Sandy evacuees spend the holidays in hotels

Superstorm Sandy flooded the home of the Korman Superstorm Sandy flooded the home of the Korman family, making it unlivable and destroying most of their belongings. They are now living in a hotel during the holidays in Massapequa Park. (Dec. 18, 2012) Photo Credit: Heather Walsh

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A little girl looked up anxiously at the front desk clerk of the hotel in Massapequa Park where she was staying with her family and asked: "Do you think Santa will know that I'm here? He usually goes to my house and my house isn't there."

The clerk at that Best Western Bar Harbour Inn, Kathie Heloskie, recalled telling her not to worry, Santa would find her.

The child's family was one of the many displaced from homes damaged by superstorm Sandy, and now facing the holidays in a hotel room. Two weeks after the storm, there were no vacancies in Long Island's hotels, motels and inns. One hotel, a FEMA temporary housing site, reported getting 6,000 calls a day. Now, Sandy's remaining evacuees take rooms wherever they can find them and for however long they can get them.

It can be hard to drum up holiday spirit amid the worry and weariness created by weeks of dislocation as these families struggle with insurance, work and reconstruction. And yet, families say they find consolation in being together and the comfort of rituals -- even in a hotel.

"Your whole perspective and priorities change, knowing how quickly you can lose the ones who you love," said Tanya Alvino, 31, a marketing director at a Manhattan advertising firm who has been staying with her parents, Joseph, 65, a disabled Vietnam War veteran, and Deborah, 56, a retired school crossing guard, at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Rockville Centre since Nov. 2.

They barely escaped the floodwaters that cascaded into their Island Park ranch, now gutted and ready for an "as is" sale early next year. And though Christmas at home with friends and relatives is impossible this year, she's reconciled to it.

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"Really, regardless of where you are, as long as you are with your family, it doesn't matter where you live," Alvino said. "As long as you are with the ones you love, you can be at home."

The family salvaged some Christmas decorations, which are now arranged on an end table in the hotel room: a little wooden Christmas tree, a wooden nutcracker, Santa in a sleigh, and snowmen.

"It's very touching to look at," said Joseph Alvino. He has found it difficult to focus on celebrating Christmas, however, "when you have so much on your plate." It's different for the women, he said. "They want to make things nice."

His son Michael, 33, usually flies home from Los Angeles in time for Christmas Eve dinner. Relatives and friends visit on Christmas Day. This year, the family told him not to come: They'll eat out Christmas Eve and share a quiet Christmas Day in their hotel room.

'I just want to go home'

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For Michael Korman, 45, and his wife, Bonnie Alvo-Korman, 44, and their daughter Haleigh, 5, the weeks since muddy, sludgy water flooded their split level on a Seaford canal have been exhausting.

After having the sodden contents of their cold, dark house removed, they fled first to her mother's home for a week, then spent another week sleeping on the floor of his father's small apartment in Queens. They finally found a hotel room, for three nights, at the Best Western in Woodbury.

They were then directed to the chain's Massapequa Park location: It had available rooms because, at first, its heat and power had not yet been restored.

They've been there for three weeks, first in one room, then when they thought they'd have to leave, a sudden cancellation opened up the room they are now in.

They hope to stay at least until Jan. 13 when their latest FEMA housing assistance extension runs out.

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Families receive $3,100 a month for housing expenses from FEMA, but funds often don't fully cover expenses of hotel rooms and restaurant food.

"Not to sound like a grinch, but we're not even in the holiday spirit," said Alvo-Korman, a medical biller in a doctor's office. "There's that movie 'The Year Without Santa Claus.' We've had a year without trick-or-treating, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and New Year's. Maybe we'll have Valentine's. I just want to go home."

That might take a while. They're waiting for insurance settlements before proceeding with repairs to their now-gutted home.

Trying to keep magic alive

When Hanukkah began Dec. 8, they propped an electric menorah atop the sofa in their room. "I didn't even feel like shopping, but I didn't want to deprive her," said Alvo-Korman. So they shopped, and Haleigh, a bouncy kindergartner whose smiles unveil missing front teeth, received Lalaloopsy dolls and a Hello Kitty pocketbook and a stuffed animal backpack with a throw.

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And it isn't quite true that they've missed all the holidays completely: They ate Thanksgiving dinner at Runyon's Restaurant in Seaford, which hosts a feast every year with donated food and volunteers. Said Korman: "They did it right. I was very touched by that. You see a lot of terrible stuff, but you see a lot of good too."

And, said his wife about the hotel staff, "They've been really wonderful."

Maude Kogut, 38, her daughter, Arianna, 7, her disabled sister Audrey, 44, and 71-year-old mother Hannah have been at a Holiday Inn in Ronkonkoma since shortly after Sandy hit. Contractors said their Lindenhurst home may be ready by Christmas.

"Four people in one hotel room -- it's hard," Kogut said.

The family celebrates both Hanukkah and Christmas. This year has forced adaptation and substitution, Kogut said. "It's depressing when you can't deliver tradition."

With candle flames a hazard in a hotel room, Audrey found a card where flame stickers served as menorah lights.

"I'm trying to keep the magic alive at least for her," Kogut said of Arianna. "I want to do everything normal and give my child a Christmas. I'm going to do what I can. If I have to get a little Charlie Brown Christmas tree for our hotel room, I'll do it."

Arianna's "Elf on the Shelf" survived the flooding and now sits in their hotel room. Santa will bring presents, and most importantly, Kogut said, her daughter will continue her tradition of wearing a new Christmas dress.

Arianna loves to get dolled up in frilly pageant dresses, Kogut said, and thanks to the generosity of friends and strangers, this year will be no exception.

"It makes her feel good," she said. "If that makes her feel good, that's what we do."

With Denise M. Bonilla

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