POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Mar 3, 2013
NEW YORK » There were the usual caps dotted with shamrocks; bunting in the green, white and orange of the Irish flag; and the nasal hum of bagpipes. While some of the bands marching in the Rockaways on Saturday were from schools that had been flooded out by Hurricane Sandy and some of the spectators watching from the sidewalks were still living in temporary quarters because their homes were either badly damaged or destroyed, the Queens County St. Patrick's Day Parade seemed to make a special effort to hew to its nearly four decades of tradition.
Yet evidence of the storm's devastation and the peninsula's painful struggles to recover and rebuild just over four months on were inescapable. Green-clad marchers shouted for new jetties to be built, packs of relief workers marched between step dancers and fire trucks, and all along the parade route were the scarred husks of local landmarks consumed by flames on the night of the hurricane.
"We go through problems, but human beings are able to cry and laugh at the same time," Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said before the parade began. "We have to celebrate how far we've come and what the hope is for the future."
Bloomberg, wearing a sash that said "Thanks" in Gaelic, stood with many local politicians and community leaders in front of what was left of the Harbor Light Pub on Newport Avenue in Belle Harbor.
The bar, which became a de facto memorial to the several dozen people from the Rockaways, including a son of the owner, who were killed on Sept. 11, 2001, burned to the ground during the hurricane. Ellen Mendonca noted that just blocks away was the place where American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in November 2001, killing 260 people on board and five on the ground.
"This community has gotten hit by everything," said Mendonca, 60, who was marching with placards calling for barriers to be built along the water, "but we're still walking."
Chugging along Newport Avenue was "Big Jack," the chunky fire truck of the Point Breeze Volunteer Fire Department in Breezy Point. The truck, which had been submerged in seawater as wind-fueled fires incinerated more than 120 homes, had been redone anew. Following the truck were members of the volunteer group Occupy Sandy and a squadron of Mormon volunteers in yellow shirts, who earned shouts of approval from the crowd.
"I feel like part of this community now; these are my families," James Killoran, the executive director of Habitat for Humanity of Westchester, said. "To see what they've gone through, to be there with them, it's an honor." He added that he had been working on rebuilding efforts in the Rockaways for 111 days. Whoops went up as he marched. "It's not easy to suffer with people," he said.
A block from the parade, away from the T-shirts with cheeky Irish slogans and shamrock-painted cheeks, was evidence of the rebuilding efforts. On nearly every block workers toiled away on storm-wrecked homes, the whine of buzz saws competing with the bagpipes keening in the distance.
"When I came back, I cried. I cried," said Grace McGovern, 79, who had fled before the storm and vividly recalled the devastation when she returned. "It hurts, but yet the people, they're so good," she added, watching the parade from a beach chair near a burned-out ruin. "It will come back, it will. And stronger."