By Keturah Gray and Jim Dubreuil
When we were sent out on Monday afternoon to report on the “holdouts” of Hurricane Sandy — those who refused to leave their homes despite New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s mandatory evacuation orders — we expected winds and rain, but thought it was nothing that we couldn’t handle.
We had our bottled water, our rain gear, our chips and were ready to tough out the storm with the citizens of Breezy Point, a beach town in Queens on the far end of New York City, and a place where Jim has family.
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We were two of the last to arrive over the Marine Parkway Bridge before it closed to the public at 2 p.m. ET, and we joined up pretty quickly with 30-year-old Mary Lepera. She gave us a tour of the neighborhood and explained why she, like so many others, planned to stick out Hurricane Sandy at home: She’d spent her whole life there and wasn’t about to abandon her home.
“We’re sticking it out,” she said. “Even if we have to go up on our roof, we’ll do it.”
A lot of people kind of felt that they had jumped through hoops for Irene, and this time, they weren’t going to do it. And there was just this feeling that the storm was going to be like any other storm that hits the East Coast. It wasn’t going to be the Super Storm that had been portrayed — but that’s not what happened.
Over the course of the next few hours, though, Breezy Point became a literal lightning rod in the storm, battered by winds, rain and fire. At least 80 homes were destroyed in the beachfront neighborhood and we got caught in the chaos.
The last thing anyone imagines is a fire breaking out. But that’s exactly what happened.
Jim DuBreuil: I remember looking out the window around 8:30 at night, and all of a sudden, we just saw this … it seemed like we were in a national forest where you see all those fires with timbers flying around. It was off in the distance and at 8:20 at night, I wasn’t thinking this is going to affect us. But as each hour progressed, the storm, the fire was just coming closer and closer and God, you [Keturah Gray] looked at me and said, “We’re getting the hell out of here,” and I was like, “Yeah, let’s go.” I got a trash can and we threw in garbage bags and all of our camera equipment in it. The family we were with did the same and we were out the door.
Keturah Gray: I just remember when I first saw that fire thinking we have water on one side of the house, we have a TON of water on the back side of the house, and we have a fire that is inevitably going to get closer because of all of the winds. I was just like, “What do we do? Where do we even begin? Do we take this route or this route?” I was so worried about the people that I knew, because we had been down that beach earlier that afternoon. There were a lot of people in that line of fire, and I just didn’t know how they were going to get out.
Jim DuBreuil: I kind of think where we got lucky was the tide started going down. The water was much higher at 8 o’clock and then by 9 o’clock and 10 o’clock it was just easier to get around. Where the water would’ve been up to our chins, the water was finally at our waist. We put on our backpacks and got our trashcan and headed out of there.
Keturah Gray: I think I was the first one that was like, we need an escape plan, but I also didn’t know if I was going to be strong enough to walk through the water.
Jim DuBreuil: Timbers are flying and there’s 80 mph winds coming at you as you’re going through the waves. You’re trying to get through the flood and the fire’s behind you and I just remember looking at you and going “don’t look back, don’t look back.”
Keturah Gray: The water was receding, but the fire was becoming stronger. We were walking against the current, which was really hard, and we’re carrying a trash can and a lot of other people had babies they were carrying and bags.
Jim DuBreuil: I think it could’ve been absolutely chaotic and hell on earth at one point, but everyone got together. People were helping each other and going “OK, we’re going to get you out.” We were moving from one spot to the next. When we got to our first evacuation spot, which was maybe 100 meters away from the first house we were at, I could smell kerosene. They told us there’s a gas pump nearby. At that point, the fire has moved and the embers are now coming in to the fire and Keturah looked at me again and was like, “Let’s get the out of here.” It just seemed the fire was following us. We finally got to a Roman Catholic Church and, for me, that was the moment when I was like, “We’re going to be all right. These people are going to be all right and we’re going to get out of here.”
Keturah Gray: That’s when they said nobody can stay. You are leaving this time. And everybody that we were with, for the most part, were happy to hear those words.
Jim DuBreuil: I think it’s easy to look at people like this and say, “Gosh, why didn’t they heed the warning,” but I think these people just love their community so much and they take care of each other, that they just didn’t want to leave and they didn’t think it was going to be bad and I think they realized that they made a mistake. But again, they could’ve never predicted a huge fire. The people of Breezy Point will come back and rebuild.