Hurricane Sandy flooded buildings, shut down subways and devastated neighborhoods, perhaps none more than Breezy Point, a coastal enclave in Queens leveled by a fiery blaze during the height of the storm. In its wake, Rep. Bob Turner, a Republican from Queens, and Mike Long, the chairman of the Conservative Party, had each lost a home in the neighborhood. The men described to City & State managing editor Jon Lentz how they made it out, how state and federal government has responded and whether global warming played a role in the hurricane.
What follows is an edited transcript.
City & State: Were you there when the fire started?
Bob Turner: We have a house built for hurricanes. We were sitting there reading our Kindles. The electricity had gone out, and I noticed a glow out through the window. The way that wind was going, there was no stopping it, and at that point there was really only one way out, which was down the walk past the fire. The tidal surge was such that it would have been impossible to swim against it or wade through it at that height. We walked, after a fashion—swam, walked, climbed. There was very little rain. The wind was blowing so hard that whatever rain just dissipated into some kind of mist. I evacuated through that storm and to my daughter’s house about a quarter of a mile away, deep water. At about 8 o’clock, when this was now out of control, the emergency and fire vehicles could not penetrate that. And it wasn’t for a couple hours that the water went down from what I would guess was four and a half or five feet to around three feet and they got the trucks through. They were ready to go, but had they brought the trucks in, in that water, they would have stalled and it would have been even worse. It took them a while to get to it, and they were heroic. They got water on it from several points. The heat could be felt from blocks away.
Mike Long: I evacuated on Saturday. It was myself and my kids; they have homes down there too, and they evacuated also.
CS: Have you been back?
ML: I went back to look at the entire area, which is a disaster. Where my house was, it was almost like there was a bombing raid, and all of the houses are just gone. They just burned right to the ground. And I’m sort of in the middle of the 111 houses that burned down. One of my sons had a house there also. It’s kind of surreal; it’s kind of hard to fathom, kind of hard to understand. Before we left, we tied everything down because of the storm that was coming. You believe you’re going to possibly get some weather damage and some damage from winds and all. It never entered into anyone’s mind it was going to be probably the worst residential fire in the history of the city of New York. No one was killed and no one was hurt, and that’s the bright side of the whole thing.
CS: Were you able to salvage anything?
ML: Nothing. Nothing is left. Nothing is left.
BT: Oddly, the next day, we found a box of pictures for our youngest son. We’re looking at a pile of muddy ashes. I don’t know what’s in there. It’s going to be a while before I go or even ask somebody to sift through it. I can’t imagine there would be much left.
CS: Have you been able to help out others?
BT: This is one of the most gratifying things is the relief effort. Just getting things to not only Breezy Point, but right along the Rockaways, Broad Channel and Gerritsen Beach, Manhattan Beach, it was a problem. Brooklyn was a little easier for them to get things in and out of. The Rockaways were a nightmare. But everybody did their thing. They brought, spontaneously, clothing and extra food to churches and halls, and organized their own relief effort. That was in effect Tuesday morning, before noon, and we evacuated out and then came right back after getting some dry clothes and a meal, and I would say it was all of Tuesday, all of Wednesday, all of Thursday; it wasn’t until late Friday that we started seeing government, excluding police, fire and sanitation. New York did a spectacular job in getting that out. I haven’t been able to get to everybody every day, but at least one stop in every neighborhood every day.
CS: How has the storm response been?
ML: I can only speak for Breezy Point right now. The first responders were tremendous. The fire department came there, and if it wasn’t for the fire department, it would have been a lot more than the 111 homes that burned. I don’t know how they were able to fight the fire as they did. They were in three to four feet of water trying to put out the largest residential fire in the history of the city of New York, and because they were able to put up a wall and stop the spread of the fire, they were able to save a lot of people’s homes and prevent a lot more devastation. They did a phenomenal job. If you go around and look at Staten Island and the Rockaways and New Jersey, it seems that the federal government has been a little slow in response, but I’m not sure how fast they could [have gotten there]. The first priority was to get heat and generators to these people. I think we failed at doing that. Many people didn’t listen to the cry of the governor and the mayor to evacuate, and they should have evacuated. They made problems a little bit worse. Some people had no place to go.
CS: Any thoughts on the federal response? New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie talked about how helpful President Obama has been.
BT: Oh, horses–t. Come on. I mean, they were there with forms in their hands, telling them to fill out the form, 40 minutes to fill out the forms. The form takers are not the caregivers. And holding the Red Cross for about 72 hours, and they were ready to roll, didn’t seem to be a major help to the situation. I saw a FEMA person—and these are dedicated, really well-intentioned people—she drove all the way from New Orleans to find our command center in the Rockaways, and from there she’s going out to damage assessments in the Rockaways. I said, “Come back here, I want to give you some advice: Take off your FEMA jacket, put on another jacket, and do your job, but if you wear that jacket they’re going to be in your face to a point where you aren’t going to be able to get your job done.” I think she understood, and took heed, and went out and got her job done.
CS: Are you planning to rebuild?
BT: Absolutely. The difficulty is … when people build a single house out here, they have to go through 17 layers—and it is 17—of licensing and permits. I spoke to the mayor and told him you’ve got to help us out here and find some common ground. The bureaucracy just gets slower and slower. So I didn’t walk out with a signed pledge, but I think he’s going to be helpful in that regard, so we can streamline and expedite the procedures.
ML: Right now we plan to rebuild. My hope is that we can rebuild, and that’s where we are. It was home for 37 years. We raised my kids down there. We spent a lot of summers and weekends and had great memories and great times down there, so I’d like to rebuild it if possible.
CS: There’s been some discussion about curtailing development along coastal areas.
BT: It’s really one of the best places in the world to live. It’s beautiful scenery, and for the most part you can build for these contingencies. Breezy has existed down there; where my house is, there was a house more than 100 years. We’re just going to have to build with these types of things in mind. It will be a different type of construction and different types of homes.
ML: In the back of your head you do think about rebuilding and you’re concerned that, Would this happen again? I was there for 37 years. We went through a lot of storms; yes, we had some flooding at times. We got hit by hurricanes, but nothing like this. Besides the 111 houses that were burned to the ground, there’s probably about 300 houses that were knocked off their foundations from the surge of the water. In the years I was there, nothing like that has ever happened. And that’s a long time. The surge of the water was very, very large. It’s like a mini tsunami hitting these homes and knocking them off their foundations.
CS: Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. Andrew Cuomo have talked about the effects of global warming in the wake of the hurricane. Do you think that played a role?
ML: I think what would be best accomplished is to get everybody settled first, get everybody who’s homeless and out of a home into a home, get everybody who needs heat and hot water and showers and food, and take care of that first. And then let’s talk about what caused this. There’s no evidence and no proof that it is global warming, but I don’t think that’s a debate that should be had at this stage of the game. Certainly nature raises its head. It’s a severe storm, something we’ve never seen before here in New York, to my knowledge, and I don’t think we need to have a discussion on whether global warming is at fault. There’s plenty of time for that. People are making a real mistake by raising that issue at this stage of the game.
BT: You have two parts of global warming. On one, we have scientific measurements that there is global warming, and there is a both water temperatures and some average temperatures that are up maybe a degree in the past 20 years. Even the smallest of these—and it fits into historical and geological eras, and I am reasonably sure we’re going through a warm period; whether it’s temporary or long-term, I don’t know. Part B is the anthropogenic, where this is the man-made hydrocarbons that are changing the environment—I don’t know. We’ve spent billions trying to prove that, and the best we’ve come up with is scientific opinion. Now, the reason we have science is we don’t need opinion, but we haven’t been able to demonstrate that yet. And the levels of hydrocarbons are so miniscule that it takes a leap to say this is the cause; so before we rechannel all of our industry and lifestyles, I think we’re going to have to continue to prove the case, and I think all of the abuse and fraud on the part of many people who are getting these grants is a little telling.
CS: Congressman, you have only a few more weeks in office. What has been your biggest accomplishment?
BT: I think we sent a wonderful statement early on to this administration that is greatly appreciated, in a number of areas here and as far away as Israel, and I guess that we got some legislation through. The most important one was part of the Iranian Syrian Sanctions Act where, within that bill, we isolated $1.8 billion in Iranian assets that were frozen here that can be legitimately given to the survivors and the families of the Khobar Towers and the Beirut Marine attacks, which the Iranians were found guilty in the courts for wrongful deaths.
CS: What’s next?
BT: Plan B hasn’t really been worked out yet.