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Comeback Under Way At Breezy Point 2 Years After Sandy Fire

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- During Superstorm Sandy on the night of Oct. 29, 2012, more than 130 homes were wiped out by a horrific fire in Breezy Point, Queens.

Two years later, CBS 2's Cindy Hsu returned to the community as families have begun to come home.

During Sandy, most of the homes in the Tri-State Area were destroyed by flooding and wind. But late during the night that the storm made landfall nearly two years ago to the day, attention turned to a six-alarm electrical fire in Breezy Point on the Rockaway Peninsula.

Everyone survived the fire, but 130 homes burned to the ground – to the point where only their concrete foundations remained. Wood was reduced to ash, trees were rendered charred stumps, and metal was left melted.

CBS 2 talked to families shortly after the blaze.

Marie Loprestie, now 73, was digging through the rubble of her home on Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012 – two days after the storm. She determined to find something – anything. She found a single plate.

"It's a plate I had in there. I didn't even like it," she said tearfully. "Thank you. Thank you."

Loprestie had lived in Breezy Point for 34 years, in a row of houses just a block or two from the beach. But after the fire, those houses were gone, replaced by a charred hole of dust and ash that resembled the scene after a bomb detonates.

The blaze was defined by "fire flames shooting up in the air 100, feet and moving quickly to the west driven by the hurricane," said Fire Department Assistant Chief Joseph Pfeifer said at the time.

Loprestie was in her house with two neighbors.

"We thought we could fight it -- at least we would have everything we owned," she said at the time. "But then the fire started coming and we couldn't fight that."

CBS 2's Hsu found Loprestie again a year later, at which point the rebuilding had barely begun. But two years later, homes were going up – and Loprestie moved back to her neighborhood three months ago.

"I still want my old house back," Loprestie said. "At least now, I mean, it feels good that there are neighbors all around."

Right across the street is Cathy Brennan.

"I just got back into my house and I'm so excited, so excited," she said. "Like, I'm pinching myself this horror is over."

But it's not over for everyone. Two years later, only 30 people had been able to rebuild and move back.

"The city's Build It Back program has not been nearly as fast as we'd like it to be," claimed A.J. Smith of Breezy Point.

Thus, many of the families have found other ways to rebuild -- without the assistance of Build It Back.

Arthur Lighthall is the general manager of the Breezy Point Cooperative, and said everyone has been his or her their own thing.

"This house here was stick built -- meaning built from wood," Lighthall said. "The one right behind it, that house came in a week ago. It was a modular house that came in and they dropped it and put it on a foundation."

But this time, the houses all have sprinkler systems and they are much higher.

"Now I'm 6-foot-2, and so this deck is just clearly 6-foot, so this home is raised about 6 feet high off the sidewalk," Lighthall said as he examined one house.

The foundations now have open areas below, so that another storm surge would flow under the house. If the foundation is solid, flood vents are required.

And Breezy Point is about the only place where neighbors welcome the sound of construction.

"It's a good noise," said Joanne Lepera of Breezy Point. "They may wake us up in the morning on Saturday but knowing our neighbors are going to come back -- it's always a great sign."

Mayor Bill de Blasio's office took issue with some residents' criticism of the Build It Back program.

"As a result of Mayor de Blasio's overhaul, Build it Back has made significant progress -- with nearly 800 homeowners now in construction and over 1,000 reimbursed, compared to none at the beginning of the year," a city spokeswoman said in a statement. "We have much more work to do, and Build it Back will continue to expedite relief until every homeowner is served."

The Mayor's office said de Blasio has made "sweeping changes" to streamline the Build It Back program, and "countless" homeowners have seen progress. The first completed Build It Back rebuilding project was in Breezy Point this year, and dozens more homes are now in construction in the neighborhood, the Mayor's office said.

The hope is that half the families will be back home by the end of the year. But community leaders said it will likely take about two more years to get everyone back home.

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