Many Sandy victims decide to skip STEP

Electrician William Merritt helps Arlene Hunt with her Electrician William Merritt helps Arlene Hunt with her application for assistance with the FEMA STEP program at her home in Lindenhurst. (Nov. 23, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams, Jr.

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More than half of 2,429 eligible Long Island households have declined free temporary home repairs offered through the STEP program, the first-time federal initiative designed to quickly return residents to their Sandy-damaged homes.

Latest figures show many homeowners chose to press ahead with permanent reconstruction on their own -- skipping the option of a temporary fix, even one that offers up to $10,000 in free repairs.

"They offered me help, but by the time the program was up and running, I had taken care of that basic stuff," said Shereen Duplessis of Lindenhurst, a single mother who has a 5-year-old with special needs. "I had to, so the contractors could get in and major work could start."

Friday is the deadline for Nassau and Suffolk County households to sign up to participate in the Sheltering Temporary Essential Power program, which came about because of the unique housing crunch Sandy's damage presented on Long Island: scarcity of available housing stock, few open rental units or hotel rooms, and a dearth of suitable space for FEMA trailers.

Mike Byrne, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Sandy response in New York, said he was proud of what the test program has achieved, even as he acknowledged room for improvement.

"The good thing about creating something new on the fly is you're responding to a need," Byrne said recently. "The downside is there's often wrinkles that need to be worked through the first time."

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Byrne said it's likely the program will be used in future disasters, after review.

George and Lori King of Lindenhurst are among grateful STEP participants.

They called the help "a godsend," providing hot water and heat to protect pipes in the flooded downstairs of their two-story home. The couple got by for about six weeks with just two space heaters for their upstairs living and sleeping areas before permanent repairs were made.

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STEP came about as cold weather approached after the Oct. 29 storm and officials scrambled for housing options for the thousands displaced. Local building industry representatives and union workers wanted to help and offered discounted rates. State, city and county officials met with FEMA, and from that lawyers crafted a policy that fit the agency's legal scope of funding work that meets basic life-sustaining needs.

Agency spokeswoman Denise Everhart said the program grew out of challenges posed by Sandy striking the metropolitan area.

"Everything in our toolbox, until now, was not designed for such a densely populated, urban disaster environment," she said.

The joint FEMA-county program, announced Nov. 14, funds a maximum $10,000 per home of "certain necessary and essential measures to help restore power, heat and hot water" so residents can "safely shelter-in-place" -- that is, in their homes -- while awaiting insurance money for more permanent repairs.

In the months since STEP's inception, 1,241 homeowners declined to participate.

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The Community Development Corporation of Long Island, which is administering the program in Suffolk County, surveyed residents who chose not to participate. They fall into two main categories, said CDC president and chief executive Marianne Garvin: people choosing to proceed with permanent repairs or those who regard their home as too damaged to be habitable even with STEP repairs.

Ursula and Ludwig Meyer of Point Lookout, who are elderly, worried they could not afford the cost of the electricity had they accepted STEP help. They turned it down and waited it out in the cold for a couple of weeks before paying a friend to rewire and replace their gas-powered furnace.

LIPA later offered a discounted home heating electric rate for those participating in the program, but few homeowners interviewed were aware of it.

Suffolk County director of operations Sammy Chu said STEP never was meant as a solution for everyone. "Clearly the program had limits," Chu said. "It was designed to bring residents up to a limited level of habitability, which, in turn, is reflected in the participation rates, because it was never going to be a program that was all things to all people."

Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano said "getting 500-plus households back in their homes was a real achievement, but let's now take a look at how we can improve it."

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Artie Cipoletti, vice president of the Long Island Builders Institute, who helped draft the program, said FEMA and the contractors, plumbers and electricians doing the work tried to get word out, with fliers in English and Spanish distributed door-to-door and posted at disaster recovery centers. "There's a lot of people on Long Island for whom STEP is a great idea," Cipoletti said, "but they are not taking advantage of it."

This story has been changed to correct the name of the agency that is administering the STEP program in Suffolk.

How it works

Nassau residents call 888-684-4267, Suffolk residents call 211 to set up an assessment appointment.

Trained professionals visit a home to assess what STEP fixes apply and ask the homeowner to sign "right-of-entry" form so STEP contractors can do the work. The work must be completed within 60 days of the form's signing.

What STEP offers

Replacement of a structurally safe home's electric panel with outlets supplied in four rooms.

Installation of a 20-gallon electric water heater. This was later amended to allow for a 40-gallon device when contractors and tradespeople doing the work pointed out the price was virtually the same.

Installation of 32 feet of electric baseboard heat.

Tarpaulin, plastic and tape affixed to places where the home is exposed to the elements.

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