BREEZY POINT, Queens — Theresa Nugent, 35, has been living on Breezy Point, a beachside community on Queens' Rockaway Peninsula, almost her whole life. But as of today, she and her husband don't know where they're going next.
"We don't know where we're heading now," Nugent said. She and her husband stood with a few plastic bags of possessions at the entrance to Breezy Point, where you could still walk without getting thigh-deep in water, and their two shivering dogs. Nugent, like many other residents of the Rockaways, refused to leave when the authorities told her to. "If we'd known how bad it would be, we wouldn't have stayed here," she said.
And it was pretty bad. "All my furniture was floating," she said. "Everything was just floating. You should see — some people don't have any part of their house. We were fortunate."
It's a testament to how bad the situation in the Rockaways is that the Nugents are actually the fortunate ones. The city estimates that over 80 houses were burned to the ground in a raging fire last night during the flooding, which overwhelmed the peninsula and prevented firefighters from extinguishing the fires right away. The day after Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc up and down the East Coast, Breezy Point, a relaxed collection of beach bungalows in Queens' most far-flung corner, is the face of the destruction.
The focal point of this destruction is the block on the ocean side of town where a huge swathe of houses have been destroyed.
On Tuesday afternoon, dozens of fire and police vehicles were still on the scene, carting residents back to their houses (or where their houses used to be) and extinguishing whatever still needed to be put out. The ruins of Breezy were still emitting curls of smoke, and an acrid, sweet smell permeated the whole town. It's hard to overstate the destruction; it looked like pictures of war zones. Some houses had become just a front porch and nothing else; one house was just a chimney.
The streets remain flooded, so much so that many of the policemen on hand were in wetsuits. One couple went back to get their belongings in a small rowboat; they could be seen later picking among the charred remains of the houses.
Handfuls of residents were still wandering the streets of Breezy on Tuesday, either finding a way out finally or going back in to find their things.
Andrew Petagna, 21, carried an empty hamper towards the burned-out wreckage. His house was a few over from the fire.
"Listen, I'll talk to you later," Petagna said. He was in flip flops, sludging through the water. "I got two dogs in there."
Maura, 46, who didn't want her last name used, spent the night in the firehouse on Monday after she had escape the rapid flooding of her house.
Staying at home "was dumb," Maura said. "We should have left." The flooding in her house was up to her thighs, she said, and "My sister and brother in law — their houses are down to burning embers right now."
"It came up so fast," Maura said. She was waiting for a ride "back to civilization — anywhere that's warm, with clean clothes and a bed."
"I'm still in shock," she said. "All of a sudden I'm, like, yammering, because I haven't talked to anyone in 24 hours. I just want to tell you — sitting upstairs in the firehouse, watching the sky turn orange and watching the little flicks of ash fly by, and knowing exactly what was going on and not being able to do a damn thing about it..." Maura trailed off.
Nearby, 18-year-old Michael Kirk, a lifelong Breezy resident, was petting a trembling dog with no collar who appeared to be lost or separated from his owner.
"Hopefully someone claims him soon," Kirk said. "I don't want to leave him. I should find him food or something, or a blanket."
Kirk wore sneakers and shorts and had the shell-shocked look of most people in the area.
"My house is one house from the fire," Kirk said. "The most you can do is make sure no one gets left in any of the houses."
The bright spot of the Breezy story is that so far, there have been no reported fatalities. It's a comfort in a situation that appears at first glance unendingly grim, especially considering the reports of looting that are starting to come in from other parts of the Rockaways.
Not that there's much to loot now in Breezy.
"I've been in two wars, so I've seen stuff like this before," said the Verizon representative on the scene, who didn't want his name used ("the company would kill me"). "But not that often."
He couldn't give a timeline for cell service to be restored, though he said that he was having a meeting with the Office of Emergency Management on Tuesday afternoon and that portables were being brought in for the first responders.
People in the area, he said, had been lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that Hurricane Irene didn't do much damage here. "They said 12 feet of water this time, and they weren't playing."
"People wouldn't leave before, but they're getting out now," he said. "They're getting out now."