By Bianca Fortis
Sunlight streams in through the stained glass windows of St. Thomas More, casting a blue light into the apse of the Breezy Point church.
Before the altar sits a worn garden statue of the Virgin Mary, the ashen stone in sharp contrast against its surroundings.
A year ago the statue, christened “Virgin Mary of Breezy Point,” sat along Gotham Walk, the edge of the fire zone where so many homes were reduced to rubble as a result of Hurricane Sandy.
Surrounded by the charred remains of the homes, the statue became a beacon of hope, a symbol of fortitude. It was placed inside St. Thomas More within the month following the disaster.
In December, the FDNY announced that the worst fires on the peninsula had been caused by rising sea water coming into contact with electrical systems. The Breezy Point fire leveled 126 homes and damaged another 22, according to the FDNY.
For the most part, the Breezy Point homes that were not burned were flooded. Survivors told stories of houses pushed off their foundations, cars nose-diving into sinkholes and windows blown out by the wind and water.
Photos of Breezy Point became iconic for the devastation the hurricane caused and the area has been slow to recover.
But progress is happening.
Tina and Richie Scannell finally moved back into their home in the middle of October. They had been renting a house in Sheepshead Bay, while simultaneously paying their mortgage. The damage to their home was severe — three-quarters of the foundation had collapsed, Tina Scannell said.
She said she is nervous about any future storms that might strike New York City.
“I’m knocking on wood,” she said. “We cannot do this again.”
She credited her husband with doing most of the house’s repairs on his own. Meanwhile, he has also been working full-time and attending school during the past year.
The Scannells’ neighbor, Charlie Wolfe, was one of the few Breezy Point residents whose homes did not suffer much damage. But he, too, was displaced. He left for four months while utilities were restored. There was also some concern that the local water supply had been contaminated.
“Water does so much damage,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe chose to ride out the storm inside his house, but said he would leave if another storm comes.
Tom and Anke Long had evacuated the year before during Hurricane Irene and chose to stay home for Sandy, expecting another false alarm.
“We realized maybe we should’ve left, but by then it was too late,” Tom Long said. “But the next time we hear the word ‘surge,’ we’ll start packing.
The couple had spent summers in Breezy Point since 1974 and then built their house in 1998, expecting it to be their “forever home.”
“I never thought I’d be redoing my house,” Anke Long said.
During the storm, the water filled the first floor of their house and the Longs, their son and Anke’s mother sought refuge on the second story, which remained dry.
After living with family in Rockville Centre, L.I., for two weeks, they rented an apartment for a few months.
“It was the first time in our lives we ever paid rent,” Tom Long said. “We always had a house.”
But for all the difficulties the Longs have overcome within the last year, they described themselves as fortunate. They said they felt sorry for the children who were displaced and for the elderly senior citizens who cannot afford to rebuild their houses.
“That keeps the happy mood down,” Tom Long said. “It keeps the optimism a little bit tempered. I don’t think the community will feel 100 percent whole for many years.”
Anke Long said she becomes anxious when she hears of impending storms, but chooses not to dwell on them.
“If another storm like this happens, you can’t worry too much because there’s nothing you can do to stop it,” she said.
Marilyn Harvey, who owns Breezy Tour and Travel, still has no electricity in her business. She said local businesses did not receive much recovery help right away as most of the focus was on individuals and households.
She said the neighborhood was like a ghost town immediately following the storm.
“I’ve never been afraid in Breezy Point before,” she said. “It felt like a third world country.”
Harvey described the relief efforts by residents as well as volunteers from afar.
She pointed to her friend, Erin Corcoran Daly, a Florida resident who still owns a summer home in Breezy Point.
“This woman is amazing,” Harvey said. “She ran this place like a general.”
Daly, along with others, founded Operation Gut and Pump, a volunteer group credited with saving 600 of Breezy Point’s 3,000 homes by cleaning them out.
“We went in and just thought, ‘We’ve got to get through this, we’ve got to get it done,’” Daly said.
Volunteers worked tirelessly for more than a month. Daly was later honored by the White House as a Champion of Change.
Peter Rayder, pastor of St. Thomas More Church, described a community that is more optimistic today.
“I see people with smiles on their faces,” he said. “With everything they’ve been through, they haven’t lost the sense of being alive, their sense of hope.”
There are plans to move the Virgin Mary of Breezy Point to the courtyard of St. Edmund, a sister parish, after the anniversary of Sandy, he said.
He said he was initially concerned about how the community would react about the decision to move the statue.
But they agreed it does not really belong in the church, he said.
“‘It’s an outdoor statue,’ they told me,” he said. “‘More people need to see it.’”
Reach reporter Bianca Fortis by email at [email protected] or by phone at 718-260-4546.