Nearly 2,400 Long Islanders whose homes were damaged by superstorm Sandy are getting a long-awaited $82.8 million installment of federal reimbursements -- an average of $34,800 each.
The checks are the first significant distribution of cash reimbursements to help Sandy-hit homeowners pay for repairs that haven't been covered by insurance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency or other sources. Previously, only four homeowners had received reimbursement checks from NY Rising, the temporary state agency charged with dispensing federal disaster funds.
By the end of next week, Nassau County homeowners are due to receive 1,844 checks for $62.3 million, according to NY Rising. Suffolk homeowners will receive 533 checks for $20.5 million, agency officials said.
Including upstate claimants, roughly 2,500 homeowners are due to receive more than $85 million in checks.
Among the newest recipients was Bruce Di Giovanni, who received $77,269 on Monday.
"I was going to kiss the postman," said Di Giovanni, 65, a contractor whose Island Park home suffered about $100,000 in damage from the Oct. 29, 2012, storm. "I opened the mail in front of him and said, 'Holy cow, Merry Christmas, you're my Santa!' "
Not everyone was so elated. Many Long Island homeowners have expressed frustration over what they call NY Rising's delays and bureaucracy.
"I don't know what's taking so long," said Long Beach homeowner Sam Kinsley-Gallo, whose storm-wrecked three-bedroom bungalow was demolished and is being replaced by a new, elevated home. Kinsley-Gallo said she has not been told how much she will receive from NY Rising.
The reimbursement checks started going out by certified mail on Friday, and NY Rising officials said they hope they all should reach homeowners before Christmas. All homeowners who submitted complete applications before Nov. 6 will get checks in this round, officials said.
By early October, roughly 10,000 Long Islanders had submitted applications to NY Rising. About 4,400 local homeowners have received award letters, NY Rising said.
The program is still accepting applications. It requires home inspections and reviews of receipts, insurance payouts and government grants and loans to prevent homeowners from receiving duplicate benefits. Homeowners must agree not to accept duplicate benefits. Check recipients can sign the agreement online, or they can drop the paperwork off at an NY Rising office or ask for a worker to pick up the document at their residence. Homeowners can request a review if they are not satisfied with the amount they receive.
Homeowners who submit applications now are getting inspections within a week, officials said.
Long Island is expected to receive most of the $484.3 million in federal funds allocated to New York homeowners whose reconstruction costs were not covered by insurance or assistance from FEMA after superstorm Sandy, and tropical storms Irene and Lee in 2011.
Nassau County homeowners are expected to receive $369 million; $82 million is set for reimbursing Suffolk County homeowners, according to Seth Diamond, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's director of storm recovery. Homeowners can expect to receive an average check of $110,000 to $120,000 by the time all reimbursements are made, according to NY Rising.
The cash assistance comes from the first allocation of community block grant funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Homeowners in New York are set to receive $838 million to pay for housing needs, with 80 percent of the funds going to Long Island and to Rockland County. New York City is covered under a separate $1.7 billion program.
It's common for federal block grant funds to take more than a year to reach storm-damaged homeowners, but local and state governments can reduce delays by planning ahead for disasters and coordinating well with the federal government, said Gavin Smith, executive director of the Department of Homeland Security's Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence.
"A part of good planning is being prepared to administer grants and having the staff and wherewithal to do that," Smith said.
Legis. Dave Denenberg (D-Merrick), who has been fielding calls from constituents seeking help with reconstruction, said it's a relief to learn that checks are starting to reach homeowners.
"After 14 months, it's nice to see some movement," Denenberg said. "None of us should feel comfortable until everyone's back in their home and they've been reimbursed and their contractors have been paid."