Nearly 40,000 on LI apply for FEMA aid

Sally Walker, left, embraces FEMA representatives when they

Sally Walker, left, embraces FEMA representatives when they arrived at her home in Lindenhurst during the week after the storm. (Nov. 4, 2012) (Credit: Ed Betz)

Nearly 40,000 families on Long Island already have applied for disaster relief payments from the Federal Emergency Management Agency because of damages from superstorm Sandy, a federal official said Monday.

The FEMA application process is for families whose homes are uninhabitable or require repairs to meet minimum sanitary and security standards, agency spokesman Bill Rukeyser said.

As of Monday, 28,790 Nassau County families and 10,026 families in Suffolk County had applied for FEMA assistance.


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Viktoriya Rusiya, 65, of Long Beach, went to the FEMA Disaster Recovery Center there, at an ice arena on Magnolia Boulevard. Rusiya cried and shivered as she explained that her first-floor studio apartment on Shore Road flooded.

"I'm hoping they can help me," said Rusiya, who said she lost her job cleaning houses. "I really don't know what to do, but I thought I should come here and register and FEMA would tell me what to do."

The number of those who have applied for disaster relief are an early measure of how many Long Islanders already have applied for aid, either in person at a FEMA center or through a phone or online. They do not represent how many homes were destroyed or rendered uninhabitable.

So far, Nassau and Suffolk residents represent nearly 40 percent of all families that have applied for FEMA grants in the nine New York counties included in the federal disaster declaration stemming from Sandy's onslaught.

There is a $31,900 limit per family on FEMA assistance, set by federal statute.There is no minimum amount.

"This issue is, you've taken a hit and your home is either uninhabitable or taken severe damage and there are repairs necessary to meet basic standards," Rukeyser said. "We're not talking about 'I had an old Persian rug and it got waterlogged.' That's a shame, not a disaster.The Persian rug would be an insurance question, not a federal disaster question."

On Long Island, the reporting process to FEMA is complicated by the sheer number of people affected, the wait for power to be restored and the multi-layer government structure, local officials and a former senior FEMA official said.

To make a full assessment of how much FEMA housing aid is needed, local village and town officials must report to the county, which then reports to the state. Calls to several towns yesterday showed that process is ongoing.

"There are a lot of different entities that all have a responsibility up the chain in reporting to FEMA," said Andrew Sachs, vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based Witt Associates, who worked as a senior disaster response and mitigation official for FEMA in the Clinton administration.

Long Islanders who apply for FEMA grants can expect to see a FEMA inspector visit their property within a week to document storm damage, and to provide temporary housing assistance, such as a hotel or an apartment, until a longer-term solution is found. Cash assistance to rehabilitate a home comes within a few weeks of inspection, Rukeyser said.

"There's nothing like having money in your bank account so that you can make your own decisions as to what you need to begin your recovery," he said.

FEMA grants don't have to be repaid. Individuals and business owners also can apply for low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration while going through the FEMA assistance application.

In addition, the agency provides grants to local government entities to help pay costs stemming from storm response, such as overtime for fire departments and other first responders, or repairs to a flooded hospital wing, Rukeyser said.

The reimbursement is up to 75 percent of a municipality's costs, but could go higher.

Among FEMA's other responsibilities is pre-disaster planning -- positioning supplies and equipment to aid in disaster recovery, and coordinating the military and other government agency disaster response, Rukeyser said.

Monday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the Nassau and Suffolk county executives said the number of homes left uninhabitable still was being compiled. "You have a lot of homeowners, especially on Long Island, the Rockaways, Breezy Point, who are displaced," Cuomo said at a news conference.

Nassau Executive Edward Mangano said while an aerial survey of the county has been done, restoration of power is necessary to finish the assessment.

Mangano said he had heard broad estimates of 50,000 to 100,000 homes.

Suffolk County officials estimated 6,000 to 9,000 people may need temporary housing assistance. That means 2,000 to 3,000 homes are so badly damaged they either are uninhabitable or need significant rebuilding, spokeswoman Vanessa Baird-Streeter said.

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