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Breezy Point Residents Choose to Remain and Rebuild

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Breezy Point, a gated community in the Rockaways, has committed to rebuilding after Hurricane Sandy. All photos by Nathan Kensinger.

Welcome back to Camera Obscura, Curbed's series of photo essays by Nathan Kensinger. This week marks the second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, and Kensinger will return to three neighborhoods he has been visiting since the storm. Up first is Breezy Point, a gated community in the Rockaways.

In the two years since Hurricane Sandy devastated New York's waterfront, the city has undergone a painful recovery process. In Breezy Point, Sea Gate, Ocean Breeze, and Oakwood Beach—some of the neighborhoods hit hardest by the storm—residents have struggled to choose between rebuilding or retreating from the water. With sea levels expected to rise several feet in coming years, the government has also been considering what steps to take next to address a future shaped by climate change, flooding, and storms. "We are rebuilding highways, we're doing dune replenishment, there are massive MTA projects, there are protections for the tunnels," said Barbara Brancaccio, spokeswoman for the Governor's Office of Storm Recovery. "It's the second anniversary and I would say that the city is extremely prepared."

New York City's most impressive recovery is taking place in the Rockaways, where many communities were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy's storm surge. Today, the peninsula is protected by a newly built system of walls and dunes, and all of its neighborhoods have decided to rebuild. In Breezy Point, a gated community at the western tip of the Rockaways, more than 300 homes were either washed away or burned to the ground during Sandy. Over the past two years, the landscape here has been transformed from scorched ruins into a thicket of new homes, many built in the past few months. One year ago, on the first anniversary of the storm, Breezy Point was still dominated by empty lots filled with sand. Today, dozens of new homes have been built, and the sounds of hammers, saws, bulldozers and backhoes echo through the salty air.

Despite being located on a shifting sand bar surrounded by the ocean, the residents of Breezy Point are committed to staying on the waterfront. They recently spent $130,000 of their own funds to create a protective dune, and are in the process of evolving their housing stock from the single-story bungalows that Sandy destroyed to mammoth multi-story homes that fulfill the new building requirements. The government is supporting the community in their rebuilding efforts, and recently announced a multi-million dollar "Comprehensive Coastal Protection System" for Breezy Point, "to safeguard the community from future instances of extreme weather." This project is just one part of the city's resiliency plan, explains Amy Spitalnick, director of public affairs for the city's Office of Management and Budget. "The plan strengthens coastal defenses, upgrades buildings, protects infrastructure and critical services, and makes homes, businesses, and neighborhoods safer and more vibrant in these communities and beyond."

The refusal to retreat from the water is also part of a much larger city vision. Since Hurricane Sandy, numerous residential megaprojects have been built or announced along the city's coastline, increasing population density enormously in areas which will experience the most flooding during storms to come. Some have questioned the wisdom of building in flood zones next to the sea, but in the Rockaways and Breezy Point, these concerns have not deterred rebuilding.

November 2012: On Gotham Walk in Breezy Point, Hurricane Sandy's devastation was nearly complete. After a fire destroyed over 120 homes in the area, only a handful of houses remained standing.

October 2014: Standing at the same spot today, the changes are disorienting. A new home has been built on almost every empty lot.

November 2012: On Fulton Walk, every home was burned to the ground during Hurricane Sandy, in what the Times described as one of the "the worst residential fires in New York City's history."

August 2013: Then months after the storm, rebuilding had begun on only a few new homes in the area. Fulton Walk's concrete paths had been cracked by demolition equipment.

October 2014: Today, the residents of Fulton Walk have enjoyed a nearly complete return, with houses either completed or under construction. Much of the cost has been covered by insurance and private money, according to Crain's.

November 2012: On Irving Walk, humble one-story bungalows were pushed off their foundations by Hurricane Sandy, which destroyed approximately 350 homes in Breezy Point.

November 2012: Many of these homes were unsalvageable and were gutted and demolished, with personal belongings taken away to be deposited in a landfill.

October 2014: On Irving Walk today, these bungalows have been replaced by much larger houses, elevated above the sand to meet new building requirements.

October 2014: Seeing a mailman making his rounds through the neighborhood would have seemed almost impossible two years ago.

October 2014: Some residents have reportedly had difficulty rebuilding, but even the increasingly rare empty lots of Breezy Point have been set up to arrange delivery of mail.

October 2014: This new home was erected in just over a week, with workers laboring through the weekend. Many new homes here are modular in construction, and some, like the building site on the left, have been funded by the city's Build It Back program.

October 2014: Facing south towards the sea, some of these new houses are isolated, surrounded by sand and situated at sea level.

October 2014: A broad plain separates Breezy Point from the ocean, but provides no buffer from the elements. When it comes to sea level rise, New York is one of the "most vulnerable metropolitan areas" in the world, according to the Times.

October 2014: Residents constructed this 1,000-foot dune along the south side of their community using their own funds.

October 2014: From atop the dune, the sea is never far away. A new climate change report will be approved by the United Nations at the end of this month, which will help shape future plans for waterfront communities.  
· Nathan Kensinger [Official]
· Tracing a Post-Storm Year of Chance in the Rockaways [Curbed]
· Camera Obscura archive [Curbed]