Volunteers Planting Sea Grass In Dunes

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — Superstorm Sandy brought more than heavy wind and high water in Breezy Point, Queens, where hundreds of homes burned to the ground in a massive fire hours after the storm moved through.

On Tuesday, Breezy Point residents marked the one year anniversary of Sandy with a day of service.

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And as CBS 2’s Hazel Sanchez reported, the neighborhood now is barely recognizable. The Breezy Point of today looks almost nothing like it did before Sandy – let alone days later.

“Life was one way before, and it’s going to be one way after,” said Breezy Point resident Steve Greenberg.

A storm surge swallowed up the once-thriving community, burying it underwater. A short time later, the raging fire devoured what little was left.

“It was a very daunting experience,” added Denise Neibel of Breezy Point Cooperative, Inc, “because honestly, we all looked at each other and said, ‘How are we going to do this?’”

“I met somebody and she said when she looked over at the fire, it reminded her of a graveyard,” said resident Ann Allen, who moved to Breezy Point with her husband six years ago.

A total of 355 families lost their homes. Many have abandoned the idea of rebuilding in the neighborhood.

But one family has moved back in, and many of their neighbors are not far behind. Half a dozen houses as of the one-year Sandy anniversary were in the final stages of construction, and dozens more were breaking ground.

But residents of the Rockaway Peninsula neighborhood remained frustrated.

“Nobody’s moved back in,” Neibel said. “It’s very frustrating.”

“You get so used to just getting up and just trudging along, but there’s no real end in sight for most people,” one resident told 1010 WINS’ Al Jones.

“You start with everybody asking you how you made out,” Breezy Point resident Joe Ganun told WCBS 880′s Alex Silverman. “And after about two weeks of that, you realize that no matter how banged up you got, the people who lost their homes made out worse.”

Residents have been frustrated in particular because most of the money that has gone into the rebuilding effort has come out of their own wallets, rather than from the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

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Still, the progress has been heartening.

“Little by little, together, we’ve been able to accomplish what you see here today,” Neibel said.

“It’s just great, because it’s hope,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg does not just wear his heart on his sleeve – it’s on his chest, in the form of a sweatshirt referencing the famous meme inspired by the “Keep calm and carry on” motivational posters issued by the British government at the start of the World War II. The shirt, which Greenberg found while shopping in Brooklyn, reads, “Keep calm – and rebuild Breezy.”

“I just started to cry, because it was just to me a measure of how people wanted to help us,” Greenberg said.

Greenberg was one of many participants in the day of service Tuesday. They were planting grass on dunes that now protect what the storm destroyed, and what they have worked so hard to rebuild.

“This dune in effect will give us a barrier for a little bit,” Breezy Point resident Bob Pierson said. “Hopefully, with any luck, we’ll be able to get the dunes built higher every year.”

Sign on the beach in Breezy Point, Oct. 29, 2013. (credit: Jim Smith/WCBS 880)

Sign on the beach in Breezy Point, Oct. 29, 2013. (credit: Jim Smith/WCBS 880)

The spirit of community that was seen a year ago in the days after Sandy, is prevalent yet again, signifying new life and a new start.

“This is a positive day,” Arthur Lighthall, the general manager for Breezy Point Cooperative, Inc., told 1010 WINS. “We have evidence throughout of the rebirth with buildings coming up and now we are planting on our dunes.”

“Right after the storm, everything was dark — I don’t know how to explain it. Everything was dark. The atmosphere was dark — even when the sun was out, it was dark,” Greenberg said. “And little by little, the sun has come out. We went from darkness and despair to brightness and repair.”

Every day, Ganun looks out over a sea of sand where so many homes burned and finally sees wood frames rising.

One night in July, Ganun said he came to the neighborhood for a party and “I knew once we got there and slept there that one night we’d never leave. And we didn’t.”

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