Sandy's Destruction Brings Big Irish-American Family All Under One Roof

NY Daily News - November 25, 2012

by Irving Dejohn

Hickey family packs one house with 31 relatives after storm destroys six homes in Breezy Point

This close-knit family turned a disaster into an extended reunion. When FDNY firefighter Will Hickey packed his home in New Hyde Park, L.I., with his immediate family the night before Superstorm Sandy struck, he didn't know what to expect the next morning.

"We thought it would be a one night hurricane party," recalled Hickey, 41.

Sandy had other ideas.

All six of Hickey's siblings -- born and bred Breezy Point residents -- were displaced by various degrees of flood damage. His six-person household instantly took on 25 additional occupants.

But despite the cacophony of 14 children chattering, ad hoc sleeping arrangements and cramped quarters, the large Irish-American family sat down for Thanksgiving dinner with much to be thankful for.

"As the days go on you become more reflective," said Hickey, a firefighter with Ladder 120 in Brooklyn. "Money is only paper. Our family is focused on being thankful for what we have."

Since the storm tore most of the Hickeys' collective possessions asunder, the family has seen an outpouring of support from Breezy Point to New Hyde Park.

Nearby restaurants have donated meals, local Little Leagues have collected toys and clothing, and whole fire houses have given their time to help clean out the damaged homes.

"There aren't words to describe the goodness in people," Hickey said. "It's a rebuilding process. You go one day at a time."

For the family, this impromptu living arrangement also represented a return to their humble beginnings decades ago when they all lived in a one-story, three-bedroom abode in Breezy Point.

"We grew up like this. This is a normal Sunday for us," said youngest of the seven siblings, Mary Purpura, a kindergarten teacher.

Routine events like dinner and bed time require expert coordination.

"We take turns. We eat in shifts," said Purpura, 27. "It's nice knowing we're all here to help each other."

Court officer Tommy Hickey, who often sleeps on an air mattress in the dining room with his wife, marveled at how his four young children have absorbed the all-hands-on-deck spirit of banding together during a disaster.

"It's a learning experience for them. All the kids are chipping in and helping," said Tommy Hickey, 33. "They're growing up a little too quick."

Family matriarch Cathy Hickey, 66, said she worries about her six children's long-term plans and the impact the situation will have on her 14 grandchildren.

"The uncertainty is what boggles my mind," she said. "The kids are resilient but every once in a while they will say 'I want to go home.'"

Even more so, the retired legal clerk worries about the future of the wind-swept neighborhood where she raised seven children.

"We don't know if Breezy will be Breezy again," she lamented. "We didn't know how good we had it -- materially, and living near each other."

The seven siblings are slowly starting to disperse, finding temporary housing near their respective jobs and children's schools.

After almost a month of living under one roof, starting anew creates a whole different set of challenges for the Hickey family.

"We were all going through it together, that was really helpful," said Will Hickey's sister, Kathleen Beissel, 40. "After everything we just went through, the hardest part is separating."