “Where else are you going to find beachfront property in New York City?”

Nearby, Diffendale cleaned debris from the porch of his home, whose front door opens onto the sand. “We’ve been here forever,” Diffendale said of his family.

His 89-year-old father lives nearby, as do several cousins. Diffendale recently sold his house on Long Island to live here year-round, in a newly renovated home designed to accommodate visiting children and grandchildren. Asked whether he had second thoughts about the move, Diffendale said: “Sandy puts a new light on it.”

The last time the Rockaways saw such flooding was in 1960, when Hurricane Donna hit Long Island. Still, the people stayed.

“The family has had a presence in Breezy Point since the 1920s, and we’ll never leave. Never,” said Bosch.

Bosch lives here with her husband, Rich, whom she first laid eyes on in 1966 when he was playing softball in the Breezy Point sand. Her brother, Robert Jahrnes, a retired police officer, also lives in the neighborhood, as does a nephew. So does Bosch’s best friend, Nancy, whom she met when they were 10 years old and summering on the Rockaways.

Unlike most other residents, the Bosches and Jahrnes have stayed in their homes despite the destruction. A daughter living in El Centro, Calif., sent a care package that included flashlights and hand warmers. They barbecue their meals, dress in layers against the biting cold and walk their dog, Maya, through an apocalyptic landscape of gutted homes, splintered porches and fallen trees.

Still, it’s better than it was. Just a few days earlier, downed branches and ruined household belongings blocked the sidewalk. Now, city crews come each day to cart away debris. Insurance adjusters roam the twisting lanes, snapping photographs and searching for addresses.

“I wouldn’t put anything up here,” one said as he eyed an especially bad stretch of Bayside Lane, where several homes showed the dreaded red fliers posted by Department of Housing inspectors declaring them unsafe for habitation. “But I’m from Kansas. What do I know?” he added with a laugh.

One towering home warned off would-be looters with a sign: “Have proper ID so next of kin can identify your body.” A gold sedan sat on one street, its front grille smashed in, its trunk open to reveal several inches of standing water. Porta-potties were posted outside a nearby church, where bags of donated blankets and warm clothing filled pews.

“The community is really pitching in to help,” said Bosch, echoing others who described this as a rare big-city enclave where neighbors know one another by name — her husband is one of Bill Diffendale’s golfing buddies — and people watch out for one another, just as their grandparents and great-grandparents did.

Pulling up stakes in the face of the disaster would open the door to developers moving in and destroying the small-town flavor, said Feimer, whose father, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, was one of the first to buy land and build a home. “He called it his ‘little village,’ ” said Feimer. “I not only know the people here, I know their lineage.”

So does Diffendale, 61, a former teacher and retired New York City police officer who had envisioned living here with his wife, Barbara. She died in August, making this a year he’d rather forget.

“But the summer months here are so packed with fun,” Diffendale said, fighting tears as he stood on the street looking for a lost insurance adjuster who was searching for his address. “To give that up? I don’t know what I’d do.”

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