By Meghan Barr
On a desolate stretch of sand and concrete rubble in a beachfront community, a lone home is rising amid the ruins of nearly 130 houses that burned to ashes during Superstorm Sandy.
Nine months after the fire tore through Breezy Point, a neighborhood of tightly packed homes in New York City, this house is the only one under construction in the burn zone, the swath of homes that went up like tinderboxes during the storm.
Rows of rectangular boxes sunk into the sand form a graveyard of wrecked homes. American flags waving feebly from the ground help mark where a street once existed.
"That fire zone is the one scar out of all of this that won't go away," said Kieran Burke, a firefighter whose home was destroyed in the blaze. "These aren't just beach homes. These are people's lives. This is a way of life."
A perfect storm of government inefficiency, cumbersome permit laws and general confusion has hampered the recovery effort in Breezy Point, which became a symbol of the storm's devastation after images of the charred neighborhood were broadcast to the rest of the world.
As Sandy battered the East Coast, its storm surge destroyed homes and cost billions in damage.
Sparked when rising water flooded one home's electrical system, the fire swept unchecked through the area as it was inundated with surging seawater, preventing fire trucks from entering Breezy to stop it. Nearly 130 homes were reduced to blackened rubble. A photograph of a statue of the Virgin Mary that survived the fire became an iconic image of the storm's wrath.
About 350 of the nearly 3,000 homes in Breezy Point were wrecked beyond repair from flood or fire during the storm. But while many of the flooded homes began repairs months ago, the people who once lived in the fire zone are stuck in no-man's land.
Some homeowners have filed plans to rebuild, but few have been approved by the city or by the Breezy Point Cooperative, which runs the neighborhood.
Some people are battling with insurance companies. Others waited months for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to finalize its newly updated flood maps, which put Breezy Point in a more stringent flood zone with higher elevation requirements. And still more are waiting for the government and the cooperative to approve a long list of permits and plans that stand in the way of starting construction.
Meanwhile, homeowners like Burke are struggling to afford rental housing on top of the mortgage that they're still paying on a pile of sand.
"We're paying a mortgage, we're paying real estate tax, we're paying insurance, we're paying everything," said Burke, who has been renting a house in suburban Yonkers with his wife and two young sons. "So basically we're living a dual life. We have two homes, and we never prepared for that."
Burke's grandparents owned his two-story home, and like many Breezy abodes, it was passed down through the generations. During the storm, he waded through flooded streets and helped rescue neighbors before narrowly escaping his own home as it caught fire.
"I'm 41 years old and we're dipping into retirement funds," he said. "A lot of people are actually going broke over this."
Adding to the confusion is the fact that many Breezy homes were built on unmapped streets, which means that they have to apply for a special permit from the state to rebuild.
"It's good for morale to see a house going up," said A.J. Smith, a spokesman for the cooperative. "But we really need the buildings department to act on some of these plans."
Building plans began moving forward in recent weeks after the city resolved some issues with the cooperative that had been delaying plans, such as agreeing on a market value of each home in Breezy, said Peter Spencer, spokesman for the Mayor's Office of Housing Recovery.
"We have been working closely with the co-op board on getting things expedited," Spencer said. "It's one big area that has to be handled as a massive redevelopment."
The home that's under construction is owned by Sue Flynn, a mother of two who has summered in Breezy with her family since she was a baby. The Flynn family was luckier than others, she said, because they rebuilt their home in 2010 and already had the required permits and building plans.
But it's lonely being the only house on the block.
"It won't be the same until our neighbors are back," Flynn said. "And I know they'll come back. It's a strong group."
It's been a quiet summer in Breezy, where children roam the streets barefoot and everybody knows their neighbors by name. The Fourth of July fireworks display was canceled. The beach is still manned by lifeguards, but there aren't many people in the water this year.
Residents are hopeful that progress will come soon. The Flynns' home is expected to be completed this fall.
"I was a little wary about being the first to build. But once I got the positive feedback from the community, I was really happy about it," Flynn said. "Because I'm very happy to be in a position to show that we can make progress and growth."
In the coming weeks, Burke plans to submit building plans to the government for his new home. He'd love to be back for Christmas but realizes that's unlikely.
No matter how long it takes, he's determined to make it home.
"For a neighborhood that's going through all of this turmoil," he said, "people are fighting to come back."