Homeowners and businesses along Long Island's Sandy-ravaged South Shore continue to struggle, though the physical landscape shows signs of change.
Three months after the superstorm, the comeback is agonizingly slow for hundreds displaced from their homes in this harsh winter, beset by slow payouts of federal money and insurance claims and wondering how best to repair -- or whether to repair at all.
According to federal statistics, Sandy destroyed or damaged 95,534 buildings in Nassau and Suffolk. "This magnitude of disaster is new for Long Island," Byrne said. "You can't fix it in a day or a week or a month. It takes longer than people expect."
Some concrete, positive movement is being made, federal and local officials said.
More residents plan to move back into their homes in 60 to 90 days. Additional federal money is expected soon. The Senate is set to vote Monday on final passage of the $50.5-billion Sandy recovery bill. The House of Representatives approved the measure Jan. 15.
But significant challenges remain for the hardest-hit communities and the Island in a broader sense, regional economists, planners and relief agencies said.
Sandy's blow to the economy led to an uptick in Long Island's unemployment rate last month, particularly in the heavily flooded regions, and the closure of some businesses.
John D. Cameron, chairman of the Long Island Regional Planning Council, said delays and uncertainty about the federal aid package and private insurance companies' coverage and payouts for rebuilding are "crippling Long Island's recovery."
"Unfortunately, a lot of the insurance monies have been very slow. That was made clear at our council meetings," said Cameron, referring to hearings focused on Sandy-related matters.
In coming months, municipalities may see declines in much-needed tax revenue driven by drops in home values in flood-ravaged areas, he said. As a consequence, homeowners not affected by flooding could see their tax rates increase to compensate.
Still, economists said in injection of federal funds and insurance payouts will help rev up the region's economic engine.
"Sandy did reduce economic activity by billions of dollars," said Craig Alexander, chief economist at TD Bank. "But when buildings are repaired or rebuilt, you actually get a positive effect on economic growth."
That leads to the issue of how people are rebuilding. Cameron said he fears many homeowners, in the rush to get back into their homes and because of a lack of funds, are using materials that could lead to future trouble.
"A lot of homeowners can't afford to rebuild to resilient standards," said Cameron, founder and managing partner of Cameron Engineering & Associates, with offices in Woodbury, Manhattan and White Plains. "Sheetrock is not resilient material, but that is the material of choice by homeowners, because it's the cheapest materials to get them back in their homes."
A transition is under way for the American Red Cross of Greater New York, which had provided shelter, meals and other forms of relief, and sent volunteer teams of health professionals and mental health specialists door-to-door in devastated neighborhoods. The Red Cross closed the last of its 27 shelters on Long Island in mid-December.
The agency is gearing up to help families with rental assistance and repair costs, spokesman Michael de Vulpilliers said.
"They were renting or maybe in a hotel," de Vulpilliers said. "They need to be transitioned out of a hotel. We're meeting with them and providing the security deposit, for example, to get them in longer-term housing. If people own their homes, maybe we can provide them some money for home repairs."
According to federal statistics, Sandy destroyed or damaged 95,534 buildings on Long Island, with 182 structures destroyed and more than 38,000 with damage totaling more than 50 percent of their market value.
The Small Business Administration, which can provide low-interest loans to homeowners seeking to rebuild, said it had received 11,955 loan applications from Nassau homeowners, approving 3,493 for a total of $269.7 million. From Suffolk, there were 3,952 applications from homeowners, out of which 1,208 were approved for $96 million.
"Now, the solutions are beginning to take form and people can start to execute the recovery," Byrne said. "We'll start to see the beginnings of big infrastructure projects. There will be less of the initial running from problem to problem."
With James T. Madore