Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
BREEZY POINT, N.Y. - Standing on the sandlot where her home of 20 summers once stood, Helen Graham was remarkably cheerful for a 78-year-old widow who'd seen the house built with her husband's life insurance reduced to cinders.
A few hours earlier, despite her age and the risks of seaside building, she had signed a contract to replace what she lost one year ago in an inferno amid the tempest that became a prime image of the second-costliest storm in U.S. history.
As Sandy stormed the Atlantic coast from New Jersey to Long Island, it touched off a fire here that consumed 135 homes even as rain fell and seawater advanced.
With her decision this day, Helen Graham finally settled a wrenching issue that faced or faces many others from Amityville to Atlantic City: Stay or go?
For Helen, it came down to her love of Breezy Point, "the Irish Riviera,'' a peculiar settlement at land's end in a far corner of the nation's largest city.
"I was on the fence, but I was lonely this summer. I missed the smiling people,'' she said. "Even if you don't know someone, they'll say, 'How ya doin?' In the rest of the city, they don't say that.''
The rest of the city is not Breezy, which sticks into the Atlantic at the western tip of the Rockaway Peninsula. It's reachable only by bridge and a single road. A guardhouse blocks the main entrance. Each street has its own gate. The hoops on the public basketball courts have nets.
It was settled a century ago as a summer colony by police officers, firefighters and other city workers, most of them Irish. Today, homes range from founders' humble bungalows to proud, new, two-story houses bristling with picture windows and decks. More than a third of residents are year-rounders.
The fire that broke out when the storm hit Oct. 29 burned out of control for hours. About 350 of Breezy's 2,837 homes - 12% - were destroyed by fire or flood or subsequently demolished. Hundreds more were uninhabitable for weeks or months.
Some of the displaced full-time residents are renting a temporary place while paying a mortgage and taxes on an unlivable or destroyed home. A few continued to receive estimated utility bills for homes that no longer existed.
Although a third of the homes are still unoccupied, Artie Lighthall, manager of the residents association, sees a community two-thirds' full; six months ago, 85% were empty.
"Maybe it's taken a little bit of time, but it's underway now,'' he says. "The word that comes to mind is resilience.''
In its fatigue and frustration, Breezy Point is like most places slammed by Sandy. But the recovery process has upended some of its unique attributes:
• Breezy is private.
An insular community always averse to outside attention has become the focus of inquiring journalists, media-conscious politicians and a curious public.
"We have never wanted publicity,'' says Steven Greenberg, former chairman of the association's board. "If people heard I was talking to USA TODAY, they'd chastise me - we were a secret, and we wanted to keep it that way.''
But since the storm, Breezy has become a go-to location - for the state attorney general to announce a probe into how charities were distributing storm relief funds; for The Weather Channel to broadcast on Day One of hurricane season; for Eco Building Products to promote its waterproof sealant.
Breezy's denizens are not ready for their close-up. "We don't like to tell people about this place. We don't want everybody coming in here,'' says Cathy Benoit, 71, whose house was pushed off its foundation. "Before the storm, they didn't know Breezy Point existed. Now, everyone wants to know what it looks like.''
• Breezy is self-reliant.
Although part of New York City, Breezy is a cooperative that collects its own garbage, repairs its own roads, plows its own snow, repairs its own street lights, guards its own swimmers and fights its own fires (with three volunteer companies).
But since Sandy, the community has been forced to seek and accept help from the outside world. It has made people feel grateful and vulnerable at the same time; Greenberg calls it "humbling."
Help with the cleanup came from the Army, Navy, Marines and AmeriCorps, whose workers included Helen Graham's granddaughter. Habitat for Humanity repaired homes. The Irish government paid to rehabilitate the gym. Non-violent teen offenders on probation prepared food packages.
Breezy also has been forced to seek help: for temporary property tax relief from the city, and for a waiver of building permit rules.
But it drew the line when the city proposed construction of a double dune to protect Breezy's particularly vulnerable shoreline. There was a string attached: public beach access.
Never, declared the residents association; we'll get the money for the dune from other sources or pay for it ourselves. (Breezy itself already has built a 7-foot-high dune on one stretch of oceanfront.)
Denise Neibel, assistant manager, notes that Breezy Point is private property: "Would you want people walking through your backyard?''
• Breezy is simple.
Once a low-slung bastion of sandy, damp, unpretentious beach living, Breezy will become higher (because of new flood insurance requirements) and grander (because of human nature).
Post-Sandy FEMA insurance maps have raised the minimum ground-floor height by several feet. Those who rebuild probably will want to go higher, anyway, especially since finished basements are no longer allowed.
Some new houses will loom over their older neighbors. The one Sue Flynn of New Jersey is building in the fire zone rises above its surroundings like a disdainful monarch. It takes eight steps just to reach her front door; you can saunter into one of Breezy's vintage bungalows almost without lifting a foot.
WATER, FIRE, WIND AND ASH
Breezy Point residents long took pride in having dodged some of the worst storms. That immunity, whatever its explanation, ended with Sandy.
The storm did not kill anyone here. But the surge lifted houses off foundations and pushed them into each other. It opened sinkholes and dislodged cesspools. It carried off decks, smashed in windows and filled basements.
And it sparked an electrical fire in "The Wedge,'' an older section whose frame houses on small lots separated only by foot paths (there are no streets, just a peripheral parking lot) were perfect for a fire.
House by house, Ocean Avenue exploded in flame: No. 168, the Tullys; 165, the Strongs; 160, the Dwyers; and 153, Helen Graham's, right on the fire line; the house was destroyed, the back deck and the furniture on it were spared.
Gusts up to 70 mph drove the fire, rousting people who had climbed to second floors and onto decks to escape the flood. Some jumped porch to porch to stay above the water and ahead of the flames.
The blaze ignited telephone poles, melted siding, bent porch rails. Gas lines melted, ruptured and exploded, sending flames 10 stories into the air. Smoke obscured almost everything, including the sight of the Empire State Building.
Breezy was defenseless. Local fire companies' equipment was disabled, and the New York Fire Department, which had moved its trucks out of the evacuation zone before the storm, was unable to get through afterward because of high water.
The following summer, there were no Fourth of July fireworks.
But Father Vincent Biaggi's Sunday morning "deck Mass'' moved down Oceanside Avenue from Katie Gallagher's, which burned, to Tom Blair's.
The annual Teen Show went on, even though some of the talent had to commute to rehearsal twice a week from the mainland.
Some people who lost homes came back and camped in their empty lots for the Labor Day parade. One family displayed a poster board photo of their old house.
And a beloved seaside beer-and-burgers joint called the Sugar Bowl, which was destroyed, reopened on weekends with a tent, an outdoor grill and a bar in a converted metal shipping container. New name: the Sugar Cube.
'WHAT YOU HAD'
A year later, rebuilding plans have been filed for only a third of the homes lost to floor or fire. The Wedge is a graveyard of empty lots and foundation walls, relieved by a few new house frames and some construction fences. A couple of trees are standing corpses, limbs black from the fire.
Breezy faces the familiar impediments to rebuilding, such as insurance disputes over water damage and uncertainty over FEMA's final minimum elevations, as well as some that are uniquely Breezy.
Building plans must be approved by the residents association before going to the city, which was slow to expedite its review process. And because many of the streets (including Helen Graham's) are not on the city planning map, they required a special building permit that added months of delay. (In July, the state granted a waiver.)
So if Breezy is off its knees, it's not yet on its feet. Helen slips between past and present tense: "This was like a kids' camp. There's always something to do. No one here should be fat.''
She lives in Brooklyn. When she visited her lot last week, she thought of a woman she saw after the storm, digging for some lost item in the ashes of her home.
"Makes you sad,'' she continued, referring now to the place her husband never lived to see, but her grandchildren loved so much. "That's when you realize what you had - when you've lost it.''
"Down in that sand,'' she said, pointing, "is a wrought-iron frying pan that I know is in one piece.''
For her, rebuilding won't be restoring. The new house will have everything from central air conditioning to granite kitchen countertops; her '20s "beach shack'' lacked heat and insulation. The kitchen had a prewar linoleum floor and small, antique appliances. The furniture came with the house when she bought it in 1991.
"It was the kind of place where you'd sweep out the sand,'' she says. "You didn't worry about anyone breaking anything or getting it dirty. You could relax.''
Looking at her lot, the only thing Helen Graham recognized was the gaping mouth of the water main. Even the weeds were new.
She said she felt old to be building a new house. But she's encouraged by the faith of neighbors like the Cooks, who have put up their old mailbox in their vacant lot at 11 Irving Walk, pending their return.
Helen will start over and hope that the luck of the Irish will reassert itself here, on a spit of beach at the edge of a nation where once the most luckless people in Europe established a reputation for good fortune.
After the fire, her son found in the ruins a round handmade metal "Welcome" sign with a fish on it. He saved it, in case his mother decided to rebuild.
It's not all that will hang again.
When the old house burned, so did the seascapes Helen painted, including one of the grandchildren on the beach. The kids are grown now, but she'll paint again, she says, because when the new house is ready, she'll need to fill the walls.