Months after the storm, no calm in sight

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The mud and floodwaters that ravaged the East Coast when Superstorm Sandy roared ashore three months ago have been supplanted by a sea of red tape, leaving thousands of residents and businesses in limbo as they await insurance funds or help from the federal government.

Some have used savings or loans to get back into their homes or reopen businesses. Others remain in temporary housing or hotels, or face the winter in frigid, unfinished housing, resulting in a staggered state of recovery that bodes ill for a region trying to make itself whole again.

One late January night on Staten Island, N.Y., as the temperature dropped to 10 degrees, Anthony Gambino slept on the floor of a heated tent in a park. Two miles away, Janet Moore slept in her newly repaired home. Her neighbor, Ellen Krakower, spent another night in a temporary apartment, wondering how long it would be before her own home was repaired.


“It’s not one size fits all,” said James Molinaro, the borough president of Staten Island, where swaths of despair sit adjacent to neighborhoods that were barely touched.

Twenty-three of New York City’s 43 deaths occurred on Staten Island as the tide tore through the low-slung bungalows and tidy condos in neighborhoods such as New Dorp Beach, where Gambino lives, and Midland Beach, where Moore and Krakower own condos on the same block.

Hundreds of businesses were severely damaged or destroyed. Though a business closing might be an inconvenience elsewhere in the city, on Staten Island, which has no subway, it becomes a hardship for people in neighborhoods lined with broken-down homes, piles of rotting wood, and porta-potties for workers and for residents still without plumbing.

Asked when Staten Island might recover, Molinaro said: “In my opinion it’s going to be years, because of the businesses that have to be reopened. The number I get from FEMA is that 37% of all businesses shut down by a hurricane never reopen.”

Homeowners and business owners alike are debating whether it is worth it to rebuild as they ponder higher flood insurance premiums and property values that have dropped an estimated 30% in flood zones.

Help is there, but it can be a challenge to get. FEMA, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency -- whose grants to cover home repairs, temporary rentals and other needs top out at $31,900 per household -- has distributed more than $1.2 billion in such payments to Sandy victims in five states. That includes $89.3 million to Staten Island, where about half of 20,000 applicants have been approved for help.


Applicants who are ineligible -- because they requested aid to fix second homes, for instance, or because they have flood insurance -- must make do while they appeal to FEMA or wait for insurance checks. FEMA, which underwrites the federal flood insurance program, says it tried to expedite payouts by letting insurers pay advances up to $35,000 to homeowners. It says that 72,000 of 141,000 insurance claims have been settled.

In New Jersey, though, Gov. Chris Christie says just 30% of flood insurance claims have been settled, and he lashed out Tuesday at the delays.

“I’ve been as patient as I’m going to be,” Christie said as he announced measures to force state-regulated insurance companies to respond more quickly to consumers requesting assistance.

Michael Byrne, FEMA’s federal coordinating officer, said he understood the frustration.

“The money is going out, but if you’re still waiting, it’s always too long,” Byrne said last week. “We can never move fast enough when it comes to putting money out on the street. We acknowledge that and we just try to work harder to get it done.”

But even people like Moore, who moved back home in mid-January, are far from where they want to be.

The storm flooded the ground floor of her two-story home, destroying carpets, kitchen appliances, lower kitchen cabinets, furniture and the electrical system. Waiting for insurance would have taken months, because of the checks and balances insurance companies and mortgage providers require. So Moore, a respiratory therapist, got a federally backed loan of $14,000.


“I’m completely in debt now,” said Moore, who says she was debt-free before Sandy.

Though she is grateful for the 1.6% interest loan, Moore is annoyed by a system that forced her to borrow while uninsured neighbors received FEMA grants.

Krakower also has flood insurance but did not want a loan because she said the payments would have been prohibitive. Three months after the storm, there still were no walls or ceiling on her ground floor. Insulation, sheet rock and plasterboard -- donated by a church -- sat on her concrete floor, along with an uninstalled toilet, as icy wind blew the plastic tarps covering her windows.

Her insurer approved about $32,000 for repairs -- nearly $9,000 less than a contractor’s lowest estimate -- but she cannot get the money until her mortgage provider finishes its paperwork.

Like Moore, Krakower has learned the often infuriating quirks of flood insurance. It will pay for new doors, but not doorknobs, because the water stopped just below them. It will pay to replace walls only up to the water line, even though contractors warn of mold developing if walls aren’t replaced to the ceiling.

“Here I am sitting in this shell of a house quibbling over doorknobs,” Krakower said.

Gambino said he was appealing to FEMA to get help replacing the appliances, furniture and clothes he lost during Sandy, which flooded his rental. He wasn’t eligible for a Small Business Administration loan because he doesn’t have enough income, said Gambino, who lives on Social Security and disability.

“Besides, who wants to take out a loan? They just lost everything,” said Donna Graziano, who runs the aid tent where Gambino has been sheltering while he waits for his landlord to repair his home.


“Everything is in red tape right now,” Gambino said. Like Moore and Krakower, he says he would need to spend thousands of dollars he doesn’t have to get back on his feet.

FEMA says the agency’s goal is just that -- to get people back on their feet, and that the maximum payout of $31,900 wouldn’t be enough to make most Sandy victims whole again. And Byrne said that although he understood the frustration of the insured over the noninsured getting FEMA money, a tiny minority of applicants get $31,900.

Most get less than half that, a fraction of what they could receive from insurance, Byrne said.

Local governments, churches, businesses and individuals have stepped in. Moore was one of 6,000 people in affected homes who received $250 Home Depot gift cards. Red Cross trucks hand out water and food. The New York Police Department provides propane to Graziano to keep the hot plates in her aid tent filled with warm food. Donated TVs, clothes, toys and canned food are piled high in an adjoining tent.

The picture is that of a region getting help, but sorely in need of more.

“I think the worst is not even over,” said Moore, who fears her neighborhood will remain deserted as property values sink, flood insurance rates rise and people fear moving back into the flood zone. One neighbor already has said she doesn’t want to return.

“She said, ‘How can I live here? I’ll be worried every time there’s a storm,’ ” said Moore, who sympathizes. “The first time they mention a hurricane might hit here, I know I’m going to panic.”