Sandy-weary Lindenhurst residents mull lifting homes or leaving

Lindenhurst families speak Wednesday, May 28, 2014, about the struggles they've faced in the 19 months since superstorm Sandy ravaged their neighborhood, and how their homes have still not been fully repaired. As New York Rising's offers for house elevations and buyouts are coming in, they are weighing the costs and benefits of staying versus leaving. Will the money will be enough? Can they envision life on a block that regularly floods, where the future is uncertain?  (Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware)

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Luigi Stolfa looked up hopefully at his freshly dormered house, framed in new wood and perched nearly 11 feet in the air, envisioning himself back in it before the second anniversary of the October 2012 storm that drove him out.

By then, he may be among the last of his neighbors still living on the southern end of superstorm Sandy-ravaged South 4th Street, tucked between canals near the Great South Bay in Lindenhurst.

Offers from NY Rising for house elevations and buyouts are coming in, and neighbors are weighing the costs and benefits of staying versus leaving: Will the money be enough? Can they endure months of dislocation and construction again? Can they embrace life on a block that regularly floods, where the future is uncertain?

The street looks a lot better than during those devastating months after the flooding from Sandy, when police closed off the block due to looting, battered houses sat vacant and families who remained shivered without heat or light. With the exception of Stolfa's construction work, most of the contractor trucks and storage pods are gone.

The two dozen houses south of Third Avenue are inhabited, with the exceptions of a boarded-up foreclosure and a vacant estate sale house. The rental houses are restored and re-rented.

But after a grueling recovery with more to come, some of Stolfa's neighbors have decided they've had enough and are accepting a buyout.

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"I'm just tired of getting wet," said Leon Strobel, 68, Stolfa's next-door neighbor. "I'm done." He and his wife, Pamela, have already bought a house in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Emil and Barbara Caiazza up the block are moving to Oakdale. The family across from them, the Salvias, are looking in Massapequa. The Verriers, the Lombardos and Alex Fokine, who is still cooking on a hot plate, are parsing numbers and getting estimates before deciding to raise or sell their houses.

"In all honesty I want to stay here," said Remi Verrier, 66, whose bayfront house has been in his family more than 70 years. "It's not an easy thing to give up."

But if estimates for lifting the house (he got a preliminary estimate of $125,000) and repairing his heavily damaged bulkhead are higher than what the government is willing to pay, "the financial strain would be overwhelming," he said. "I'd have to go for the buyout."

Meanwhile, he spends his days in a home office on the first floor he painstakingly repaired in the year after Sandy. Thick files of paperwork -- for NY Rising applications, contractors, insurance, plans and appraisals -- were on his desk near the phone he uses, often unsuccessfully, to try to reach his overburdened NY Rising case worker. NY Rising is a state program for storm recovery initiatives using state and federal funding.

"I wasn't like this before," he said, describing himself as on "pins and needles" after more than a year and a half of reconstruction, paperwork, uncertainty and frustration. "I was happy-go-lucky, let water roll off my back. Now . . . ," he paused. "I'm still meeting a self-help group once a week. We try to support one another . . . just to keep yourself together."

Emil Caiazza, 59, said the closing for his new home in Oakdale -- on a canal but already in compliance with new floodplain building regulations -- will take place early this month.

While overseeing repairs after Sandy, he spent months living in a trailer on his front lawn while his family lived in a nearby apartment. This past year, his wife, Barbara, 58, dealt with serious health issues as she oversaw the paperwork demands of the NY Rising application process.

When it turned out that estimates for lifting their house were at least $50,000 higher than what NY Rising offered to pay, Barbara Caiazza said: "We were like, we don't want to put any more money into this house. I didn't want to go through another six months of renovation. Where would we go? To the trailer?"

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A fair offer

Emil Caiazza said the acquisition offer was lower than he had wanted but fair. Sitting on the family's new black couches near their new flat-screen television, he said: "I love it here. I like all the neighbors, the kids have friends here, but I think it's time to go. The house we're getting is an investment for the future for us. I don't know if there's much of a future here."

Next door, Tom Lombardo's house was also heavily damaged and restored at considerable out-of-pocket cost. He continues to struggle, as have so many other homeowners, to receive what he considers a full insurance payout. Now, he said, he'll have to see all the numbers before he decides whether to lift or leave.

"What will it cost, what does it entail to raise, what will they give us to buy out?" Lombardo, 65, said. "There's a lot of numbers going back and forth, and my belief is until you've got it in your hand it's nothing but assumptions."

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Elsewhere in Lindenhurst, many homeowners are choosing to lift and stay. But this area is considered an "enhanced buyout" zone where homeowners are offered pre-storm values plus incentives to sell. The offers don't look so bad to those who have decided to take them, especially given the street's frequent flooding during even normal storms, new moons and high tides.

Even Steven Pergolizzi, who owns two canalside rental properties at the end of the block where the flooding is worst, said he'd certainly consider a buyout offer if any were forthcoming. As a nonresident, he got no aid to repair the flood damage after Sandy, and there's no offer of help to lift his properties.

"It's not easy to sell over there now," he said, noting he'd like to see the village raise the road, something it's not planning to do. "To get out of your car every night and have to walk through 10 inches of water to get to your door, that is a much, much bigger problem since Sandy."

 

A small raise

The village raised the street years ago but only 10 inches or so because a higher elevation would have caused water to run onto lower-elevation properties, Deputy Village Clerk Douglas Madlon said, adding that he "hasn't been advised of any funds to elevate roads at this stage." The village hasn't been told whether homes bought by the state will be torn down or sold to developers to be elevated, said Shawn Cullinane, village clerk-treasurer.

Donald Salvia Jr., 49, who lives in a high ranch across the street from the Caiazzas, hasn't signed anything yet, but his family is leaning toward moving away. His wife, Jacqueline, 45, is reluctant to go through a house elevation, just a year after repairs were finally completed on their first floor and yard. So they go out house hunting every weekend. "We're looking but we want something nice," he said.

Others are not sure they could endure either a move or more construction. Pat Seagriff, 58, who had to vacate the brick house her late father built for 10 months of repairs after Sandy, said either alternative would be difficult for her elderly mother and special-needs son. "We went through hell the first time," she said.

Stolfa, 32, plans to get engaged at the end of summer and have his fiancee move in with him. He has endured a series of setbacks, from burglaries to long, unexpected delays getting architectural plans and insurance money. When he gets an offer from NY Rising, he said he'll consider it. Meanwhile, construction continues on his house, on a street frequently shimmering with seawater that seeps from the street's drain. Last week's rainstorm with its winds from the northeast sent water 150 yards past his house and up his neighbor Strobel's driveway.

His fiancee, Stolfa said, told him that if the street flooding isn't fixed, "I have to buy her a truck."

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