SM East grad endures Queens beach community’s latest heartbreak; friends ask for help

Elise and Billy Heeran with one of their daughters.

Elise Berlau didn’t know much about Rockaway Beach, NY, when she graduated from SM East in 2001. But there’s a good chance that she, like millions across the country, heard about the devastation the community faced when it lost more than 50 residents on 9/11. And then heard about the added torment of having a plane crash in the middle of Rockaway Beach just two months later.

Destroyed by fire during the hurricane, the Heeran’s family restaurant is a total loss.

Twelve years after Rockaway Beach endured those tragedies, Berlau — now Elise Heeran — is part of the community. And she and her new family are experiencing its latest heartbreaks in person.

After graduating from the University of Kansas with a Mathematical Sciences degree, Berlau moved to New York for a job with Ross, Inc. She met Billy Heeran, a former financial industry worker who became a New York City Fireman after his twin brother was killed on 9/11, at a local pub. The two soon became inseparable. They married in May 2010.

They had settled into a good life in Rockaway Beach, living in an apartment above the boardwalk with two young daughters, Brielle, 2, and Jillian, 4 months. But their lives, and those of hundreds of their neighbors, were upended this week when Hurricane Sandy battered the Queens coast.

The Heerans’ apartment building had been deemed unlivable. Harbor Lights Pub, the restaurant owned by her father-in-law, was gutted by a fire likely sparked by a power line felled by Sandy’s winds. It is a total loss.

With the city in ruins, the Heerans are staying at a family cabin in upstate New York. But Heeran’s SM East friends say her primary concern is with finding aid for the neighbors who have already endured so much hardship since 2001.

“There are no words to describe what Elise is feeling and it wouldn’t be fair for me to try and attempt to, but I will say that in her selfless demeanor, she is more concerned with getting supplies and donations to Rockaway first and foremost,” writes Molly Blanco, nee White, who graduated with Heeran from SM East in 2001.

Blanco, along with Elise’s sister Rachael, a 2003 graduate, and fellow 2001 graduates Natalie Fisher, nee West, and Libby Ray, nee Takacs, have started a giveforward.com webpage to facilitate donations to the community.

“The heartbreak of it is unending,” Blanco wrote. “We are looking to help spread the word about a relief fund that we have set up for Elise and her Rockaway Beach community.”

For more information on the community, see this report from the Today Show.

To visit the giveforward.com donations page, click here.