They turned on gas ovens, burned fires, huddled around space heaters and bundled up beneath blankets.
Through nor'easters, blizzards and frigid temperatures, the homeowners -- many of them elderly -- stuck it out for weeks in the shells of their Sandy-ravaged homes, unable to afford repairs to their heat and hot-water systems.
Then a Long Island Housing Partnership program, using private donations, made the difference. It has helped about 50 households so far -- in Freeport, Lawrence, Lindenhurst, Oceanside and other communities. Some wept the day their heat and hot water returned.
And more than four months after the Oct. 29 storm, the Hauppauge-based nonprofit agency said calls still are coming in -- mainly from seniors on limited incomes.
"You don't know what it means, a man of my age, to feel shut out from help," said Frank Zerbe, 71, a retired carpenter, who got a new boiler for his home in Lawrence's Meadowmere Park just last month. He has not yet received an insurance settlement for damage from Sandy, he said.
The new boiler "brought some respect back into my life," Zerbe said.
'As broke as can be'
About 20 households are having new equipment installed in coming days, said Peter Elkowitz, the partnership's president. The program funds as much as $5,000 a home, which includes purchase and installation of new hot-water heaters and oil burners.
Funding for the program was made available from the agency's "lending partners," which include several major banks and the Robin Hood Foundation.
The program's officials said they have no firm knowledge of how many others remain in the cold, unable to move elsewhere, unaware of available assistance and fearing vandalism if they leave their homes.
"My feeling is there are definitely still people out there who need help and haven't heard of our program yet -- we're still getting phone calls with requests," Elkowitz said. "Initially the calls came mainly from single-family homes. But more recently they've been from a lot of seniors and multifamily homes, particularly in areas that were devastated in and around Freeport and Long Beach."
Installation work is done by a handful of licensed plumbers led by Mario Mattera, a business agent with Plumbers Local Union 200.
Mattera, who has volunteered his time, said organizing the plumbers has been an emotional experience.
"People need quality help," he said. "Knowing these people are warm and can take a hot shower at home has been one of the most fulfilling moments in my life."
Zerbe, who said he has emphysema and arthritis, used a fireplace and his gas oven for heat for more than three months. His total monthly income, from Social Security and a reverse mortgage, is $1,850, he said.
The storm left him "as broke as can be," Zerbe said. "It's going to take a couple of years to pay this storm off . . . I used to make ends meet, but this threw me back into another dimension."
"I'm so grateful -- what else can I say?" she said about the housing program's assistance that provided her home with heat and hot water on Dec. 6. "This was what enabled us to stay together as a family, and that means everything to me."
New equipment on way
Freeport residents Loretta and Eddie Heredia lost a hot-water heater and several appliances when Tropical Storm Irene flooded their home's basement in August 2011. Sandy brought worse -- a surge of 81/2 feet of water that raised the couple's oil tank off its footing, with the oil-laden water flooding the basement and first-floor kitchen and living space.
Eddie, 50, is on disability after a work-related spinal injury. Loretta has worked 25 years for the U.S. Postal Service. Since Sandy, they have lived with Eddie's mother nearby.
Tomorrow, the Heredias will get their new gas-fired boiler and hot-water system. They hope to move back into their home in another month.
"It's been absolutely overwhelming," Loretta said of the last few months. "If it wasn't for volunteer organizations' kindness and generosity, we never would have been able to get to where we are."
Those seeking more information about the Long Island Housing Partnership program may call the agency at 631-435-4710 weekdays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Robin Hood Foundation: $200,000
Bank of America: $40,000
United Way of LI: $50,000
JPMorgan Chase: $75,000
Total funds: $465,000
Amount spent so far: $255,000
Number of households helped so far: 50
Number scheduled for help in coming weeks: 20
Source: Long Island Housing Partnership