Superstorm Sandy flooded Tonia Mitchell's Freeport home nearly 10 years ago. Lifting it was supposed to take four to six months. But six years after elevation work began, Mitchell still has not returned to her home. Credit: Howard Schnapp

A decade after Superstorm Sandy struck Long Island on Oct. 29, 2012, Celeste Jinks has a very different view on life, or at least of her neighborhood. Seeking to increase safety and peace of mind and reduce flood insurance payments, she raised her house, which now towers 9 feet above the land and is safe from the tides that go in and out nearby.

"Take a house, pick it up, put it in the air and set it back down," said Jinks, a 59-year-old Lindenhurst resident. "That’s not a normal thing anyone wants to go through. The angst is unnerving. When it’s done, you can move forward.''

As recent storms such as Ida, Elsa, Henri and Isaias hit Long Island, many residents once in Sandy’s crosshairs watched from houses raised high above the landscape.

"In some cases, building from scratch was the best idea," said Jeremy Garrett, owner of Bethpage-based Ironmen Building Movers and House Lifting, which he said raised more than 2,000 houses since Sandy. "In some cases, elevating was the best."

The cost for raising the houses ranged from $40,000 for a bungalow to more than $200,000, depending on size, he said, although the New York Rising program often footed much of the bill.

For homeowners, getting the funds and overseeing the projects took tremendous patience and tenacity. "If you got in the game like a bulldog, you got what you were supposed to get," Jinks said. "But you had to fight for it."

To elevate, residents typically relocated for months or more, sometimes getting stranded while projects stalled. "We were supposed to be out three months. That’s what was indicated on our contract," said Ben Grimaldi of Massapequa. "We were out nine months."

Whenever a big storm approaches Long Island, those who have rebuilt recall Sandy, which led to at least 13 deaths, knocked out power to 945,000 LIPA customers and damaged 95,000 homes and other structures.

Here, Long Island residents share their stories of facing the flood, raising and then moving into a newly lifted house. One resident is still rebuilding, nearly 10 years later.

"Houses that are raised in general are built extremely strong," Garrett said. "They’re built to a new building code."

"Take a house, pick it up, put it in the...

"Take a house, pick it up, put it in the air and set it back down," said Celeste Jinks, of the experience of rebuilding her Lindenhurst home. "That's not a normal thing anyone wants to go through. Credit: Barry Sloan

Wading, and waiting

Celeste Jinks, a rental agent for Fairfield Properties, saw Sandy up close from the second floor of her Lindenhurst home.

"We hunkered down," she said. "We just wanted to make it through the storm. And then you deal with the high tides." In addition to seeing the water rise, Jinks watched as houses burned a few blocks away.

"We were walking through our beautiful house in water," Jinks said. "The water receded and the lunacy began."

People who evacuated came back by boat, and some saw that their homes had been looted, she said. Jinks and her neighbors piled ruined cabinets, appliances and other items outside. "Everything I owned was on the curb," she said. "Beds, furniture, children’s christening blankets."

She filled out a New York Rising application for reimbursements, including house raising, and was told to resubmit after paperwork was lost.

Under the New York Rising program, homeowners and businesses damaged in Sandy could apply for grants to meet recovery needs not otherwise covered by federal assistance, private insurance or other sources. The grants covered home repairs, rehabilitation, mitigation, and elevation for the owners of single-family homes, two-family owner occupied properties and manufactured homes, according to the state.

Jinks and her family rented a house from a friend who welcomed them and their three dogs. Jinks said they paid $120,000 for the lift, excluding plumbing and electric destroyed in the process.

The lift began in October 2013, and the Jinkses returned seven months later. "I felt relieved," Jinks said. "You’re rising out of the ashes."

She feels safer from floods, but there is a downside to a lift. Elevated neighbors mean fences don’t provide privacy. "We tinted our glass so we can see out, but they can’t see in" Jinks said.

Fourteen steps lead to a big, beautiful house where they don’t store anything on the garage floor: Even the snowblower is hung up.

Jinks sees the lift as a happy ending and new beginning. "This is where my story started with my children," she said. "I’m a blessed woman. I got through it. My family’s unscathed. I have a beautiful home to live in."

Ben Grimaldi and his family expected to be out of...

Ben Grimaldi and his family expected to be out of their Massapequa home for three months while it was being raised and repaired, but the work took nine months. Credit: Newsday/Alejandra Villa Loarca

A difficult, expensive process

Ben Grimaldi, 63, director of compliance for Melville-based Superior Mortgage, used to see his Massapequa street flood routinely after bad storms. Soon after Sandy, shovels went into the ground to raise the street 22 inches and redo storm drains. He raised his house to 12 feet, further reinforcing it against possible floods.

"I’m comfortable and confident we shouldn’t have an issue, unless all of Long Island floods," he said.

Grimaldi and his wife, Laurie, 61, a registered nurse, moved into their house in 1994 across the street from a canal, three houses from Great South Bay. They left the beige, four-bedroom house with two and a half baths just before Sandy, only to return to a basement 6 feet under water with 4 feet on the main floor.

"It was a disaster," Grimaldi said. "It flipped tables, chairs and couches. The heating system was destroyed."

It took two and a half years for funding to be approved and to deal with delays due to turnover among caseworkers at New York Rising. The family moved out of their home on Halloween weekend of 2015, paid a deposit and waited for the lift to begin. "Nobody was coming to the house," he said. "Finally, we found out the guy [the contractor] was out of money."

The family spent more on storage and construction. "It was very difficult," Grimaldi said of their nine months away from home, with the five of them staying in his mother-in-law’s basement. "You’re living in much smaller quarters."

New York Rising provided about $255,000 and the Grimaldis kicked in an additional $150,000. Neither the homeowners nor flood insurance covered the raising of the home. "You see how fast it adds up," Grimaldi said.

They added steps with landings, redid floors with wood and porcelain tile and raised the land 2 feet, providing added protection against flooding, but didn't do any bulkhead work.

New York Rising reimbursed most expenses, but the Grimaldis paid for metal railings, pavers, Belgian block, fencing and a retaining wall. "I hope I live long enough to recoup the money I put into it," Grimaldi said.

He said his flood insurance dropped from $2,800 to $350, although some who didn’t raise say they pay $4,000 to $5,000.

"Everything is brand new and looks beautiful now," Grimaldi said. "You have real peace of mind, should a major hurricane come again."

In addition to having supervised the raising of her own...

In addition to having supervised the raising of her own Freeport home, Tonia Mitchell has been waiting for work on her parents' nearby home, above, to be completed. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

The end in sight, finally

A decade since Sandy hit, Tonia Mitchell, 61, isn’t done raising two houses after a wide range of complications.

A native of Freeport, Mitchell was living in the house she'd moved into in the village in 2000, near the home where her mother and stepfather lived, when Sandy struck.

"The furniture was shot," Mitchell said of her house after the storm. "It was a wet mess. We had a tree down in the back. The pool was caved in a little bit."

Mitchell, a retired New York City Police Department sergeant, applied for New York Rising funding, requiring a steady stream of paperwork including mortgage and rent receipts. "I called the number and got voicemail," she said. "Finally in January they told me my caseworker left in October. All this time, no one told me she was gone."

Mitchell redid her kitchen, dining room floor, heating, water heater, washer, dryer and refrigerator before being approved for elevation. The lift began in March 2016. "My contractor had throat cancer and it came back," she said. "Then the hunt begins for a new contractor."

She went through various contractors for her home and for her mother’s and stepfather’s house. "There’s nothing to compel contractors to finish jobs other than suing them," Mitchell said. "And suing them is not going to get the work done." She has been overseeing the work while living in a recreational vehicle she bought. "There are no stairs," she said of her house. "The front door is 16 feet up in the air."

Mitchell's mother, Joysetta Pearse, died in June at the age of 82. Her stepfather, Julius O. Pearse, 88, a retired Freeport police detective, lives in a three-bedroom trailer. His home is nearing completion. The couple were community icons who had led Nassau County's Black history museum in Hempstead, now named the Joysetta and Julius Pearse African American Museum of Nassau County.

Mitchell's house has its foundation and footing poured and is set to be framed. It will then be lowered and strapped to the foundation, utilities will be replaced and a cement slab floor and drywall added. She hopes to have it completed by April.

"I don’t regret doing it," Mitchell said. "I regret the process. I thought it was going to be great. I still do — when it’s done."

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