Wednesday, January 24, 2018
News Roundup

Brooksville prosecutor a leader in Sandy cleanup effort

Six days after Hurricane Sandy devastated the place Erin Daly will always call home, she left her house in Hernando County and went back.

It's a drive that Daly, a prosecutor for the State Attorney's Office in Brooksville, has made thousands of times: into New York City, over the Marine Parkway Bridge and onto the Rockaway Peninsula. Within minutes, she's in the heart of the beach enclave called Breezy Point.

This time, Daly drove her pickup, and husband Bill rumbled behind in a U-Haul truck full of donated supplies.

During the storm, the Atlantic Ocean and Jamaica Bay merged, swamping the peninsula and most of Breezy Point's roughly 2,800 homes. Dozens were destroyed by fire or flooding, and nearly all suffered some damage.

The Dalys have lived in Hernando County for about seven years, but Erin still owns a house there. So do her parents, and a cousin Erin calls her sister.

The couple arrived on Nov. 4. By then, many residents had started piling their ruined belongings outside their houses.

They planned to leave by the weekend.

"All of a sudden it's six weeks later, and I'm still there," Erin recalled last week.

During that time, the former New York state court officer helped lead an effort that came to be known as Operation Breezy Gut and Pump.

Before they could rebuild, Daly and her neighbors had to tear down.

• • •

Born and raised in Brooklyn, Daly spent childhood summers in the family bungalow on Breezy Point. Daly, the elder of two kids, recalls pulling a wagon full of beach supplies down the narrow walkways between homes.

Breezy was mostly a summer community until the 1980s, when more people started winterizing homes and living there full time. Many are firefighters, police officers and other civil servants.

Her father was a cop, her mother a real estate broker. They bought another home there and became full-time residents in 1992.

Daly bought her own bungalow a couple of years later, then upgraded in 1999. Like so many others, her home stood tall and narrow, with two stories and a finished basement. Her cousin Debi moved into her own house about the same time.

By the end of 2001, Erin was a senior court officer for the state court system, coordinating security in a Brooklyn courthouse. On the day the planes destroyed the World Trade Center, she worked an impromptu triage station at the end of the Brooklyn Bridge as thousands of people made their way out of Manhattan.

She and fellow court officers provided security in Manhattan in the subsequent days and weeks, often near Ground Zero, breathing the noxious air.

Breezy residents erected a memorial on the southwest tip of the peninsula to honor more than 30 residents who died in the attack. Daly called a dozen of them her friends.

Ready for a career change, she took the New York City firefighter exam and applied at Brooklyn Law School, ultimately deciding to stick with law. She met Bill Daly, who lived in Tampa, during a trip to Florida in 2004 and graduated two years later.

A business owner and father of four, Bill planned to move to New York. Then Erin landed a job in the Brooksville State Attorney's Office, so they bought a house in western Hernando County. Spunky, blond-haired and 5 feet, 5 inches tall in heels, Daly now prosecutes sex crimes.

As superstorm Sandy lashed Breezy Point on Monday, Oct. 29, Daly tried desperately to reach her cousin. Debi had sent her two teenage girls to stay with friends, but she and her boyfriend remained at the house on Old Oceanside Avenue, despite evacuation orders. Daly's parents, now snowbirds, were already in Florida.

As Daly tried to focus on a trial the next day, she finally got word: Debi and her boyfriend were shaken but fine. They rode out the storm hunkered down in an upstairs bedroom as the water ruined everything below them. The fire that destroyed more than 100 homes in an area known as the Wedge stopped a few blocks from the house.

No one in Breezy Point died.

"God was watching over that place," Daly said.

• • •

Before heading north, Daly put out a call for donated supplies to take with her. Friends, acquaintances and co-workers in the 5th Judicial Circuit responded in force.

The Dalys left on Nov. 2, towing a trailer filled with bottled water, food, gasoline, tools, batteries, generators and sump pumps. It was Erin's 43rd birthday.

They didn't get far before a beam on the loaded trailer broke, forcing them to return home and rent a U-Haul truck the next day.

They arrived in Breezy Point on Sunday afternoon and went straight to Erin's house. The water that had reached the basement ceiling had receded, leaving sand, ruined furniture and other belongings in its wake.

"In the grand scheme, I did really well," she said. "If I'd had to work harder to get my own house fixed, I wouldn't have been able to help other people get their ball rolling."

Water flooded the first floor of her parents' house. Debi's house may be a total loss.

The parking lot of the Point Breeze Fire Department became a command center for volunteers and a place for residents to get supplies and ask for help in the race against mold. Daly helped a friend paint a hand-lettered sign, and Operation Breezy Pump, one of four coordinated volunteer efforts on the peninsula, was under way.

Bill Daly had returned to Florida by then. During the next five weeks, Erin would call her bosses at least three times to ask for an extension.

Daly's co-workers were happy to cover her cases while she helped up North, said Assistant State Attorney Donald "Sonny" McCathran, who leads the Brooksville office.

"We live in Florida, so we know what hurricanes do to people and what it does to property," McCathran said. "We're a coastal county, so that could be us."

More help arrived with each passing day.

Military personnel brought a heated tent. Firefighters came in waves — first from as close as New York City, later from as far away as Louisiana. There were Mormon missionaries, college students and scores of Occupy Wall Street members who temporarily renamed their movement Occupy Sandy.

Boy Scouts delivered bags of toiletries and handmade cards of encouragement. Actor Steve Buscemi, a former New York City firefighter, showed up with his wife.

Daly used a white board and a red notebook to keep track of work requests and assign crews. Most days, they worked on 30 to 40 houses. One day, more than 500 volunteers tackled about 75.

All told, they completed at least 600, Daly said.

The water rose to more than 2 feet in the home of Mary Kelly, a septuagenarian and full-time Breezy resident. Volunteers pulled out sopping furniture and ripped out walls and floors.

"It's amazing what they did for her," said Mary's daughter, Mary Anne Kelly. "There's no way we could have gotten that done ourselves."

Daly was well suited for her role, Kelly said.

"She's always so upbeat," Kelly said. "People would always see her with a big smile."

Daly spent some nights with friends, and many more in the big military tent. On Thanksgiving, a woman showed up with a deep fryer, a dozen turkeys and all the trimmings. That day, the Point Breeze Fire Department made Daly an honorary firefighter.

On Monday, Dec. 10, Daly had lunch with Buscemi and firefighters in Queens. She had to fly home that afternoon, so she couldn't accept the tickets Buscemi offered her to the star-studded 12-12-12 benefit concert to raise money for Sandy's victims.

Daly returned to work on Tuesday to get ready for court the next day. On Wednesday evening, she turned on the concert, but fell asleep after the Rolling Stones and before Buscemi sent a shout-out to Operation Gut and Pump.

The experience, Daly said, reaffirmed what Sept. 11, 2001, taught her. People are resilient, especially when they work as a team.

"The big mess will be cleaned up," she said. "There's hope. If you keep working, it's going to take some time, but it's not insurmountable."

Reach Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (352) 848-1431. On Twitter: @TMarreroTimes and @HernandoTimes.

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