Three years since superstorm Sandy hit Long Island, the maelstrom is still taking financial, physical and emotional tolls on its victims.
Officials estimate that the storm damaged or destroyed 300,000 housing units in New York State -- 100,000 on Long Island, with 2,000 of them deemed uninhabitable. It knocked out power for 2 million utility customers statewide and disrupted passage on 2,000 miles of road statewide, while snarling surface transportation on roads and rails.
The financial costs were unprecedented, reaching billions of dollars in damages to buildings and homes, roads and bridges statewide, according to the National Hurricane Center, with half a billion dollars worth of damage to Long Island alone.
In response, Congress passed a $60 billion relief bill in January 2013, a measure that included $17 billion for the Department of Housing and Urban Development to distribute, nearly $10 billion in Federal Emergency Management Agency funds and a boost in aid for the Army Corps of Engineers, among other agencies.
New York received $17 billion of the funding. About $4.4 billion came from HUD to launch an array of programs designed to help New Yorkers -- most of whom were Long Islanders -- recover from Sandy and her predecessors, Tropical Storms Irene and Lee.
The Governor's Office of Storm Recovery, created in Sandy's wake, said recently that as many as 11,471 households in the state were eligible to receive $916 million in funding for home repairs, rehabilitation, mitigation and elevation.
Just over half of that amount has been disbursed, officials said on the eve of the storm's third anniversary.
Of the 11,471 cases handled, 2,500 will be closed out by the end of October and 3,000 by the end of the year, officials said.
Another 2,000 are challenging or seeking amendments to their awards, leaving the majority -- 6,000 -- in a kind of limbo borne of bureaucracy.
But regular Long Islanders say that the emotional toll, unmeasurable by tangible yardsticks like dollars spent, pieces of furniture ruined or gallons of floodwater invading a home, may have the most lasting impact on their lives.
Theirs is a sentimental calculus that tracks the storm's impact in tears. They complain of weeks spent out of their homes. They bemoan the disruption of commutes to schools and houses of worship, the postponement of sacred rituals and play dates.
Three years on, Long Islanders affected by the storm find themselves at disparate points on an uneven journey to recovery.
Their stories are as varied as their addresses. Some, like Warren and Diana Milks of West Islip, were able to marshal resources right away and reconstruct their homes with cash, funds borrowed from 401(k) plans or relatives, and flood insurance payments.
Others, like Tom and Sue Daniels of Lindenhurst, took advantage of a raft of programs administered by NY Rising, the agency created to process applications and distribute funding, and waited for repair and reconstruction checks to arrive.
Some, like Linda and Larry Gruttemeyer of West Babylon, sold their homes outright, at pre-storm values -- and are satisfied after a protracted negotiation over the selling price. Others still wait for a final sale date.
Then there are the Barones, who felt priced out of Long Island and left their Baldwin home for an upstate escape.
Still another unquantifiable group that includes Daniel and Amanda O'Sullivan of Babylon Village, has been unable to make real progress with repairs and, for various reasons, did not sell their homes to the state for auction.
Isabel Muñoz Doerbecker, coordinator of the Residential Rebuilding Assistance Program for the City of Long Beach, said a good portion of Sandy's victims are waiting to be paid or for NY Rising to make decisions on their cases, if only because they are all financially tapped out.
"A lot of people don't have the funds," Doerbecker said. "They just wait. They're in limbo. . . . We've come across clients who are still living [at home] and there's mold."
THE O'SULLIVANS: They still can't go home again
A hole sits where their house once did.
On a recent night, the O'Sullivans stood at a podium before the Babylon Village Zoning Board of Appeals with architectural plans, a map and a modest plea: Let us get back the house that superstorm Sandy took.
The O'Sullivans are among a select, if unlucky, group of Sandy victims: They are no closer to having their own roof over their heads today than they were days after Sandy cast the couple and six children into the street.
Four feet of water settled in the house, cracking the foundation and rendering it uninhabitable. The village housing inspector condemned it. In early 2014, the O'Sullivans knocked it down, leaving the hole.
They started from scratch and drew up plans to get back on their feet.
They now rent in West Babylon, with interim mortgage assistance from NY Rising, and drive their kids to school in Babylon every day. The ritual maintains ties and retains the daily rhythms and environs that create the sense of normalcy they once had. But they long for the real thing.
"It's the single most stressful thing I have ever been through in my life," Daniel O'Sullivan said, adding that he and his wife have lived in the Prospect Street home with their children, ranging from 11 to 22 years old, for 27 years.
The O'Sullivans attribute what they call the snail's pace of their recovery to hurdles stemming from government agencies including NY Rising, FEMA and Babylon Village, which has not yet granted the couple a permit to rebuild despite their submitting an application late last year.
That was the reason they came to the board recently with revised plans to build a shorter home -- one that's 29 feet off the ground -- than the original 32-foot off the ground, 928 square-foot one they began proposing in December 2014 and revised several times, each time feeling the sting of the board's rejection.
The five design proposals they have submitted so far have cost $25,000, the demolition $22,000, O'Sullivan said. Debts and bills and frustration are adding up.
"I'm trying to move back into my old neighborhood," said Daniel O'Sullivan, who works for Northrop Grumman. "I want my kids to live in their old neighborhood again."
At the zoning board hearing, several neighbors complained about whether the new home would be too big or set back far enough not to obstruct their views of the street when leaving their driveways. Why haven't they mowed the parcel, which becomes unsightly with weeds and attracts mosquitoes, one neighbor wondered. What's taking so long?
The fight at village hall comes long after other battles with FEMA, which the O'Sullivans sued and reaped a $194,000 settlement, but paid $80,000 in legal fees that can't be recouped. It comes after NY Rising took a chunk out of their award because the state agency deemed the money from FEMA a duplication of benefits.
"We are not trying to get rich," Daniel O'Sullivan said. "We are trying to go home. We are optimistic we will get back home, but our resolve, while firm, grows strained after three years."
THE DANIELSES: After long ordeal, leaving Long Island
They have been sleeping in a trailer for the past few weeks. But any day now, Tom and Sue Daniels of Lindenhurst will stand back and watch as the Verona Parkway home they shared for 27 years gets lifted off the ground, three years after superstorm Sandy.
But the couple may be long gone before another storm of that magnitude shows up.
The Danielses are at what they hope is the last stage of recovery from superstorm Sandy, the end -- hopefully -- of a lengthy period of anxiety and limbo shared by thousands of other Long Islanders who can't seem to get things back to the way they were.
Many languish at stages of recovery hampered by what seems to be the slowest of paperwork pushing, or delayed disbursement of initial reimbursement checks to pay for repairs. Some have run out of grant money and have no savings left, so they sleep in or, like the Danielses, just outside of incomplete, waterlogged homes.
The Danielses are days away from executing the mandatory elevation that state and federal officials say will make every home a bulwark against another Sandy strike. The Daniels house took on 31/2 feet of water and was declared 62 percent damaged, making them eligible for funding through NY Rising.
When the water receded, they lived on the top floor of the house, took out loans and began renovating.
But while Tom Daniels knows he's on the back end of the storm's wrath, having spent over $200,000 worth of loans, savings, flood insurance and grant money provided by NY Rising and FEMA, he plans to pick his things up again, not unlike many who scattered the night Sandy struck, and leave Long Island behind.
"When we moved out of the house on Friday, it hit us," said Daniels, 66, who recently retired from the U.S. Postal Service. "It hit us to the point where mentally, physically we had had enough."
The couple plans to relocate to South Carolina, closer to a set of grandkids, after the elevation is done.
"We've been in that house since 1988," Daniels said. "This was my mother-in-law's house. She bought it in early 60s. This was the house my wife was brought up in. There's a lot of memories in that house."
On a recent Friday, Daniels was driving and to and from his trailer, which is shoehorned into a corner of his nephew's yard in Lindenhurst, coordinating a variety of utilities including National Grid and PSEG.
"You feel out of control over the most important financial thing you have in your life -- your house -- and you don't have control at all," he said, recalling a sense of helplessness in the months after the storm.
Those initial months after applying for funding through NY Rising, he said, featured absent and revolving case managers, webs of voice mail, few calls back.
His lament echoes the complaints of the thousands who are still not yet made whole, who say they have endured seemingly arbitrary rule changes and lost paperwork that have put them near the proverbial back of the line. Delays, delays and more delays.
"People weren't answering their phones," Daniels said of several case workers until he was approved for expedited case management.
"I was between a rock and a hard place," he said of the days before he was eligible for expedited case management. "It gave me options. And one of the worst things in this whole process is that I haven't had many options."
THE BARONES: Storm-tossed family heads upstate
Some families chose to leave, to say goodbye to a Long Island that was barely affordable before Sandy hit, let alone after stormwaters pushed across much of the South Shore.
No longer was it the home of their youth or a future they could sustain.
For Richard and Daniela Barone and their daughter Alexandra, Sandy forced them from Baldwin to Clifton Park, a small suburb north of Albany.
"We were struggling to begin with," Daniela Barone said. "Once Sandy hit, that was it. We couldn't do Long Island any longer."
The Barones and their neighbors along Barnes Avenue found their houses inundated with a mix of water and sewage after power failed at the Bay Park sewage treatment plant. The pipes blocked and ruptured under the pressure, shooting raw sewage out of manhole covers.
"There were things on my front lawn that should never had been on my front lawn," said Daniela Barone, 48.
Nassau County washed neighborhood streets but it took two weeks for residents to get any assistance. After touring the area, County Executive Edward Mangano promised to help residents clean up. They sent environmental consultants to evaluate, clean and sanitize the homes.
The Barones got $100,000 from their flood insurance and used that amount to gut and restore the bottom floor of their three-bedroom home. They weren't eligible for New York Rising aid, in part because the county did a lot of repair work and because the home was not substantially damaged.
"We really struggled and we said it's just not worth it," Richard Barone, 62, said.
So they put their house up for sale and last year moved up to Clifton Park. Alexandra's choice of college -- she is now 19 and a sophomore at SUNY Potsdam -- helped pick the location.
Daniela Barone, a shift manager at CVS, was able to transfer. Richard Barone, who had heart surgery before the storm and struggled with health problems when they first moved, is on disability.
The family now lives in a two-bedroom apartment in a well-kept complex, where chipmunks dig up the dirt plantings and two Fortunoff statues of children Daniela rescued from the yard stand watch outside.
The weather is colder, and the pizza is not as good, but it's more affordable and less risky, said Richard Barone, who had lived in Baldwin since 1966.
Alexandra still tries to make it down to see friends but getting settled has not been easy. "It felt like home there," she said. "Up here, it doesn't."
The Barones' home has been on the market for two years and they are negotiating with the bank for a short sale.
They are also waiting on the funds promised from a settlement with the county.
The Barones and 50 others in Baldwin and East Rockaway sued Nassau County in state Supreme Court in January 2014, seeking restitution for damage to their homes and contents, cost of cleanup and personal injuries from exposure to sewage. The case was settled out of court in August and the county paid $291,000 to 51 homeowners, the amount depending on damages, said Public Works spokeswoman Mary Studdert.
THE MILKSES: Benefits paid, repairs done, home at last
The water has returned to its source, the Great South Bay, and things are back to normal now for the Milkses of West Islip, who are among about 3,000 people who have finished repairs or elevations through NY Rising's programs, but they'll never be the same.
Their ranch-style home is a little higher and much drier since 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 29, 2012, the evening when superstorm Sandy paid a visit to the Sequams Lane home and upended their lives.
"We had approximately 3.5 feet of water in the house and we were displaced," said Warren Milks, a retired automotive shop owner, looking back on the storm he had shrugged off as a passing shower since no weather event had ever penetrated the house.
"I had been through a ton of storms and no water came in the house," he said, adding that he had lived there for 22 years.
As it was with thousands of Long Islanders, this time was different, Milks said.
Water climbed in underfoot, seeping through cracks in the floor and amassing into a wading pool and sending the frightened Milkses into cold, chest-high water as they walked through dark streets in search for higher ground at a daughter's home, north of Sunrise Highway.
They would stay there for a few days with another daughter and Cody, their 9-year-old 90-pound black Labrador, in tow, until they rented an 8-by 20-foot construction workers' trailer and parked it on the driveway, where they'd live for another two months.
The amenities weren't lavish, but it was the closest thing to home.
"We ran wires into it from the house," Milks said. "I had cable television, a refrigerator and two beds," he said. "What more could I ask for?"
Three weeks after Sandy hit, Milks, who had no flood insurance to rely on, hired a contractor to start repairing his home, at his own expense.
"I knew this was going to be on me because I had to get back into my house," he said. "We ended up ripping out everything from the ceiling down. We redid the whole inside of the house."
State officials pegged the price of the repairs at $173,000 and Milks applied for and received money from FEMA, about $61,000, and another $112,000 from NY Rising.
The water ruined beds and tables, floor boards, walls and pictures, some items irreplaceable and others expendable. And the Milkses were back in the home within three months, Warren Milks said, before NY Rising was created a few months later.
But after two more years of filing forms for reimbursement, in June they were assigned a NY Rising case worker who helped expedite their applications. They received their last payment in August and NY Rising closed their case on Aug. 27.
Everything is closer to normal now except the Milkses are missing one family member: Cody contracted cancer and died last year.
"He was a great dog," Milks said, adding that he was impressed enough with his expediter's services that he wrote a letter commending her work.
"Without her, I would still be waiting for my money," he said, "and I had no problems with NY Rising or FEMA."