If, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, you had to guess which storm-ravaged neighborhoods would have bounced back relatively quickly, it’s unlikely that Breezy Point would have been at the top of the list.
The small Queens enclave, located at the end of the Rockaway Peninsula, was one of the communities that was hardest hit by the storm. On the night of October 29, when Sandy swept through New York, the waterfront neighborhood flooded, setting off a chain reaction of devastating events. As seawater streamed into homes, it came into contact with electrical wiring, starting a fire in one home that eventually spread throughout the neighborhood.
By the time the fire was finally controlled the next day, more than 100 homes had burned to the ground, with scores more damaged by both the flames and the rising tides.
But in the wake of the storm, the close-knit community—with only about 4,000 residents, according to the 2010 census—banded together and decided to rebuild, rather than retreat from the waterfront. By 2014, dozens of new homes had risen from the ashes of what was there before; now, five years after the storm, the landscape is filled with new houses.
Community members have also been forward-thinking when it comes to future storms, spending $130,000 of their own money to build a dune that will, in theory, protect against storm surge. (There’s only so much they can do—the area is predicted to be underwater by 2100 thanks to climate change.)
So what does Breezy Point look like now, five years after Sandy? We once again turned to photographer and Camera Obscura columnist Nathan Kensinger to share his thoughts on half a decade of covering that area; he also shared photos, seen here, of the neighborhood immediately post-Sandy and what it looks like today.
The destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy in Breezy Point was so intense that seeing it for the first time took your breath away. It’s hard to describe how completely devastated the neighborhood was. Homes completely crushed, the smell of charred ruins, the little bits and pieces that had somehow survived—a few scattered photographs, a pile of DVDs.
How do you even take out a camera, when confronted with the aftermath of something like that? You have to sit with it, and think about what you are seeing, and why it might be important to document. When I first visited Breezy Point after Hurricane Sandy, I walked around for a long time, before deciding to try and record what had happened.
Before Sandy, Breezy Point always felt like such a cheery place, with a permanent summertime vibe. The narrow lanes and unique bungalows were great to wander around, and the beach was great. After Sandy, the community really came together to make a firm statement that they were going to rebuild. I remember stumbling across their first Mardi Gras parade after the storm. You could see that people were still recovering, but were definitely not going anywhere.
The rebuilding process in Breezy Point began much sooner than anywhere else, and proceeded much more rapidly. Within six months, the burned out homes had been cleared away and covered with fresh sand. By the first anniversary of the storm, several new homes were already rising up. By the second anniversary, row after row of new houses had been finished. It was kind of shocking how fast the recovery process was, especially compared to other parts of the city.
The landscape of Breezy Point has now changed into something much taller and less open. Many of the little bungalows have been replaced by two or three story houses, which are much sturdier, but not as unique. It is disorienting to walk around these same lanes now, just like it’s disorienting to walk around Staten Island in the neighborhoods that have been torn down since Sandy. The change is so complete, you almost can’t remember what came before.
Most of Breezy Point has now been completely rebuilt, and life appears to have returned to normal. But sometimes even seeing the mailman walking around, delivering packages in a place that was once so completely destroyed, can feel like surprise. There are still a few reminders of the storm here and there—empty lots, building foundations sticking out of the sand. Most of Sandy has been erased, though.
Walking around Breezy Point today, it’s easy to see why people would want to live here. It’s a tight-knit community, far away from the grit and noise of the city, with the beach just a short walk away. But despite the cheery atmosphere, you can’t help to stop and look around sometimes and think about how this will all be underwater again one day.