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Sandy, six months later: Belle Harbor family prepares to start over

Posted: 6:28 PM, May 01, 2013
Updated: 2013-05-01 18:36:14-04

BELLE HARBOR, Queens (PIX11) – Michele Woods lived at 427 Beach 130th Street for about a decade. Her husband Tommy, a New York City firefighter called the house home since the day he was born.

Today, all that remains of the once picturesque three story house is a number spray-painted on the sidewalk in front of any empty plot.

“He doesn’t like to talk about it, it’s hard for him, he’s lived here his whole life,” Michele says.

On the night of October 29th 2012 as Super storm Sandy approached, the Woods family, like many others in Belle Harbor, ignored the mandatory evacuation–determined to wait it out.

They watched and listened as flood waters filled their basement, then the first floor–eventually forcing the family upstairs.

“We had the food and everything, so we were ready to withstand a couple weeks of aftermath, we weren’t ready for the fire,” Michele said.

That fire started on just one block on Beach 129th street. But Sandy’s winds tossed the embers into the air, setting fire to one house after another.

As the flames continued to spread from house to house, Tommy got a phone call from his firehouse. A truck headed to scene met a wall of water.  It was time for the family to leave.

“In New York City the Fire Department responds in 4 minutes right, so you lose a structure, you lose part of another structure, because it spreads, you never lose a block,” she said.

But with firefighters unable to get to the flames, the fire continued to burn, razing more than a dozen homes and businesses in the area. Another fire in nearby Breezy Point destroyed more than 100 homes.

Even after seeing the rubble, Michele says there was never a doubt whether or not the Woods family would return to their Belle Harbor home, but starting over was an uphill battle.

“You have to do a contents list, so everything that you own, that became a second job,” she said.

Michele says she would wake up in the middle of the night thinking of things to add to the list: items that could be replaced, but memories lost forever. Still she managed to complete her list in just two months. Some of her neighbors are still working on theirs.

“The insurance company wants you to rebuild as soon as possible because they pay for you to live elsewhere for the first year,” she said. “So the sooner they can get you back in a house the better off that you are.”

For now the family is renting part of a multi-family home just a few blocks from where their house once stood.

Many neighbors have also returned to the neighborhood, but with new FEMA regulations requiring raised homes, and city restrictions on height requirements, starting over is a challenge.

“It’s causing complications for all of the people here because we haven’t started building because it’s this back and forth with the architects and the city, what can we build, what can’t we build, and so we haven’t been able to start building.”

But in Belle Harbor they’ve already proven they can triumph over tragedy, and depend on one another in times of need.

“That’s why we’re going to be able to rebuild,” she says. “And it’s going to be better than it ever was.”