Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio returned Nov. 4 to Breezy Point for the second time in a week to celebrate Mass with the beleaguered ocean side community as it struggled to recuperate from the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.
The bishop offered hope and urged parishioners to be patient, saying that recovery will not occur overnight.
More than 130 homes in Breezy Point, a predominantly Irish-Catholic enclave, burned to the ground when an electrical fire was set off in the middle of the storm surge that washed over the Rockaway peninsula.
“We do not have a crystal ball about how Breezy Point will rebuild,” said Bishop DiMarzio in his homily. “But do not lose hope because only hope sustains us.”
Several prominent New York politicians listened to the bishop’s talk. Seated in the front row were U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer; Congressman Bob Turner; State Sen. Malcolm Smith, City Councilmen Eric Ulrich and Alan Jennings; and Kings County District Attorney Joe Hynes. About 1,000 people attended the Mass in spite of the fact that most of the parishioners had participated in the mandatory evacuation.
Bishop DiMarzio praised the pastor, Msgr. Michael Curran, for being an inspiration to the parish during the height of the hurricane. Msgr. Curran, who remained at the rectory, opened the church so that some parishioners could sleep there. After electrical power was lost and the rectory basement flooded, the clergy were forced to seek shelter in other rectories off the peninsula.
Across the street in the Breezy Point Catholic Club, a center for rescue workers was set up, offering boots and work gear for the clean-up. Food tables for the homeless and volunteers were also being offered.
N.Y.C. firefighters wheeled in an emergency generator to supply some light for the Mass, but there was no heat and no sound system. Still, the bishop’s voice could be heard loud and clear, and when he introduced Msgr. Curran at the end of the liturgy, there was a standing ovation.
Following Mass, Bishop DiMarzio stood outside church and greeted Massgoers. A common refrain was, “Thank you, bishop, for being with us today.”
Bishop DiMarzio and the elected officials then toured the devastated neighborhood, stopping to observe a stone Marian shrine that had survived the blaze.
Congressman Turner, whose house was completely destroyed in the fire, vowed to rebuild. He has resettled in Ozone Park for the time being.
Msgr. Curran announced that Time Warner and Verizon opened emergency centers, offering free phone and Internet services as well as assistance with filing for emergency federal assistance.
In an interview with Currents, on The NET, Msgr. Curran said, “Our Catholic faith will strengthen us. We don’t know how, but slowly and surely, we will rise again and emerge as an even stronger community.”
Leaving Breezy Point with a police escort, Bishop DiMarzio travelled to Belle Harbor where he witnessed clothes, food and sanitary supplies being distributed from a make-shift center in the St. Francis de Sales parish gym. (See The Editor’s Space on Page 10.)
Some might say that Gerritsen Beach was one of the forgotten neighborhoods following Hurricane Sandy.
Designated as a Zone B evacuation area with only a moderate risk of flooding, residents of the tight-knit, Irish-Catholic enclave on a peninsula in southern Brooklyn thought they’d be spared the worst of the storm.
“The devastation in the beach was horrendous; six-foot waves chased people up their blocks,” said Father Dennis Farrell, pastor of Resurrection Church, the neighborhood’s only Catholic church.
Resurrection had downed trees and a power outage in the church which was resolved for Sunday Masses. But further into the neighborhood, as much as several feet of water flooded homes, ruining basements and first floors, and destroying cars.
On Tuesday evening, Oct. 30, Father Farrell opened the former parish school as an evacuation center. Organizing the evacuation and assistance effort were members of the Gerritsen Beach Volunteer Fire Department, known as the Vollies, who rescued people from their homes in kayaks and small boats. They brought locals to the evacuation center and provided ongoing assistance.
“The volunteers have been fantastic,” said Father Farrell, who also credited the efforts of State Senator Marty Golden. “He’s been here three to four times every day, and his staff has had a constant presence.”
After five days, the evacuation center closed Sunday night because the city had not approved it as an official shelter. While many residents had friends and family with whom they could stay, some went to the nearest city shelter at Franklin D. Roosevelt H.S. in Bensonhurst.
On Sunday morning, the center was bustling when Bishop DiMarzio arrived to survey the collection and distribution efforts. Msgr. Jamie Gigantiello, diocesan vicar for development, also paid a visit.
Volunteer John Murphy was directing traffic at the entrance: donations and volunteers to the right; those needing assistance to the left.
Sister Elizabeth Graham, C.S.J., who lives near the church, manned the door, trying to keep track of volunteers, donations and how many people had received assistance.
Sister Elizabeth estimated that “at least 3,000 to 4,000” residents, from young babies to those in their 90s, had received assistance, ranging from spending the night to stopping over for a hot meal and supplies.
Food and water were being distributed in the auditorium, where blankets and cots were set up for anyone who needed them.
“We’ve had a steady stream of people coming for help,” Murphy said. “If we can give them a cup of coffee, a hot meal and put some clothes on their backs, it’s the least we can do.”
Many people, Father Farrell said, were in need of “counseling and hugs,” which he and Father Edwin Okey Nwabugwu, parochial vicar, provided.
Massive donations of clothes, toiletries, cleaning supplies and stuffed animals narrowed hallways and filled classrooms to their ceilings. Larger items, like baby car seats and strollers occupied a corner of the parking lot.
“The community has come together,” said Murphy. “Facebook has been a real help.” Anything residents needed – from coffee to kerosene – was posted on the Vollies’ Facebook page, and the response was overwhelming.
Donations arrived from as far as Kentucky, New Jersey, Connecticut and Pennsylvania and as close as neighboring parishes and businesses. Local restaurants and caterers donated hot food every few hours.
Donations were so plentiful, Murphy said, that volunteers drove six truckloads of clothing and supplies to affected areas in Staten Island, the Rockaways and Coney Island.
Any remaining supplies were brought to local chapters of the Knights of Columbus, Ancient Order of Hibernians and other charitable groups that offered storage space. The items will be made available to the community as needed.
Firefighters Brendan Corrigan and Pat Nash from Ladder 147, Flatbush, dropped off a minivan full of water jugs, clothes and baby supplies from the Capt. Corrigan Memorial Foundation and St. Anastasia’s parish, Douglaston, Sunday morning.
“We felt Gerritsen wasn’t getting a lot of attention,” said Corrigan, “so we decided to bring the supplies here.”
His brother firefighter Nash lives across the street from the church. Since Monday, he’s had 15 relatives from the Rockaways staying in his apartment.
There was also a steady stream of volunteers, like local teen Joe Dellosso, a freshman at St. Edmund Prep, Sheepshead Bay, who cleaned floors, sorted bags and did whatever needed to be done.
“Without this church, people would have been on the streets,” Dellosso said.
One of those people might have been Miss Virginia, a nonagenarian who had no heat in her house and no place to go when the school closed.
That was until she met Lynn Albin and Mike Puder, local residents who “adopted” her. When they came to donate their time and supplies on Saturday, they met Miss Virginia and offered her a room in their home for as long as she wanted.
Regina Smith and her five-year-old son Evan lived in the old section of the neighborhood. Water flooded their basement and first floor, and her car was destroyed.
“By the time the water came up, it was too late to get out,” she said. “The Vollies rescued us and brought us here. My son was terrified.”
Smith said FEMA checked her house on Thursday and declared it livable.
“We can’t move back until we have heat, and I don’t know when that will be,” she said. So when the evacuation center closed Sunday night, Smith and her son were headed to her sister-in-law’s home in Marine Park.
Father Farrell said two parishioners lost their lives as a result of the storm – one was trapped in his basement and the other suffered a fatal heart attack.
While the short-term needs of many residents have been met, the reality is that there is still a long road ahead.
“What we’re doing here is not even a fraction of the help this community is going to need,” Murphy said.
Living in Post-Sandy New York
Having survived the worst hurricane in the diocese in living memory, people throughout Brooklyn and Queens struggle to figure out how to live in a post-Sandy New York.
Cecilia Cuomo, parishioner of St. Helen Church, Howard Beach, said living without electricity, heat or hot water was becoming increasingly difficult. The Queens community was not in the mandatory evacuation zone but suffered extensive flooding and power outages nonetheless.
“It’s getting harder as the days go on,” she said. “It’s starting to hit me more.”
She was not able to get someone to pump the salt water out of her basement, which was deeper than she is tall, until two days after Sandy. Once her basement was drained, her family started the task of throwing nearly everything out of the basement and taking down the walls to prevent mold and decay.
Joan Beiniewoicz, a fellow parishioner who is in a similar situation, said rescuing her house is a trying process that is made worse by the sense of not knowing. She said that although an understanding representative from FEMA has visited, she was not given much concrete information. Government officials and insurance representatives have not been more helpful, she said. Most of the information she has access to is through rumors that bring fear of looting and break-ins.
Both Cuomo and Beiniewoicz said that they are thankful for people’s goodness. They said they rely on the support of their families and community to meet their physical needs and to console them through this tragedy.
“God bless the people here in Howard Beach,” said Msgr. Alfred LoPinto, pastor of St. Helen’s, as he visited some of the people in his community. “They are very resourceful. They are caring toward each other.”
Msgr. LoPinto said that the Church will continue to support the people of the community on the way to recovery. Among the many tasks that lie in front of the parish is getting the children who attend parochial schools back in class. As The Tablet went to print, the water damaged school building still had no electricity.
With the community struggling to assure itself of basic necessities, parishioner Carl Haussler said the disaster has forced him to be thankful.
“You appreciate the little things in life, like a cup of hot coffee or a hot shower,” he said.
Msgr. LoPinto also said the parish has a responsibility to take more into consideration than just people’s physical and material well-being.
“People need spiritual support,” he said. “They have a long road ahead of them. Many are overwhelmed.”
Part of the way the parish will continue to care for people’s spiritual needs is by continuing Mass in the church by daylight.
“I feel like I am missing something from my life if I don’t receive Jesus,” said parishioner Vita Monastero, who came to Mass on All Souls Day to pray for the dead in her family and those who did not survive Hurricane Sandy.
“We receive a lot of strength from the Eucharist, and I think that is the strength we need to keep going.”
“Even though we have suffered in the past few days, this is not our end,” said Father Robert Keighron in his homily at St. Helen’s. “This is our opportunity to come together.”
Msgr. LoPinto, who also serves as the diocesan vicar for human services, said Catholic Charities will work to bring together support and resources to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. He said the organization will provide people with food, clothing and counseling.
Robert Siebel, CEO for Catholic Charities Brooklyn and Queens, said the organization will continue to organize relief efforts in the areas most affected by the hurricane. He said the local Catholic Charities (see sidebar on Page 6) is working with the local and national government to coordinate relief. He is also expecting support from Catholic Charities USA. However, he said that the organization is also relying on local people to help in the long journey to rebuild.
“I think we are a remarkably resilient community,” Siebel said. “And working together we will be able to rebuild, particularly if we bring all our gifts to the table.”
He encourages those who would like to help in rebuilding Brooklyn and Queens to donate their time, talent and treasures to Catholic Charities. Information on how to donate or volunteer can be found online at www.ccbq.org or by calling 718-722-6001.
Siebel said Catholic Charities is on the ground in the hardest hit areas including the Rockaway Peninsula, where they have made base in St. Francis de Sales School, Belle Harbor, and stationed a mobile disaster center at St. Rose of Lima, Rockaway Beach.
Siebel also said the organization is supporting its ongoing programs. In some cases, that requires relocating people from programs they cannot continue in the near future. Catholic Charities had to relocate people from its Seaview Senior Center, Rockaway Beach, and its Straus Residence, a home for people with developmental disabilities in Sheepshead Bay.
Most other services, however, were able to continue or be quickly restored after the hurricane, Siebel said. The organization’s affiliate, SS. Joachim and Anne Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Coney Island, stayed opened thanks to the dedication of the staff who simply did not leave when the hurricane hit. Many of the employees stayed with those who are entrusted to their care for three days straight until electricity was restored, said Clause Ritman, the home’s executive director.
Cleaning Up the Rockaways
Cleaning efforts were also underway at St. Rose of Lima Church in Rockaway Beach.
“Step by step, we will try to go forward,” said Father Wladyslaw Kubrak, parochial vicar, as he shoveled leaves and branches off the church driveway.
Although the church sustained serious water damage and had no power, Father Kubrak was not planning on evacuating. He planned, however, to leave Rockaway Peninsula to recharge his electrical batteries and to bring back fresh food.
He said that he wanted to stay to continue to console the people coming for guidance after they have lost so much. The church, he said, stayed opened the night of Oct. 30 for people who needed shelter, and the chapel was open for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
Father Kubrak said he also was able to console people with the sacrament of reconciliation.
A day after Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast, Bishop DiMarzio visited the most affected parishes to gain a better understanding of the state of the diocese and to pray with his people.
“It’s hard to think that this kind of destruction could happen in our city,” he said as he rode along the Rockaway Peninsula.
The bishop traveled from church to church and witnessed the devastating effects the ocean’s waters had on people’s lives, their homes and church buildings.
In Breezy Point, Bishop DiMarzio was relieved to see that the church buildings were spared. Among the parishes that opened their church doors for people whose homes are no longer habitable, was Blessed Trinity Church in Breezy Point. It is located in the mandatory evacuation zone declared for Hurricane Sandy, but Msgr. Curran, initially remained at the rectory.
He said power went out Oct. 29 at 7 p.m. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the police set up a command center in one of his church buildings.
Bruce Angle was among the Breezy Point residents who did not evacuate and watched as flood waters forced their way into his home. He said the water was a couple of feet high, and his beds were completely soaked. He spent the next night sleeping in the choir loft of St. Thomas More Church, a worship site of Blessed Trinity parish.
“There is no heat, but it’s still warmer than my house,” he said the morning of Oct. 31. He had used a priest’s chasuble as a blanket to keep warm during the night.
Msgr. David Cassato, chaplain to the N.Y.C. Police Department, and Msgr. Gigantiello, accompanied Bishop DiMarzio on his pastoral visit. At every stop, people came to speak with them, some in tears and others asking for prayers.
Bishop DiMarzio asked parishes throughout the diocese to take up collections on Nov. 4 to help with the rebuilding process. He is also coordinating with Catholic Charities’ emergency action plan to get people the help they need. He said his message to the faithful is: “Pray for the people of the peninsula. They have a long road to recovery.”
Murky Road Ahead
That road, however, seems murky to many people affected by the natural disaster. “I don’t think anyone knows what the process is,” said Bill Slattery, who saw his family’s secondary residence in Breezy Point reduced to a pile of ash. “All you know is what you hear on the radio.”
Slattery has been part of the Breezy Point community for 30 years. He is on the softball team there, and his wife has been part of the community there for her entire life. He said “that’s the hardest part because of all the memories of being there – and now what do you do?”
However, he said the people in the community take care of each other.
“There is no one person who is alone; we are all a community,” he said, so as soon as information is available to one person, everyone will know, even if they don’t have access to electricity or a phone.
Concerns in Canarsie
St. Jude’s, Canarsie, was not even in the evacuation or flood zone, yet the parish sustained damage to the church building and the electrical system as well as flooding in the basement.
The parish planned to host a healing Mass once it got power back. Parishioners were aiding the relief efforts by giving the names of the families that needed help.
Msgr. John Delendick, pastor, said that only some of his parishioners evacuated since they thought they would be safer further from the water. Many parishioners reported damages to their homes.
Msgr. Delendick was a first responder as a Fire Dept. chaplain during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He said the current damage is mind-boggling, and the fact that there is no gas anywhere was adding to the inconveniences.
“Breezy Point and the Rockaways are like Ground Zero,” he said. “It’s a human horror of people losing their homes and all their belongings.”
Msgr. Delendick has aided in the set-up of a special center for firefighters and recovery workers where they are able to contact FEMA and the Red Cross and receive counseling.
Though right now it’s tough to look at the big picture, many people who have experienced losses are just looking for someone to listen to them in their time of need, according to Msgr. Delendick.
As of last Sunday, the Sisters of St. Joseph, Brentwood, reported that the motherhouse was operating on a generator system that provided heat and electricity. Power had already been restored to the Renewal Center.
Among the areas of damage on the motherhouse grounds, were fallen trees, damage to the academy and chapel roofs; window damage in the convent kitchen and dining room; and boiler damage in the Renewal Center.
Maria Regina Residence never lost power but welcomed residents from Consolation Nursing home when they were evacuated, and also opened its doors to some sisters from Stella and Sacred Heart Convent. The administration, nursing staff, pastoral team and food service staff remained at Maria Regina day and night to ensure consistent care.
Stella Maris Convent in the Rockaways was evacuated before the storm. The convent was not flooded. There were minor damages to the convent, including a broken window and awning damage. However, there was serious damage to the parking lot, dry wells, fences and outside property, front and back.
The school sustained extensive flood damage to entire first floor of the school and gym, as well as possible boiler, burner and electrical damage.
There was also significant beach erosion and the boardwalk was completely destroyed.
Both St. Francis de Sales, Belle Harbor, and St. Camillus, Rockaway Park, convents sustained water damage, as did both of the schools. My Sister’s House in Breezy Point had furniture and appliances destroyed.
Fontbonne Hall Academy, Bay Ridge, saw damage to its gym ventilation system and partial wall destruction.
St. Joseph H.S., Downtown Brooklyn, suffered window destruction on the first floor, damaged doors and damage to water tanks on the roof.
Contributing to this article were Ed Wilkinson, Marie Elena Giossi, Antonina Zielinska and Jim Mancari.