The Science of the Perfect Storm

Why this hurricane was able to get so big and so destructive.
3:00 | 10/31/12

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Transcript for The Science of the Perfect Storm
And now we're going to take you inside an incredible event, we first traveled to this community because there were so many people who would not evacuate and then we were there when it became one of the most dramatic stories of the hurricane. A fire burning more than 100 homes to the ground and this is a new york neighborhood home to so many firefighters who were there for 9/11. My colleague and "20/20" co-anchor elizabeth vargas with more. We spent the day today at breezy point, a community of firefighters and first responders with a long history of sacrifice. Last night and early this morning these people who have saved so many from so much were forced to stand by helplessly unable to save themselves from the hurricane's most unexpected destruction. Oh, my gosh. I'm so sorry for your loss. Today the new york neighborhood of breezy point has been reduced to a moonscape. Block after block of this residential area, more than 100 homes, now nothing more than smoldering rubble surrounded by hip-deep water. People were prepared for rain and floods, but no one expected this. Everywhere you look black wreckage, smoldering and it goes on and on for blocks. . New yorkers couldn't find breezy point on a map out on the rockaways peninsula. It's no stranger to tragedy. On 9/11, breezy point lost 29 souls. 20/20" producers jim dubrueil and keturah gray went out yesterday when we heard the whole neighborhood -- there were people who refused to leave. We're not leaving. They'll have to pull me off the top of my roof. Reporter: They found folks like mary lepera. She's lived here all her life, and like most others in breezy point, she was undaunted by the doomsday forecasts. Mary lives in a neighborhood they call the wedge, a cluster of small walkways not wide enough for a car. We're just trying to see all the neighbors that are still here. Reporter: It's 4:00 p.M. We are following as mary checks on the neighbors over on irving walk like 85-year-old annie heslin. We hope we'll be okay. Reporter: Forget evacuating. She's busy baking. All's well next door, too. Clair cook and her boys are settled in. We are fine. Are you going to see puddles with us? Reporter: They've heard officials cry wolf before. Last summer, hurricane irene was supposed to devastate breezy point. But it was a false alarm, just some minor flooding. We built this house. Reporter: Michael o'hanlon down the block isn't worried, and neither is 96-year-old alvina boygel. I've been here since 1960. 1960, wow! Reporter: Mary returns home and settles in. 6:30 p.M. It's dark now. Outside the house, her sister joanne watches the water rising but seems more dismissive than fearful. When there's waves crashing here I'll be concerned. Until then, I'm good. Reporter: But half an hour later everything changes. It's 6:55. The power just went out. We're officially screwed. Reporter: She has no idea how right she is. Plunged into darkness, the wrath of sandy takes hold. The storm surge sends water pouring in hard and fast. The ocean engulfs the neighborhood. Then out of all that darkness mary spots unusual light. We've had to take higher ground. A bunch of homes are on fire. Reporter: Our producers jim and keturah are with the women as a huge blaze breaks out down the block. Breezy point is being destroyed, it feels like. This is like the apocalypse. Reporter: It is now 10:00. With the flames menacing, the forces of nature finally deal a trace of good fortune to the neighborhood. The tides turn and the water mercifully recedes. Low enough for the leperas and others to make a desperate escape. Next time there is a large storm, I'm just going to leave. It's not worth it. Many here expected that there would be flooding. They would have a loss of power but the fire just reported. Reporter: As jim reports from the scene an explosion in the distance. Cars are blowing up. Oh, my god, that's the parking lot where we were. We'd move from one spot to another, and finally we got to a we were all in that church. That was the moment that we thought, we're going to be all right. We don't know where they're going to take it. Reporter: So strong only hours earlier, the residents are now just thankful to have survived. Today firefighters standing watch could barely believe the site of the devastation. Have you ever seen anything quite like this. I haven't seen anything like this in my career. Only thing that came close to this was 9/11. This is right up to the top step. Even people like joanne co-littcolello found she lost the lower level of her house to I flood. I said thank god that we're all alive. Reporter: Battered but not broken, the stoic residents here say they've been tested by tragedy before and are determined to carry on. We'll rebuild here. You know. Reporter: You will. We'll come back. So many of the people we spoke with are vowing to rebuild even amid that total devastation. It is a community with deep roots, and one that is in shock tonight. One resident echoed what senator charles schumer told me this afternoon standing in that rubble, in all the combined experience of every firefighter out there, not a single one had ever seen any fire ever like it. Diane, and it was truly amazing and difficult to reach. And at this point, we know of no reports of any deaths from that fire. As of now no deaths. The evacuations went very, very well. People who did ride it out were quick to recognize the danger, cry uncle and get on those boards and rafts when they came by. And you said as you were heading there, it was like a moonscape. It was like a scorched moonscape, an island of a scorched moonscape surrounded in every direction by floodwaters and then the ocean on the final side, so it was very difficult to get in. It took hours to get in. Once we got there we couldn't believe what we saw. I've never seen anything like that. Stunning report. Thank you very much, elizabeth.

This transcript has been automatically generated and may not be 100% accurate.

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