RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
Hurricane Sandy is gone, but millions of Americans are still living through the aftermath. In New York and New Jersey, long lines and plenty of frustration continue at gas stations due to the storm damage. And Martin Kaste will bring us that story in a moment.
MONTAGNE: First, we go to Breezy Point in Queens, New York. It used to be best known as a blue-collar beach town. Now it's known for something else - one of the worst residential fires in New York history.
INSKEEP: More than 100 houses were destroyed as flames were whipped up by 80 mile an hour wind gusts. NPR's Dina Temple-Raston went to Breezy Point to spend the day with the New York City's Fire chief who has a very personal connection to that neighborhood.
DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: Fire chief Joe Pfeifer arrived in Breezy Point on Monday to a harrowing scene.
CHIEF JOE PFEIFER: So, flames shooting 50 feet in the air. The radiant heat would heat up the next building and that building would explode in fire.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Pfeifer was the first fire chief to arrive. It was 11:30 P.M.
PFEIFER: So, very difficult, very hot and very fast moving.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Have you ever seen something like it?
PFEIFER: I have seen fire like that moving quickly on 9/11, but I never saw anything of this magnitude for residential buildings.
TEMPLE-RASTON: They think it might have been an electrical fire. Now, the six square blocks where the houses once stood look like a snapshot from London after the Blitz.
PFEIFER: You see an occasional chimney that's standing up and then everything else is flat.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Joe Pfeifer has been here nearly every day since the fire, trying to help get Breezy Point back on its feet.
(SOUNDBITE OF WAGONS ROLLING)
TEMPLE-RASTON: Residents pull small children's wagons behind them as they walk to where their houses once stood. The wagons roll out empty. There's nothing left to save.
To understand how Hurricane Sandy has affected Joe Pfeifer, you have to know a little bit about the chief's history. He fought fires in Breezy Point as a volunteer when he was just 18. Today, Pfeifer has a weekend house here. So does his son. So do his parents. People here know Chief Joe Pfeifer. Someone calls out from the distance.
BILL RADTKE: Is that you Joe?
RADTKE: Well, I got flooded, I got flooded. We didn't lose our house like this.
DEIDRE RADTKE: Hi, Joe. How are you?
PFEIFER: Hi, Dee.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Bill Radtke and his daughter, Deidre, walk up the path. She points to a long bandage on Pfeifer's face.
RADTKE: What happened?
PFEIFER: I got burnt. A little ember flying around got me...
RADTKE: Yeah, it got you. Oh gosh.
PFEIFER: ...on Monday
TEMPLE-RASTON: It's actually a second degree burn, but Pfeifer doesn't tell them that. He's one of the handful of firefighters who suffered injuries fighting this fire in hurricane-force winds. Miraculously, no one - firefighter or resident - died in the fire. Pfeifer is still gaming out the blaze.
PFEIFER: If I didn't stop it on this corner...
RADTKE: Yeah, you would have lost all them.
PFEIFER: Would have lost your house. It would have gone this side and it would've gone down the other side. I would've lost your place.
RADTKE: Your son's place too.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Pfeifer looks over the field of ash as Bill and Dee walk away.
PFEIFER: And now the question is how does the community recover?
TEMPLE-RASTON: One of the answers can be found in the shopping mall offices where the neighborhood cooperative is trying to organize the local relief effort. They are working with FEMA, city offices and the fire department to get Breezy Point back on its feet.
ARTY LIGHTHALL: We are looking at deliveries and...
TEMPLE-RASTON: That's Arty Lighthall, the general manager of the Breezy Point Cooperative.
LIGHTHALL: We got food drops going on, additional generators. We have water drops. We...
TEMPLE-RASTON: This kind of community coordination, according to Chief Pfeifer, is what's supposed to happen after a disaster. City officials are now helping local leaders get to the next phase, which is recovery. Firefighters, for their part, are no longer just dowsing fires. They're cutting downed trees and getting water out of flood zones and helping local communities learn how to fend for themselves.
PFEIFER: There's a new way of thinking.
TEMPLE-RASTON: A new way of thinking, Chief Joe Pfeifer, says. Since 9/11, preparedness drills and city management teams have helped communities cope.
PFEIFER: Because we have such a large location and many locations around the city that have to be done at the same time, it's really giving it back to the community. And this is going to go on for quite a long time.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Theresa Flannagan used to run bake sales and exercise classes and Halloween parties in Breezy Point. She says people saw the storm coming, but no one imagined it would do the damage that it did. Her house is still under five feet of water. And that dazed feeling is familiar.
THERESA FLANNAGAN: Everybody's just walking around. It reminds me of right after 9/11, the way everybody looks, the fear in their eyes and - scary.
TEMPLE-RASTON: Fire Chief Joe Pfeifer agrees. And he should know; he was the first fire chief to arrive at the World Trade Center on 9/11.
Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.