Rockland County's Sandy victims: Financial red tape hampers recovery
Nearly four months after superstorm Sandy hit the Northeast, homeowners and merchants in Rockland County continue to struggle through the financial red tape of insurance companies and federal and local agencies.
Wearing a plastic mask over his mouth and a flashlight strapped to his forehead, 56-year-old P.C. Allison walked out of his Sandy-ravaged Stony Point home Saturday afternoon, carrying an armful of belongings salvaged from the second floor of the modest brown shingled dwelling he once called home.
It was one of the only armfuls of his life he was able to save.
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"I had to wait over 90 days to get into my own home," said Allison, whose thick, white plastic gloves and clothing were covered in dirt and mud. "The town had it boarded up and told me it was off-limits until now."
He found his soot and sewage-covered clothing frozen together in drawers sealed shut by the raging waters that swept through his home at 41 Beach Rd. on Oct. 29. He said he had to break down his dresser with a sledgehammer just to get it open.
Allison, who has been staying with his mother in Garnerville, said the town had contractors go to his home to board up the blown-out windows -- three sheets of plywood that ended up costing him $624.
"I don't have flood insurance -- FEMA gave me nothing," Allison said. "They told me to take out an SBA (U.S. Small Business Association) loan. At 56 years old, I'm going to take a 40-year loan for that? The town wants me to raise it 10 feet above sea level, too. Where's all this money coming from?"
Sandy clobbered Rockland County -- one of the hardest-hit places in the Hudson Valley -- and caused more than $140 million in county costs and damage to businesses and schools alone. Hardest hit of all: Stony Point and Piermont where the Hudson's rising waters swallowed up homes and businesses as it surged.
Allison said his homeowners insurance paid out $5,800 for wind damage, but wouldn't cover anything else.
"They're calling it a storm surge so they're not liable for anything but wind damage," Allison said about his insurance company. "I'm $279,000 in the hole. It's a total loss. I'm done."
Allison said he was still forced to pay his $2,700 tax bill in January and that a reassessment of his home can't be done until March. He has lost his faith in any help coming his way -- including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's plan to set aside $400 million out of the $51 billion federal aid package to buy out homes that have been severely damaged along shorelines.
"Everybody's a cheerleader lately, Obama, the guy in Jersey, Cuomo, but nothing is getting done," Allison said. "It's painful every step of the way."
FLOOD INSURANCE FAILURE
Although FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program has handled more than 138,000 claims, with $4.1 billion paid out by companies that participate in the federal program, nearly 40 percent of people across the tristate area are still waiting for insurance money, according to The Associated Press.
People like Franco Buongiardina, who lives a few lots up the road from Allison, have relied on friends, family and local businesses to help them fix their homes while they await their insurance checks to be cleared by their banks.
"I feel lucky at this point, even though I'm waiting for the money, I know it's coming. It'll be here," said Buongiardina. "I have to understand the fact that so many places are damaged on this block and in this area. The companies are very busy."
Buongiardina's two-story home sustained nearly $90,000 in damage. So far, he's gotten a $35,000 check from his insurance company. An inspector is expected to visit Buongiardina's home on March 11 to do one last walk-through before the final checks from the insurance company will be cut.
HELP FROM FRIENDS
While mold was growing rampantly through Buongiardina's home, he knew he couldn't wait for the insurance money to clear. The companies that helped in making the repairs -- Raffa Plumbing, Beckerle Lumber Yard, Delco garage doors, Rainbow flooring -- have agreed to wait to get their cash, he said.
"It has a lot to do with taking care of people," said Tony Verzi, 46, who has owned New York State Construction in Thiells for about 10 years and was referred to Buongiardina through a family friend. "When somebody asks you to help out, you do what you can."
Verzi said his company has helped out others in the area -- work that amounts to about $60,000 that he still hasn't been paid for.
"We're being humane about it. We're looking at the circumstances for each person and giving good prices to those who need it," said Steve Beckerle, 56, whose family has owned the Haverstraw lumber shop since 1940. Although his own home suffered $250,000 in damage, Beckerle -- who does not have flood insurance -- has helped Buongiardina and other families.
Tony Serrano, 49, whose North Street home was flooded with three feet of water, just received a $40,000 insurance check last week after spending three months living with his wife and two kids at Stony Point Center. He's using the money to pay back family and friends who loaned him cash to make repairs while he awaits the last bits of insurance money.
"We had to wait over three months for this money," said Serrano, who works in the towing division for the New York Police Department. "FEMA was waiting on insurance. Insurance was waiting on FEMA. It was a mess. Paperwork and phone calls all day every day."
PIERMONT SUFFERS THE SAME
In Piermont, James and Veronica Artrip, both in their late 60s, have only received a sliver of $65,000 in flood insurance money from Hartford Insurance needed to fix extensive damage to their home on Piermont Avenue. Growing tired of sleeping in a mold-infested house, the couple retreated to a vacation home in Sarasota, Fla.
"They couldn't take it anymore," the Atrip's grandson, James Hill, 28, said outside their home Saturday morning. "The mold just keeps coming back. We've sprayed it and I keep the wood-burning stove on when I'm home to keep it dry. But what we really need is that money. We're at a dead end. Nobody has sent us any letters. No one has come by."
David Gerhardt, 53, whose auto body shop on Piermont Avenue was destroyed by rushing Hudson waters that tipped over oil drums, was not eligible for flood insurance before the storm. He was forced to take out a $50,000 loan -- which he received from M&T Bank at 3.6 percent -- a better rate than the 4 percent interest rate he was quoted by the SBA.
"I have yet to collect anything from unemployment," Gerhardt said. "Unemployment denied me and my two workers. We went to FEMA's disaster relief and we can't get anything. You pay into the unemployment service. You should be able to collect."
Gerhardt and his two employees were out of work for five weeks while they removed water and sludge from the shop along Piermont Avenue.
"We finally got back to work on Dec. 3," Gerhardt said. "There comes a point where you have to stop cleaning and start making money again. We still have some cleanup to do. Hopefully I can get to that soon."