A little more than six months after Superstorm Sandy ravaged the shoreline communities of the diocese, the terrible damage sustained by that event continues to be felt. The beaches may be open for the season, but many of the people returning to the shore are not the same as last year.
The volunteers have slowed to a trickle. Touring politicians have gone away. FEMA tents have been dismantled with their effect still being called into question.
“I thought we would get more help, but we didn’t,” one resident told us.
Many people are still looking for help. Many people simply have not been able to return to their homes. We checked in with some of the local pastors, and they tell a story of diminishing numbers.
In Broad Channel, Father Richard Ahlmeyer, pastor of St. Camillus-St. Virgilius, can point to the newly painted church of St. Virgilius, but he also tells us that 40 percent of those dispossessed by the rising waters have not been seen back in the community.
Father Ahlmeyer, who grew up in Broad Channel, points out that St. Virgilius Church is raised up from the ground level but still took in water that covered the pews.
“Outside the church, there was eight feet of water,” he explains.
The electric wiring was affected. The boiler had to be replaced. Three buildings, including the old school, still need repairs.
On the tip of the Rockaway peninsula, in Breezy Point, Msgr. Michael Curran, pastor of Blessed Trinity parish, reports lower Mass attendance. Hundreds of homes were destroyed in that seaside respite, and there are still no plans to rebuild those destroyed by fire.
“People who are making repairs are waiting for insurance money, waiting for their contractors and that wears people down,” he says. “People are frazzled, and they’re frustrated.
Elizabeth Hine Leib, who works at St. Thomas More Church, Breezy Point, says if it wasn’t for the church’s presence and having the priests to talk to, her patience would have run out long ago.
At St. Rose of Lima, Rockaway Beach, phone service has still not returned to the rectory, and people have not returned to their homes, causing a dip in attendance.
In the midst of tragedy, there are always bright lights and signs of hope. St. Francis de Sales parish received many accolades for its immediate response. Msgr. John Brown, pastor, immediately opened the parish facilities and turned them into relief centers in the days immediately following the storm. People from surrounding communities came to St. Francis de Sales for food and clothing and everyday necessities such as light bulbs and batteries.
For his leadership, Msgr. Brown was chosen from among hundreds of nominees as a finalist in the Congressional Medal of Honor Foundations Awards. He was cited for “your courage, your selflessness and your willingness to sacrifice for the good of others.”
As the seasons change and many return to the shore, we should be reminded that there are some who cannot return to the beach communities that were their homes. The churches and their priests and pastoral staffs stand ready to assist as they have since the onset of the disaster.
“We’re not there yet,” says Father Ahlmeyer. “And it’s certainly taking a lot longer than a lot of us thought. But people are more hopeful. There’s a new perspective on life and on our community where people can count on each other. I think they’re more faith-filled now.”