Thousands on LI await aid to rebuild after Sandy
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Only four Sandy-ravaged Long Island homeowners out of more than 4,000 who've so far qualified for federal housing reconstruction aid have received a check, seven months after the state's program to distribute the funds was created.
State officials defend the time it is taking to get the money to homeowners and say an increasing number of checks will flow in coming weeks and months. The officials said they had to first create an agency to handle the hundreds of millions of dollars that will eventually be distributed and ensure the necessary oversight is in place before any of the claims could be processed and paid.
For homeowners, that wait has been onerous and at times exasperating, however.
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Thirteen months ago, a weeping Eve Hough stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as he assured her the government would help her rebuild the home that the superstorm destroyed.
Hough, 71, of Lindenhurst, is still living with her daughter and grandchildren around the corner from the Great South Bay waterfront lot she called home for 37 years, where today a clutch of wooden pilings stand in place of her demolished home.
"He told me he would help us rebuild," she recalled last month of the Nov. 3, 2012, visit Cuomo paid the neighborhood, offering comfort to residents whose shoreside homes were destroyed. "I want to say to him, 'Governor, what happened?' "
Another homeowner, Bellmore resident Scott Cohen, likens it to being stuck inside a gerbil wheel: a mind-numbing cycle of filling out the same forms over and over, combined with visits to government offices.
Beyond the frustration of dealing with insurers and government bureaucracy, paperwork gone missing, archaic technology that has required re-faxing 150-page forms, homeowners say, there's also just confusion.
Top Cuomo officials acknowledge the wait has been tough but, aware of how the spending will be audited and scrutinized, they say each homeowner application must be meticulously vetted.
"I respect the level of frustration," said Jon Kaiman, the Cuomo-appointed special adviser for Long Island storm recovery. "We have many smart and dedicated people who truly want to help folks in need and we are going to get everyone through this process -- unfortunately it is a process and it takes time."
An intense vetting process
Setting up NY Rising, the temporary state agency charged with distributing U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds, first required hiring and training hundreds of home inspectors and caseworkers.
Because the money can only be used for "unmet needs," it is governed by federal rules that mean any money a homeowner received from insurance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, loans drawn down from the Small Business Administration or donations from charities must be deducted to arrive at the net amount a homeowner can receive from NY Rising.
That requires intense vetting -- tax liens, title searches proving property ownership, an individual's identity, insurance details, building and environmental inspections, payments from FEMA, the National Flood Insurance Program, and loan approvals from the Small Business Administration all must be verified.
Even so, by early October -- within six months of funds becoming available, officials say -- the program had received 10,000 completed applications from Long Islanders. By mid-October, 4,178 homeowners had received "award letters" representing almost half a billion dollars -- $445,841,494 -- in estimated reconstruction and reimbursement costs, and by early November another 1,800 homeowners had received property inspections as an initial step toward calculating their outstanding costs.
"It's very important we get it right," Kaiman said. "And that means there are a lot of checks and balances at every turn throughout the process that we are implementing, as required legally by the federal government."
Long Islanders who have outstanding costs for rebuilding homes after Irene and Sandy can apply to the program for reimbursement, others can seek assistance with reconstruction costs if they've yet to start -- or a combination of both if they're partway into repairs.
As of last week, only four Long Island homeowners, all of whom sought reimbursement for repairs already done, had received checks. But, Kaiman said, pending final agreements with homeowners, that number should grow quickly in the coming weeks and months.
Those receiving reimbursements can expect a check within 10 days of a final "closing" meeting, officials have said. For those still to start construction, approval of the "scope of work" is necessary before a homeowner's approved contractor can start seeking construction permits. Construction money is issued directly to a homeowner's contractor in three phases.
That it's taken this long is not good enough, according to Nassau County Legis. Dave Denenberg (D-Merrick), whose district is among those hardest hit. "Getting Sandy victims back in their homes should be government's top priority. It's unconscionable residents are still waiting for these funds so they can rebuild and return home," he said.
Bill Borruso, a Babylon resident who raised his home after Irene, is one of those who received an award letter by mid-October and is seeking reimbursement. The letter, which starts with the word "Congratulations!" felt like a cruel trick, he said.
"This whole thing is just so frustrating -- they dangle the carrot in front of you and then they whip the carrot away," Borruso said. "I'm OK, I rebuilt, but the poor people in my neighborhood, it's getting cold and they've still got nothing to help them get underway."
Borruso said last month he was told he must undergo one or two final checks, for fraud, environmental concerns, and then a final inspection and he'll be given a closing date.
Scott Cohen, 49, the Bellmore resident, is also awaiting reimbursement. A lawyer with a local practice before Sandy, he and wife, Amy, an elementary school teacher, stayed with friends while they rebuilt, but shortly after the storm, Cohen was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukemia and forced to give up his practice as he underwent a bone-marrow transplant.
The Cohens, with a teenage daughter still at home, were homeless until mid-July and borrowed money from friends and family for reconstruction. Cohen, who estimates he's short by around $100,000, also received an award letter recently.
Cohen said he was "guardedly optimistic" after receiving a phone call from Kaiman last month; "everything's done and you're ready to close," was the message. But added Cohen: "I'm all for accountability, just not at a snail's pace. I'm sure I'm one of a very few Mr. Kaiman is calling. I'm thankful he did, but at this point I'll believe the money when I see it."
Eve Hough knows a long road still lies ahead. But after Newsday contacted state officials asking about her case, there's been progress. Hough was delighted when she received a personal call from Kaiman. An NY Rising inspector and two other officials visited her property site last week and met with her architect and contractor.
Two weeks ago, she said she felt bleak. "If you have money, you're OK. You build and wait for the funds later. If you don't have money . . ." her voice trails off. "You're stuck. That's what it amounts to -- and most of the people down here don't have that kind of money."
Last week, she said: "I think I'm finally moving. It's such a weight off to feel a little bit of progress after one year -- I'm not so stressed."
THE APPLICATION PROCESS
-- Homeowner submits application and meets caseworker. Inspector assesses damage or completed repairs.
-- State issues "award letter."
-- Homeowners seeking reimbursement for completed construction agree to a settlement that outlines their obligations to ensure no duplication of benefit from other sources. Check due within 10 days.
-- Homeowners yet to begin construction engage an architect and engineer if needed, sign an agreement outlining the "scope of work" and hire an approved contractor, who obtains municipal approvals and permits.
-- Construction begins and 10 percent of the award is paid to the contractor. At midpoint, 50 percent is paid. Remaining 40 percent paid as construction ends, following a final inspection.