South Queens shattered by Sandy

THE COURIER/Photo by Terence Cullen

Around 9 p.m., Lillian Reyes said she smelled smoke in her 95th Street home. She went outside – by that time she said the water was up to her thighs – to see smoke coming from her garage.

The next step was to go to her neighbor’s house to call 9-1-1, but the fire department did not come.

“Response time was nonexistent,” said the Howard Beach resident of the difficulty first responders had in getting to the scene.

Reyes was one of the south Queens residents who felt the brunt of Hurricane Sandy on Monday, October 29 as it devastated Howard Beach – just on the brink of what is labeled Zone A.

So, Reyes said, she watched her home burn down to the foundation as massive winds and flooding swept through Howard Beach.

“I was wet from head to toe,” she said, “They were like ‘come inside,’ but I couldn’t stop watching.”

She said she was wearing her daughter’s shoes, her granddaughter’s pants and was unable to take any personal belongings from her home.

At one point, she said, she held on to the fence and made her way over to nearby Cross Bay Boulevard, wading in close to five feet of water, to try and find help. A passerby with a large truck came by and started to move people out of the area as water surged higher and higher.

Her daughter, Frances Perez, was able to pick her up and brought her to her home in Middle Village.

“I just jumped in my clothes,” Perez said upon getting the call from her mom, “and I said ‘let’s go.’”

Perez said Reyes was calm, considering the circumstances, but “I was hysterical.”

Water from the canal began to flow onto Cross Bay around 8 p.m. on Monday and started flooding some of the landmark stores on the six-lane boulevard. Earlier that day, the stores had been boarded and sand bagged, but it could not stop some of the trauma. Winds swept and howled through the neighborhood, bringing with them water that quickly began to rise.

Michelangelo Turano lives on 97th Street and said water began to pour into his basement between 8 and 9 p.m., just as the lights started to flicker. Turano, 25, said he only had three to five inches of water in his basement, but his neighbors had up to five feet.

“Never in my life did I think New York City would be like this,” he said.

Councilmember Eric Ulrich visited Belle Harbor in Rockaway and the Broad Channel Islands on Tuesday, October 30 to assess some of the damage caused by the storm.

The scene, Ulrich said, was devastating.

Ulrich said Rockaway residents who opted to stay, despite a mandatory evacuation order from Mayor Michael Bloomberg, were now “walking around with a profound sense of sorrow.”

Streets on the peninsula, Ulrich said, had been struck not only by flooding, but fires that broke out in the area.

Fires and riots broke out on the Rockaway Peninsula, an official said, in the days following the storm. He said restoring order was a key priority.

More than 100 homes in Breezy Point caught fire. Officials said firefighters had to wade through chest-high water to battle the blaze. One of the homes belonged to Congressmember Bob Turner.

The next step, Ulrich said, was to assess the damage caused by Sandy — including loss of life — and then clean up and start rebuilding.

“Some of them have lost all of their earthly belongings,” he said.

State Senator Joseph Addabbo said on Tuesday morning that he was out in his district to survey the damage. Addabbo said that it was the worst storm anyone in the area had seen.

Addabbo said he had spoken to Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office and was coordinating relief efforts as the winds from the storm began to die down. That included working with FEMA to rebuild.

“We’re going to have a grocery list of things to give them,” Addabbo said.

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