Kelly Cares helps reconstruct community center in Sandy-hit area

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

BREEZY POINT, N.Y. — Keir Johnson wrestles with the term “normal” and how it might apply to his Breezy Point community 23 months after Hurricane Sandy ransacked its comfort zone.

“We used to consider ourselves the little secret of New York City,” said the 39-year-old Johnson, still living out of his in-laws' house in Maspeth, N.Y., but as connected as ever to the soul of a community that features the second-highest percentage of Irish-Americans in the U.S. (60.3 percent) and a resilient fight to go with it.

There are still homes to be rebuilt, infrastructure to resurrect, insurance claims to haggle over in the middle-class, gated enclave.

But at 4 o'clock every Thursday, the men who work for the community cooperative — an organization that makes this Queens town at the tip of the Rockaway Peninsula in New York an independent of sorts — line up to cash their checks.

And in the heart of the community, literally and figuratively, on Saturdays the Rockaway Point Breezy Point Catholic Club is reverberating again, celebrating the community's climb toward full restoration and, just as fervently, Notre Dame football.

The eighth-ranked Irish played Syracuse Saturday night, just 33 miles to the northwest, at MetLife Stadium, home of New York's two NFL franchises, the Jets and the Giants.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, though preoccupied with the ACC's Orange, is cheering right back at Breezy Point. And not just in spirit.

Five and a half months after 12 percent of the 2,637 homes were destroyed by fire and/or water damage from Sandy and hundreds more left in a chronic state of disrepair, Kelly took an impromptu visit to the community and promptly pledged $225,000 from the Kelly Cares Foundation to help rebuild the Catholic Club.

“We were in New York City for a big fundraiser,” Kelly said. “And a couple of friends of ours invited us to tour Breezy Point. We saw the devastation, and then they brought us over to the Catholic Club and said, 'This is where we watch Notre Dame football games.'

“So that was the hook — here we have the Notre Dame football coach, and we have nowhere to watch Notre Dame football games. But it was more than that. It's where they had wedding receptions, Boy Scout troop meetings, first Communions and confirmations.

“The important time of people's lives were wrapped up in that building, and it needed to be rebuilt. We could make an impact in this entire community by rebuilding one building, and it would touch everybody.”

“They had shown so much moxie and determination,” Kelly's wife, Paqui, said. “All they needed was a little push to get all the way back.”

Johnson is the president of the Catholic Club, formed in 1922, and said that had the Kelly Cares Foundation not intervened, the community would have had the resilience and determination to rebuild the center, but not the funds.

Not yet, anyway.

“You're talking hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Johnson said. “We're still getting bills and paying them.”

The center initially fared better than many of the other structures and residents of Breezy Point.

Sandy, the second costliest storm in U.S. history ($65 billion) behind only Katrina, gained strength coming out of the Caribbean, cartwheeled its way north/northeast off the Eastern Seaboard before making landfall on Oct. 29, 2012.

While many community members had nothing but ash to show for a lifetime of memories and possessions and others watched their cars float down the street and into the Atlantic or Jamaica Bay, the Catholic Club initially sustained substantial water damage, but it was compounded by the fact the repairs couldn't be done right away.

The Rockaway Point Volunteer Fire Department, the club's next-door neighbor, was on lower ground than the club, so they immediately moved their operations to the Catholic Club and used it as a makeshift fire station for a couple of days.

“After that, we had them staying in there, either volunteer firefighters or emergency personnel would literally be sleeping in there,” Johnson said. “We also became a donation center.

“People were donating clothing, paper towels, cleaning supplies. And people were coming in to get them. This went on for literally a month and a half after the storm.

“So the damage we had, while other people were gutting and cleaning, ripping up walls, we couldn't do that. The good of the community has got to come before the good of the establishment. A building's a building. People matter the most.”

On April 22, Brian and Paqui Kelly returned to Breezy Point, to see those people at a ribbon-cutting ceremony that was heavy in hugs, handshakes and even some tears.

“It was a great sense of relief,” said Tim Devlin, a Breezy Point contractor who was born in Northern Ireland, immigrated to the U.S. in 1986 and settled in Breezy Point 10 years later.

“It just was a really, really cool day. Most of the older people were very emotional.”

Most of the older people remember when Breezy Point was more of a place where people had summer homes. Johnson said when he was growing up, it had evolved to around 50-50, full-time residents and those who lived there seasonally. He estimates it now has around 80 percent full-timers.

“In a lot of ways, Breezy Point is never going to be the same after Sandy,” Johnson said. “But I think we're closer knit than we've ever been before.”

Closer-knit and more resilient.

In times of deep adversity, they became the Fighting Irish.

And the Kellys weren't the only ones who noticed their pluck. Gaelic rock stars, Irish corporations and even the government of Ireland rewarded Breezy Point's enduring spirit with money to help rebuild.

“Maybe this was Ireland's way of repaying all the kindnesses from America over the years,” said Devlin, whose family relocated to an apartment in the Bay Ridge area of Brooklyn for a year.

That included finding a new school for his then-middle-school-aged son.

Devlin was also one of the handful of people who walked with Brian Kelly around the community a few days before St. Patrick's Day 2013, when the coach decided to get involved.

“Growing up in Northern Ireland, I didn't even know football,” Devlin said. “And while a lot of people in the community really love Notre Dame — it's really New York's college football team — I didn't watch a lot of games until I met Brian Kelly.

“I was impressed with him. He was down to earth. He was concerned. He was the kind of person you lived next door to.”

Johnson echoed those sentiments, but admits that it is out of the community's comfort zone to be in such a lasting and broad spotlight.

“Now the whole country and a good part of the world knows the name of your little small area,” he said. “It's a little strange.”

Which, in turn, distances them from normalcy.

Devlin too pondered the word “normal” when thinking about the place he has grown to love.

“I'm not sure that we're back to normal,” he said. “But I know that we're blessed.”


The Rockaway Point Breezy Point Catholic Club in Queens, NY, a few months after the ribbon cutting ceremony that the Kelly Foundation helped fund the reconstruction after Hurricane Sandy, and new construction in the part of Breezy Point devastated by fire, Friday, September 26, 2014. (Photo provided)
New construction in the part of Breezy Point devastated by fire with Pete Maloney (a Syracuse graduate, 1986) at the controls of an excavator working on the foundation for a new home, Friday, September 26, 2014. (Photo provided)