FEMA teams set up operations across LI

Sally Walker, left, embraces FEMA representatives when they Sally Walker, left, embraces FEMA representatives when they arrived at her home in Lindenhurst during the week after the storm. (Nov. 4, 2012) Photo Credit: Ed Betz

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Nine days after Sandy hit, FEMA is up and running in Islip -- almost.

The space heaters had arrived, but computers and phones were still being connected about noon Wednesday at the agency's drafty ground-floor digs -- the former Islip High School building, built in 1923 and now known as Town Hall West.

The Federal Emergency Management Office is setting up shop at 401 Main St., where a team of six has begun seeing residents whose homes were devastated by last week's storm.

The team is one of several getting established across Long Island this week as the state and federal response to Sandy kicks into higher gear.

A center opened Monday in Hauppauge on Veterans Memorial Highway, another began setting up on Center Street in Riverhead Wednesday. Centers have also been operating in Nassau, including a mobile unit in Long Beach, one at Island Park Village Hall, and another at Nassau Community College in Garden City.

FEMA disaster-recovery teams are charged with providing homeowners and renters whose homes have been destroyed with a safe, sanitary and secure place to live.

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The task of coordinating the response is so mammoth that FEMA officials based in Washington and Brooklyn this week have been unable to provide the number of centers or their locations on Long Island.

On Monday, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y) said there were 15 in the New York area but called for more to be sent to Long Island.

There were about 150 paid FEMA workers on the Island Wednesday, plus hundreds of building inspectors -- contractors hired by FEMA -- to inspect the homes of those who have applied for assistance so repairs can begin.

An unspecified number of military and other federal employees are also assisting with disaster relief, said William Rukeyser, a FEMA spokesman.

"Clearly, it's in the hundreds," Rukeyser said of FEMA representatives working on Long Island.

For the nine New York counties affected by Sandy, FEMA has received 135,093 applications for assistance and approved nearly $185 million in payments.

On Long Island, 38,916 families have applied for FEMA assistance, 14,088 of them in Suffolk, Rukeyser said.

The team at Islip is a seasoned disaster crew, but even so the recovery effort on Long Island is posing challenges.

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A shortage of accommodations on Long Island meant members of the team faced a two-hour commute back and forth from midtown Manhattan hotels Wednesday. The team is also carpooling due to shortages of rental cars and gasoline.

Wednesday morning, Barbara Weil, one of the team members, said she accidentally drove the wrong way onto the Queensboro Bridge.

"An NYPD guy was yelling at me, and I'm yelling at him: 'I'm from Alaska!' " said Weil, who hails from Anchorage. Other members of the team come from Puerto Rico, Atlanta and West Virginia.

"It's all part of what we're used to facing whenever we start out," said Richard Gerrior, the team's manager. "Our number 1 priority -- our top focus -- is to serve the needs of residents here."

Wednesday, the team saw about a dozen displaced Islip homeowners, among them Dorothy and Hubert Bauer of Bay Shore. The elderly couple's home is a wreck after water from the Great South Bay flooded the first floor.

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The Bauers are staying with friends and Wednesday registered for assistance. The couple was given numbers to call for food and shelter and told their home would be inspected within 10-14 days to gauge what comes next.

Felicia and Ian Jones, of Sequams Lane West in West Islip, arrived to register with their neighbor Sandra Galian. Their homes were flooded and the neighbors were told to expect rental assistance after Nov. 16. A FEMA hazard mitigation team will visit their properties in the coming days.

"I was really encouraged to see they were on-site today," said Galian, who had not expected to see a FEMA team yet. "They were very professional; they provided us with some of the information we need to start the process, but the picture's still emerging."

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