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Feds fault Town of Hempstead's post-Sandy rebuilding procedures

The Town of Hempstead seal.

The Town of Hempstead seal. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Hempstead homeowners rebuilding after superstorm Sandy were not properly told of damage assessments or granted permits, which could cost residents thousands in repairs and jeopardize flood insurance premiums, federal officials said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency found that after the storm hit in October 2012, damaging thousands of homes, the Town of Hempstead did not “manage their responsibilities to determine whether work necessary to restore a damaged building to its pre-damage condition constitutes repair of substantial damage.”

Hempstead Supervisor Laura Gillen said the town hid damage reports before she took office in 2018 and did not notify homeowners they were required to make repairs, such as elevating their homes in flood plains, to qualify for the National Flood Insurance Program.

“The preliminary assessments were stuck in a filing cabinet and the building department never told residents these assessments were done,” Gillen said. “They never flagged this issue for them and were not communicating with residents. They were letting them build without proper permitting.”

Gillen’s office sent letters to 13,000 homeowners who live in the flood plain who had a potential substantial-damage determination. The damage is determined based on actual loss from the flood during Sandy, the value of the structure, and whether a home needs to be altered to prevent future losses.

Residents may have repaired their homes but still may not be compliant with FEMA regulations and could be ineligible for future damage relief, Gillen’s Deputy Chief of Staff Rebecca Sinclair said.

Gillen said it’s possible some residents may still need to make repairs on their homes in order to qualify for flood relief -- and not know it. Some homeowners were not told work was required until after homes had already been repaired or sold.

FEMA officials first visited the town in May to review homes in the Special Flood Hazard Area and the town’s flood damage prevention regulations, permitting appeals and record keeping.

FEMA officials found several individual property violations and determined “the root cause for these violations is largely based on inadequate and/or the absence of administrative procedures.”

The town failed to require permits for construction and did not review permit applications to determine that construction and plans were done to minimize flood damage, according to a letter from FEMA. FEMA also found the town’s procedures to process variances did not comply with the National Flood Insurance Program.

Gillen, the Democratic supervisor who is seeking her second term Tuesday, called for firing the town’s flood plain manager. Gillen has twice requested hiring an outside auditing firm that was blocked by the Republican-majority town board. Two State Senate committees have asked New York’s Department of State to investigate the town building department’s damage assessments. She encouraged residents to demand their town council members fix the building department.

Republican Councilman Anthony D’Esposito said the town unveiled a plan in July to take internal measures to reform the building department.

“Accordingly, the town council members developed a plan to enhance operations, increase accountability and be responsive to the concerns expressed by FEMA,” D’Esposito said. “At the same time, our plan avoids the $500,000 increased costs that Supervisor Gillen attempted to dump on the backs of our town’s taxpayers.”

The town has up to six months to correct deficiencies cited by FEMA in flood plain development and permit procedures before FEMA takes enforcement actions.

Gillen is seeking a waiver program for residents with substantial damage to continue to receive flood insurance while making repairs. The town is also accepting appeals from homeowners for damage assessments, based on invoices from contractors and insurance reports.

The supervisor is also seeking a $4 million grant to assist residents making repairs and elevating homes. Gillen is also working with Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-Garden City) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) for grant funding and to require towns and villages to follow procedures for damage assessments.

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