One year after superstorm Sandy, flood-ravaged neighborhoods are on an uneven path to recovery. Fully repaired houses abut gutted and vacant ones. Newly raised houses tower over bungalows still nestled at sea level.
Disputes over the adequacy and fairness of insurance settlements have stalled progress for many homeowners. Money is just one in a litany of obstacles, from endless paperwork, permits and variances to unscrupulous contractors, from complex construction documents to simple exhaustion.
While many homeowners have made it through the maze and are back to normal, many others are still far from home. Here are some of their stories:
THOMAS MASON, FREEPORT
'Still arguing' with insurer
Thomas Mason's job as chief of security at Rochdale Village, a 20-building cooperative housing complex in Queens, has become a haven for him in the year since Sandy wrecked his house in Freeport.
Overseeing a 100-officer private security force as it responds to drug and gang crimes, burglaries and robberies, domestic violence or parking issues distracts him from his own troubles.
"For now, it's keeping my mind preoccupied," said Mason, 61. "I come in early, I stay late."
Mason and his wife, Marian, 53, are living with her elderly father in his Queens apartment. And it is possible they will be there for quite a while longer, as they continue to dicker with the flood insurer they thought would protect them.
"They're still arguing with me now," said Mason, who has hired lawyers to help him make his case with his insurance company, and with his bank to force release of some withheld insurance money. "Right now, we're at a standstill."
He's applying for money from New York Rising, in which the state is using federal housing department funds allocated under Congress' Sandy aid package to help storm victims meet unmet housing repair needs.
"It's been a nightmare for eleven months, a nightmare," added Mason, whose Front Street house lies between two canals. "It puts a strain on you mentally, physically. . . . You have to put aside your personal grief to function properly on your job."
So far, the insurance money the Masons did get has gone to restore the house's shell and structure. They need more funds to install electrical, heating, and plumbing systems, drywall, and appliances. He estimated the total cost of repairs at $265,000, "and they've given me about $110,000 at the most," he said.
While he was approved for a $196,000 Small Business Administration loan, Mason said he is holding off on accepting it. He would prefer that his insurance cover his losses, rather than having to repay a loan.
"Quite a few homes on my block are in the same situation I'm in -- Pods outside the home with their possessions, trying to get insurance money to go into stage two construction and waiting for contractors," he said.
"Many have walked away, others are still floating around in worse conditions that I am. The biggest problem seems to be the people with insurance are not getting the money to move forward."
LISA MENTGES, LONG BEACH
Surviving Sandy -- and cancer
What is perhaps most amazing about the year that Lisa Mentges has just endured is the fact that she can manage to sound upbeat at the end of it.
It started with the ocean pouring into her Long Beach bungalow on Oct. 29 as she lay in bed recovering from cancer surgery after lengthy chemotherapy. She, her two children and her boyfriend took refuge in her home's loft space until the waters receded.
Her boyfriend, Paul Wilcox, and her parents, who all live on the block, were flooded as well.
Next up: Mentges lost her job with Xerox in January.
Then she encountered long months of delays and other problems with her original contractors, who raised her bungalow 16 feet above sea level and created a new lower level. But now insurance money has run out, leaving her unsure when she can return.
In the months after the storm, she and her children, Brianne, 21, and Brandon, 15, and her parents went to live with her sister's family, all crammed in together on the undamaged upper floor of their house in Lido Beach. From there, Mentges and her children moved into a hotel for several months before returning to the now-repaired lower floor of her sister's home.
"It has one bedroom, one bath and a TV room, which is wonderful," she said, noting she sleeps on a blow-up mattress while her kids share the bedroom. "I can actually go out of a room and cook pasta if I want to."
In the days after the storm, she received a $34,000 SBA loan, which she used to have the house elevated, and for new concrete floors and foundation walls. The $74,000 in insurance money has run out, leaving the house's interior far from complete. Last week, she, Wilcox, her relatives, and United Methodist disaster relief volunteers finally installed insulation and drywall, giving her a much-needed boost. Now she's borrowing funds to pay for electrical and plumbing work, and is applying for New York Rising funds. Slowly, finally, she can imagine a day when she'll be able to go home.
"It's been a whirlwind, it's been a bad dream, a real bad dream," she said. "You don't ever think this will happen and you don't realize how much you love your home until you don't have it anymore."
But here's the good news: In August she went for a screening and blood test and she was cancer-free. And she is earning about what she'd earned in her old job with a new business: Shell Art by Lisa.
With the assistance of Wilcox, she creates pictures using shells and cut shells, which she sells at fairs, and to customers who see her art displayed at a local hotel's restaurant.
"It's getting better and better," she said. "It is."
"We take it a day at a time. For a while we took one step forward and ten steps back, and we were all really depressed. But now it seems like we're going forward. We're taking baby steps, but every day."
She said, optimistic at last, "You see the light at the end of the tunnel."
ANNE AND BILL ROMEO, MASSAPEQUA
Fire, not water, got their house
Bill and Anne Romeo raised their Massapequa house near the bay when they bought it 17 years ago, and no water entered it during superstorm Sandy. They should have survived the storm intact.
Instead, their house burned down.
Electrical surges, they've been told. All they know is their lights flickered and went out at about 7:30 p.m. on the night of the storm, and then the smoke alarms sounded. With fire crackling in the garage, they and their three children, now 17, 16 and 10, fled barefoot and in pajamas through 5 feet of cold water to a neighbor. In the morning, they saw their house and everything in it had vanished.
"It's crazy, there's nothing, it's just crazy," said Bill Romeo, 57, a financial planner. "You can replace everything that is replaceable, but you had it, you knew where it was, and it's not there. It just knocked me for a loop. I'm out of sync, I'm out of rhythm."
From the closet with the array of "fat" clothes and "skinny" clothes to the high-quality musical instruments to the inherited tools, from the Christmas ornaments and the photo albums to decades worth of birthday and Valentine gifts to the knee brace and the Ace bandages -- all gone. The loss of the irreplaceable stuff of memories and sentiment, that's what pains him the most, he said, that and the loss of a place where he was happy to be.
"I just miss the comfort of my couch," he said. "I know it sounds crazy, but I was very comfortable where we were."
The family knows it was lucky, too. No one was hurt, although for months they woke often in the night. The youngest, Alyssa, 10, would wake, shaking and shivering. Kyra, 17, got anxious and couldn't stay in any place for very long. Ryan, 16, didn't talk about it much, but like all of the kids, is impatient to get home.
Because they lost their house to fire, not water, their homeowner's insurance will cover their losses, including contents.
But now, because so much time has elapsed the insurer wanted to stop paying for their rental house in Massapequa, Romeo said, and they had to document why it has taken so long to rebuild.
"First LIPA was holding us up; the disconnect letter took about two months," said Anne Romeo, 46. "The plans, the clean-up, the permits to do the cleanup and then we needed to get a bond to do the clean-up -- just one thing after another."
Three months went by while an engineer wrote a report telling them their foundation was too damaged to use. Their architect had to draw up plans not only for a house, but for pilings and foundation, too.
They won approval earlier this month from the Town of Oyster Bay for several variances (renewals of a side yard and lot coverage variances they'd obtained originally for their old house and a new one for a circular driveway). Once permits are issued, work can start. "It's hard to believe, but it almost seems like it's going to be on that [storm anniversary] date," Bill Romeo said. "One year later, they'll start to put the pilings in."
The family hopes to be home by next summer.
"It's draining, but you're in a situation where you don't have a choice, you have to deal with the bureaucracy and just go along with it," he said. "There are no short cuts."
His wife said, "There are so many things we're trying to do now, sometimes it's not that easy to keep moving in the right direction. My husband is stressed with getting everything done, but you know, we have to think. We forget that we're lucky."
She added, "I haven't said that in a long time, that we're lucky. . . . Nobody got hurt. An hour later, we wouldn't have been able to stand in the water in the street, and who knows."
GROVER CLEVELAND SIEMS III, CAPTREE ISLAND
Raising his house and hitting a wall
Grover Cleveland Siems III raised his house and hit a wall.
In the months after Sandy inundated his house on Captree Island in the town of Babylon, the retired Suffolk County police officer decided to raise his home high before repairing it.
Now there isn't enough insurance money to repair it. For months he lived in the damaged structure, hauling bottled water up narrow scaffolding stairs, using a single electrical circuit and spraying mold when he saw it.
"I'm shot, I'm emotionally, physically, psychologically shot," said Siems, 62, recently. "I wish I had nothing to do with it. I'm tired of this, I'm tired of the insurance, I'm tired of everything."
So this month he went out and bought a condo in Oakdale to live in while he waits to see if New York Rising funds or more insurance money will materialize to allow him to finish repairs on the house.
"I needed a bathroom, I needed a kitchen, I wanted my furniture back" from storage, he said.
In hindsight, he thinks he should have razed the house and used insurance money to build something smaller, something new, he said. His decision to try to save the house was emotional.
He'd helped his father build the home out of their summer bungalow when he was only 18. He and his ex-wife had lived here with their daughter, now 21, and it was home.
It wasn't anything special, he said, "just a little gray house, but it was where I lived. It had my furniture, it had my pets, it was comfortable with heat, water and electric."
He rented a neighbor's house during the winter while he raised his own house, starting the foundation work based on an understanding from his insurer that he would get the full amount of his insurance policy, he said. Seven months later, he said, the actual settlement was far less.
"I've gone to all the meetings, applied for everything. I've lost track of everyone I dealt with," he said. "Everyone talked a good game about how they were going to be there, but it's still just talk."
He conceded that Catholic Charities had come often to offer assistance, but that there had been no safe way to remove drywall and mold since the only way in and out until recently was by ladder.
A few weeks ago, he installed scaffolding stairs and fell from them on the first day, bruising his leg.
He started doing some of the repairs himself, telling himself he could "do a lot of this myself," he said ruefully. "The part of my brain that said this was 35 years old."
He'd sell the house if he felt he was getting what the property was worth, he said. He still marvels at it and its magical setting. "I can look out my window and see the Great South Bay and the meadows," and look over in another direction and see the bay bridges on the Robert Moses Causeway. "The views are amazing: almost all year I have sunsets, and sunrises half the year."
"The location is everything," he said.