South Shore communities wrecked by superstorm Sandy are starting to rise again.
Homeowners are combining insurance payments or federal aid with personal savings and loans to repair or rebuild their homes. The threat of more devastation from future storms is overridden by the economics of Long Island's real estate market and homeowners' refusal to abandon a lifestyle by the sea.
Building permit data, obtained through Freedom of Information Law requests from local governments, shows growing momentum toward repairing and rebuilding as the anniversary of the Oct. 29 storm approaches. Homeowners, contractors and local officials confirm the spike in construction.
An analysis of building permits from 28 of 33 South Shore municipalities that responded to Newsday's request shows more than 23,000 permits were issued in the eight months after the storm -- an 11 percent rise in mostly residential construction and repairs stretching from the Town of Hempstead east to the Hamptons.
While many communities in shore areas still have displaced residents and block after block of damaged homes, many sitting empty, repair work overall is increasing.
Trucks rumbling, nail guns firing and pile drivers hammering poles into the ground echo through shoreline neighborhoods better known for the lull of the surf and calls of seabirds. New foundations are being poured, floors stripped and walls replaced as some storm-damaged dwellings are razed and others are raised.
Hundreds of millions in federal aid dollars from disaster recovery Community Development Block Grants being funneled through the state's Recreate NY Smart Home Programs are expected to further fuel the resurgence of a sturdier South Shore as residents seek resources to build back and better, state and local government officials said.
"People have had to struggle and wrestle with their insurance companies and FEMA and a variety of assistance programs, and so what you see now is more and more people working their way through those programs and getting to a point where they are ready to rebuild," Long Beach City Manager Jack Schnirman said.
The seaside city's building department "is inundated with rebuilding requests," he said. Like other municipalities eager to see their tax bases recover, Long Beach hired additional staff and waived some fees to accommodate the rush.
Most of the government jurisdictions in those communities received and approved many more requests for repairs, modifications, demolitions, building elevations and new construction through the first six months of 2013 compared with the same period last year.
While not all permits are related to Sandy damage, officials and contractors attribute much of the year-over-year rise to the storm.
Homeowners say they see no better options than to reinvest in their properties, partly because they can't recover costs if they sell in the affected area's still-depressed market.
But many also say they are not willing to abandon dream homes and the recreational lifestyle that comes with the waterfront.
For the most part, they didn't wait for a state program to buy out properties and offer assistance to relocate for those at risk of repeated flooding, choosing instead to renovate or rebuild houses better able to withstand the storms.
"I like it down here," South Shore native Christopher Wills, 50, said of his canal-side home in Babylon Village with a view of Babylon Cove.
Sandy sent about 3 feet of saltwater into his house, leaving floor, wall, plumbing and electric wiring damage.
"It's my first house and I'm not in a rush to go somewhere else," Wills, owner of the Paradise Saloon in West Babylon, said. "The bay and the ocean are right there and it's all nice . . . It's not such a bad spot to be trapped in."
State looks to help
New York has set aside $838 million of $1.7 billion in the first wave of Congress-approved rebuilding aid and plans to exceed $1 billion in funds toward residential rebuilding, officials from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's administration said. But those funds haven't been disbursed to date as requests start moving through the case management process.
The reconstruction program will not only grant funds to people who haven't been able to afford needed repairs and upgrades, but will in many cases reimburse homeowners who fixed their properties at their own cost, those officials said.
The state has received more than 5,500 applications for aid, with 93 percent of those requests coming from Long Island homeowners so far, and continues to work out of local application centers in affected shore communities.
Cuomo spokesman Elbert Garcia issued a statement saying that "while the recovery process does take time," the governor "is committed to relocating families to safer grounds, rebuilding homes, and strengthening neighborhoods so that communities will be better protected from future storms."
Release of those federal funds can't come soon enough for municipalities that have taken multimillion-dollar hits in infrastructure repairs and reduced tax revenue from Sandy-related reductions in the assessed values of properties, local officials said.
"We are seeing that as quickly as people get the resources they need to make the repairs they are doing just that," said Town of Babylon Supervisor Richard Schaffer.
Sandy damaged more than 95,000 buildings and resulted in flooding or other damage to about 10 percent of Long Island's 948,540 households, according to federal statistics issued in January. Power outages left more than 900,000 LIPA customers in the dark.
Peak in permits
Building permit approval started rising in January and peaked at nearly 4,000 in May, a 35 percent jump over the same month last year, Newsday's analysis found.
Permit requests in Long Beach and Babylon Village more than tripled in some months compared with last year.
Long Beach issued more than 1,500 residential building permits in the eight months after Sandy, a 143 percent increase from the previous year.
The Village of Ocean Beach recorded a 190 percent increase with 325 permits in the same period. Babylon Village issued 140 percent more permits with 247 in those eight months.
The rebuilding surge is driven by more than half a billion dollars in federal loans obtained by Long Island residents and tens of thousands of flood insurance claims. Homeowners have also borrowed outside of the government programs, using resources ranging from credit cards to home equity credit lines.
The U.S. Small Business Administration as of Aug. 19 had approved close to 8,000 of 15,000 requests for nearly $540 million in disaster loans in Nassau County. In Suffolk, the agency approved 2,600 of about 5,000 requests for more than $183 million in disaster loans.
Tens of thousands of Long Island homeowners had received payment for flood insurance claims covered by the National Flood Insurance Program through July, the last month for which figures were available, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
FEMA reported 26,235 claims had been processed and closed in Nassau County and 12,681 had been closed in Suffolk County, but it did not provide dollar amounts. FEMA also tracked 635 cases where homeowners received assistance for "increased cost of compliance" to prevent damage from future storms. Those residents in flood hazard areas received $30,000 each toward the cost of elevating their houses.
Added to that construction spike will be homeowners still filing insurance claims or waiting for aid.
More than 450 households are on a waiting list seeking Town of Babylon reviews to elevate their houses and access federal aid, Schaffer said.
The Town of Hempstead -- larger and more densely populated than Babylon -- recorded a 1 percent yearly increase in building requests after Sandy, but that represented a total of more than 4,000 construction plans, with many for homes along bays, boating channels and seafront areas, officials said.
The town set up a dedicated hotline and telephone bank to field Sandy-related calls to its building department, which Town Supervisor Kate Murray said were averaging 1,800 to 2,000 inquiries a week 10 months after the storm.
Murray said that despite the added work for town staff, the demand underscores the South Shore's resiliency.
"People are digging their heels in," she said. "They want to stay in their communities . . . People aren't just fleeing the island."
The rebuilding parallels federal efforts to strengthen the natural environment by restoring protective dunes and marshes that help keep floodwaters at bay.
The increased building activity is clustered in areas hit the hardest. Some towns and villages showed minimal increases in residential construction and some issued fewer building permits this year than last.
Brookhaven, for example, had 4 percent fewer permits issued after Sandy, but their figures reflect the size of the large town that stretches from the North Shore to the South Shore. Nonetheless, "there is a significant number of permits issued for repair and reconstruction related to Sandy," said Chief Building Inspector Arthur Gerhauser.
Amityville, which includes areas flooded by the storm, recorded a 54 percent drop in residential permits.
Working back to normalcy
But permits don't tell the whole story, said Amityville Mayor James P. Wandell. Many people completed emergency repairs that did not require permitting or planning board approval because the structures weren't lifted or drastically modified, he said.
"I can cite dozens of cases, going through the streets . . . where rebuilding didn't require a permit," Wandell said. "There was a lot of construction going on and we had Dumpsters out there for months" to collect debris.
The villages of Island Park, Lawrence, Mastic Beach, Saltaire and Westhampton Beach did not release their permitting data.
Homeowners often exhausted insurance funds and home elevation grants and tapped into savings or pursued loans.
Keith Schmidt, a middle-school teacher who lives in Freeport, said he paid at least $28,000 in repair costs to make his home livable. He didn't have the funds to elevate it and was using credit cards to cover repair work. His house flooded with about 14 inches of water during Sandy, creating at least $100,000 in damages, he said.
"I just want to get back to normal," said Schmidt, 39, a 10-year village resident. "It's something I'll have to deal with without insurance help."
Schmidt's house is among about 3,500 in Freeport that sustained storm damage -- about a quarter of the community's housing stock, according to Mayor Robert Kennedy and census figures. The village estimated that about 500 of those houses remained unoccupied.
Even with a 44 percent yearly jump in building permits since Sandy, "a slow influx of insurance payments" have kept many from rebuilding, Kennedy said.
"It's been devastating to the village," he said. "I am hoping . . . that finally some money will get out to the homeowners."
The reconstruction work has been a boon for the building trades after years of slow work in a weakened economy.
Bill Sims, who owns Sims Steel in Lindenhurst, said much of his work had shifted from commercial construction to residential elevations, and demand was rising.
"There's probably been more homes raised this last year than in the previous 20 years," said Sims, a contractor for more than four decades. "People are trying to put their lives back together . . . For them, this is a long journey to being whole again."
Pat Gordon, owner of Pat Gordon Contracting, said his employees haven't had to go outside their Long Beach base to find work in renovations, house lifts and new construction.
"I am only taking what we can handle," Gordon said. "If you come to Long Beach in the middle of a workday there's a traffic jam of construction trucks that has never been seen before."
Dawn and Mark Cozine were among Long Beach residents driving that recovery.
The house where they lived with daughters Rosemary, 12, and Audrey, 11, flooded despite being four feet off the ground.
The couple combined insurance money with retirement savings to restore walls and floors, replace furniture and raise the 1923 building about nine feet. They didn't know how much of the $130,000 they spent would be recovered but were happy to be back home by Labor Day.
"We are here 16 years and we plan to be here another 50 years," said Cozine, 47, a plant health safeguarding specialist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "A lot of people have come to realize that as much as you want to say, 'I am going to move elsewhere after the storm,' you want to stay where you are. You have your neighbors, you have the beach, your kids have friends here and it's beautiful by the water. Why would you want to move anywhere else?"