herald

Friday 24 October 2014

GAA heroes on mercy mission to help US families after Sandy

IT WAS like walking into a modern-day version of Hiroshima, miniature in scale but no less disturbing. Where once had stood one hundred houses, nothing remained bar the charred basement shells and an unpleasant burning smell that lingered in the air.

Nearby, those houses not destroyed by the fire fared little better. They had been ripped asunder by the original act of God that terrorised New Yorkers almost three weeks ago. Hurricane Sandy.

Some had collapsed on themselves so that all you could see was the roof. Others had shifted dramatically on their foundations. Even homes that appeared relatively unscathed had seen their contents, a lifetime of memories, ruined by the flood.

This scene of devastation was visited, last Saturday afternoon, by members of the GAA/GPA All Stars football party currently touring New York.

We had travelled to Breezy Point in Queens, a coastal idyll (or it used to be) with an overwhelming concentration of Irish-Americans. Locals dub it the 'Irish Riviera'.

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Later that evening, Dublin footballers who scaled the All-Ireland summit in 2011 would play in Gaelic Park. An exhibition match -- a harmless bit of fun to entertain the locals.

But first came this sobering reality check.

"You always hear these things and you think places are badly struck, but you never really realise how bad it is until we went down there," Bernard Brogan told the Herald.

"You see houses in ruins. Houses being moved 10, 20, 40 feet. Half-houses being ripped off, looking into someone's bedroom. The scenes were unbelievable -- it makes you feel that we should be doing a bit more.

"We tried to give them a hand for a little while, but it's only a drop in the ocean for those guys," Brogan admitted. "There's going to be years of work to get back to where they were.

"It's a lovely little place and it was brilliant to see the togetherness, telling stories of the volunteers who are coming from all over the city, all over the country and from other countries as well."

Among the All Star delegation was Dessie Farrell and Donal Og Cusack from the Gaelic Players Association; Dublin stars Brogan, Michael Darragh MacAuley and Paul Flynn; their former manager Pat Gilroy; Cork footballer Colm O'Neill and several more stunned Irish observers.

The players helped in clearing out the wrecked house contents for an elderly lady, left bereft by the disaster.

Incredibly, Sandy didn't claim any lives in Breezy Point. Yet thousands of lives have been thrown into chaos by the destruction, caused first by the crashing waves and then by the fire, seemingly prompted by an electrical short-circuit and quickly fanned by the winds.

Originally a summer beach resort, residents collectively purchased the land in 1960 to form the Breezy Point Cooperative -- a private community with its own fire department, life guard service and security force.

You don't just blithely buy a house in Breezy and go live there; first you must be recommended by several existing members.

All told, there are 2,800 houses between Breezy and nearby Roxbury.

One of its residents -- Tim Devlin -- is a native of Pomeroy, Co Tyrone, but has been living in Breezy since the mid-90s. He heeded the warnings and got out before the hurricane. Coming back, the damage was way worse than expected: "TV doesn't do it justice."

Toni Burti stayed behind when Sandy came; his basement and first floor were flooded, all contents destroyed.

Burti runs the local CYO (Catholic Youth Organisation) programme for juvenile sports. He is confident that Breezy will rebuild and bounce back. Yet he admitted: "When I came back here -- and even now I'm feeling the same thing -- I literally got sick to my stomach.

"There's a story, there's tradition, in every single one of these houses. Children, families displaced, everyone's gone."

hnews@herald.ie

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