In the midst of destruction, one beloved holiday tradition in Breezy Point, New York, will go on.
On October 29th 2012, life in Breezy Point changed forever. Superstorm Sandy hit our beach community in New York City. To make matters worse, a fire of epic proportions broke out, destroying 120 homes. What was not turned to ash was completely flooded. Suddenly our community was uninhabitable.
Those of us who evacuated were allowed back to our homes two days later. Nothing prepared me for what I would see. Breezy Point’s peninsula has the Atlantic Ocean on one side and Jamaica Bay on the other. My children have been brought up to respect and fear the water. The surf and undertow in the Rockaways is one of the most dangerous on the East Coast. In the bay you can observe the massive current as it plows by. It will grab your line while you are fishing or your tube while you are wading. This power of water was evident everywhere the day I returned to my shattered community.
I walked with my neighbors to see what was left of our homes. Emergency vehicles were the only ones allowed anywhere near homes, so we left our cars on the main road and trekked up to a mile into our community. The silence was deafening. As I gazed at the devastation of homes, I felt my body go cold. Houses were pancaked, toppled over, ripped off the foundation, and pushed into other homes. Most everyone who had a deck now didn’t—or it was floating blocks away or in someone’s yard or living room.
Fast-forward one month: Breezy Point families, with the help of FEMA, The National Guard, NYPD, NYFD, sanitation, and every volunteer organization under the sun, have been cleaning up the community to try to rebuild what we once had. There is still no water, gas, or electricity. My neighbors and I are displaced in homes and apartments throughout NYC and beyond. The holidays are here, and I teeter between sadness and “bah humbug.” I am having a horrible time dealing with the fact that I won’t be decorating my house with all the wonderful glittery sea creatures I have collected over the years. My house used to look a little like Las Vegas meets The Lost City Of Atlantis, but who doesn’t love Santa riding a seahorse or twinkling starfish when you live by the sea? This year there can be no decking the halls when many of us are still searching for our decks. There will be no Christmas morning walk on the beach greeting neighbors. No coloring of shells for ornaments from the kids. No “Tree Burning,” the post Christmas bonfire on the beach consisting of everyone’s Christmas trees and garlands. The community is scattered, even communication through the town is hard.
But one tradition will go on this year even though we are not in our homes: the Annual Christmas Tree Lighting, when the whole town gathers in the town square to see the tree light up. We will share a hot toddy, take pictures with Santa, and listen to carols sung by the nursery school children. We are lucky in Breezy Point. We did not lose one person. As we sing around the tree this year, I won’t be able to help but conjure up this image: Like the Whos down in Whoville, the big and the small, for which Christmas came anyway, despite it all!
Christy Schmitt is a pediatric nurse practitioner for the NYU/Bellevue Child Protection Unit and an adjunct professor in pediatrics at the Adelphi University School of Nursing in Long Island.