As the year’s end approaches, the holiday season is already upon us. It’s a time for family and friends, and for giving thanks to those people and things around us that perhaps go unnoticed or unappreciated in any other season. It’s also a time for reflection and remembrance.
This is the first episode of The Weekly Flickr, a new series by Yahoo! Studios that will each week showcase the work of one or many members within the Flickr community. Today, we go behind the lens with Stephen Nessen, radio reporter and photographer for WNYC New York Public Radio.
He tells us the story behind the photos he took while on assignment just days after Hurricane Sandy demolished Breezy Point in Rockaway, Queens. For most of us, these are ordinary things that we see in our day-to-day lives and sometimes pass by without giving too much credence. But to the people in Breezy, these items are now symbols for future hope.
The Breezy Point Blaze
The waterfront community of Breezy Point was one of the areas hit hardest by Sandy after a fire broke out and burned more than 100 homes to the ground.
“It was a massive fire. Hundreds of firefighters from all over the area came out to fight this blaze but the fact was the whole area was already flooded, so firefighters could not get close enough to extinguish the fire,” Nessen details in the accompanying interview. “What was even more tragic about it is that many firefighters actually have homes there. So these firefighters, many of whom fought on 9/11 extinguished the World Trade Center, they watched their houses go up in flames and stood by and there was nothing they could do about it.”
Nessen visited the beachfront Queens neighborhood as soon as it was safe enough for people to finally return home. That day turned out to be Wednesday, October 31 — two days after the storm hit.
“It looked like a war zone,” Nessen says. “There was sort of an eery silence and then you’d hear someone crying…. And the smell, a mix of sea salt and gas and just burning smoldering trash.”
But as he continued his journey through the stricken community what he found, and captured in his photos, were images of survival, resilience and a community bound for rebirth.
When the Ordinary Become Extraordinary
He found and photographed items that somehow survived the massive fire: three religious statues, handmade wooden signs, a grandmother’s corning ware dish and a holiday plate given as an anniversary gift.
“As I was walking around this blackened rubble I came across this set of three religious statues and it was quite remarkable because all around it were burned out buildings that were still smoldering with smoke. Yet these religious statues are almost perfectly intact,” Nessen explains. “For the people that live in the area seeing a religious statue survive through the fire definitely is an inspiration and definitely gives them a hope about rebuilding in the future.”
The handmade signs he photographed were made by a man who has lived in Breezy for more than three decades with his wife Annette.
“I met the man who built the signs, Walter Connolly. They are made of wood. Everything in this area burned to the ground but somehow these road signs didn’t burn.”
The couple’s home did not burn to the ground during the hurricane, but was left unlivable due to water damage.
Today, Walter and Annette tell Nessen they are “still looking for a decent apartment in Bay Ridge…. As far as progress on our home we have begun to gut out the house this week as we had to wait for insurance adjusters to give the okay.”
To date, most of the debris remains at all the destroy homes in the Breezy point community.
During his visit to Breezy, Nessen also met firefighter Kieran Burke, whose home was completely destroyed in the fire.
“He was a firefighter on 9/11,” says Nessen. “This is a guy who has seen tragedy, who has seen destruction.”
As Nessen watched Kieran sift through the rubble of what used to be his home, the firefighter finds a remnant that signals hope.
“A Christmas plate that his wife made on their second wedding anniversary,” Nessen says. “This little little plate, brought him so much joy and it was like great this survived, we are going to be okay.”
Burke is currently living in an apartment in Brooklyn, according to Nessen.
Breezy’s Coming Back: Hope for the Future
“This is loss, this is love, this is all the stuff stories are made of,” Nessen says. “I am absolutely convinced that Breezy point will be back. They are coming back, they are already out there, they are already cleaning up. This is a hard working community sort of blue collar workers who know how to get the job done.”
Stephen Nessen’s photostream can be viewed here.