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Despite Sandy, Queens family is giving thanks -- together

By David Ariosto, CNN
updated 10:42 AM EST, Thu November 22, 2012
Kate Rigaut's home in Belle Harbor, New York after Superstorm Sandy barreled through the region.
Kate Rigaut's home in Belle Harbor, New York after Superstorm Sandy barreled through the region.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The Rigaut family was one of many to lose their home on the Rockaway Peninsula
  • The home, built in 1937, was in the family for five generations of parties and holiday celebrations
  • Residents now worry about "Rockaway dust," rotting drywall, mold and garbage

New York (CNN) -- About this time last year, Kate Rigaut was surrounded by 15 of her closest relatives, heaping turkey, stuffing and two kinds of potatoes onto her plate.

Football was on television, beers were in the fridge and the family was together.

"That's how it should be," she said, stirring the cranberry sauce for this year's Thanksgiving dinner.

Her tight-knit Irish-American family lives on New York's Rockaway Peninsula in the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, where a powerful mix of converging weather systems flattened homes on October 29.

Family and friends pile on the couch at the so-called \'Douglas Family Compound.\'
Family and friends pile on the couch at the so-called 'Douglas Family Compound.'
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When the storm hit, a series of tidal surges crashed through the neighborhood as high winds whipped along the coast, leaving billions of dollars in damage and thousands homeless.

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"We normally don't evacuate, but did this time," Rigaut said. She fled with her family to her sister-in-law's place in New Jersey one day before Superstorm Sandy made landfall.

But her neighbor, Christine Mahoney-Schneider, decided to stay and brave the torrents unleashed on this coastal community and others like it along the East Coast.

After each storm surge, she uploaded photos of the aftermath to Facebook, keeping Rigaut abreast of the condition of her home.

As the hours progressed and the photos streamed in, tension mounted. By late evening on October 29, it became clear that Sandy had rendered the Rigaut family homeless.

"My knees buckled, and I fell," said Rigaut, who is 52 and an attorney. "I inherited that house from mom and dad. And we had spent the year renovating."

The "Douglas family compound," as she called it (referencing her maiden name), had been in the family for generations, serving as a gathering spot for neighborhood get-togethers and holiday festivities.

Built in 1937, it was where her parents hosted beach parties and entertained neighbors with beer, wine and music that would often carry along a beachfront that residents lovingly coined the "Irish Riviera."

During the holidays, throngs of Rigaut's nieces and nephews squeezed onto mismatched chairs set around a cherry oak dining-room table that she inherited from her grandmother.

Filling their stomachs with stuffed sausage and mushrooms, bread with raspberry and walnuts and sweet potato pie with marshmallows, they would then retire to the family-room couch or their own homes just a few doors down the block.

"It's the kind of thing that's lost in America today. Having that fabric of the family in the same neighborhood," she said.

Now, many of those cherished physical spaces in the Rockaways are gone in Sandy's wake. The first floor of Rigaut's two-story home collapsed, and its two decks all but disappeared into the sand.

Rigaut's husband, Mike, uncovered the frayed wooden leg of that dining-room table -- one of many family heirlooms lost in the storm -- down the block, sticking out from a pile of trash.

Still, Rigaut seemed determined to celebrate this year's holidays in the same fashion to which she was accustomed: surrounded by her family.

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"For us, it's like the house died, but we didn't," she said.

Sandy caused 119 deaths in the United States, including 43 in New York City and 33 in New Jersey.

The Rigauts and their neighbors managed to escape with their lives. Yet three weeks after the storm, they say they still have not received any form of compensation.

"On top of all of this sadness, we are struggling with the insurance companies," said Rigaut, whose family is now holed up in a rental home in southern New Jersey.

Undeterred, they say they plan to pile into the car Thursday and head north, joining 13 other relatives for Thanksgiving dinner in Belle Harbor at her sister's storm-battered, though still functional, home.

"My sister was out buying air mattresses," she said. "It's going to be a little tight, sleeping like the Irish did after Ellis Island: 12 to a room!"

But with a daughter who is "borderline asthmatic," the Rigauts say they plan to stay only one night. What local residents call "the Rockaway dust" has them concerned.

Rotting drywall, mold and piles of garbage across the Rockaway Peninsula have residents worried about worsening air quality in the region, though officials were not immediately available to comment on the relatively new phenomenon.

A red sticker on the Rigauts' old front door signifies that the city has condemned the building and plans to demolish it. The remains of their home will now likely join the massive garbage heaps along the Rockaway shore, adding to potential health concerns.

iReport: Who's at your Thanksgiving table?

CNN's Kristina Sgueglia contributed to this report

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