A Sunday variety hour on AM radio has morphed into a road show where victims of superstorm Sandy air complaints, concerns and anecdotes about their lives in limbo -- not yet back in their homes nearly two years later.
The host, Howie Appel, whose on-air name is Halftime Howie, passes a cellphone to each guest during the live broadcast that takes place at a new venue each week, transforming a home, a restaurant or the vacant lot where a damaged house once stood into an open-air studio and a grassroots platform for activism.
"There is more awareness because of it," said Anna D'Amaro, president of the Island Park Civic Association. She said the show has raised key issues -- specifically, how long it is taking for Sandy victims to get back into their homes and their experiences with NY Rising, the state agency charged with helping people repair and raise their homes or sell them.
"The show is getting the word out there and letting people understand someone has to help us," she added. "Someone's got to be listening."
Appel usually begins the show, aired on WGBB/1240 AM at 7 p.m., with the gusto of a sports announcer giving a blow-by-blow account of a game-winning play in the final, frantic seconds of the Super Bowl.
Wherever the location, he stands among a group of about 12 to 15 people, some of them holding signs. Most are from Island Park, but the show also has drawn residents of Long Beach and Oceanside.
"Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen!" he shouted into the phone one week while standing on the porch of a storm-wrecked home in Island Park. "I am Halftime Howie and this is 'Broadcasting on the Beach with Halftime Howie!' "
Guests, and Appel himself, swatted mosquitoes and scratched their bare arms as darkness fell on the crowd holding placards on one humid day. Another week, they gathered in a dimly lit restaurant to broadcast as curious diners looked on over their wine glasses.
"I try to support the Island Park-Long Beach community," Appel said, adding that he also highlights local businesses, some of which advertise with him. "We will not stop until everybody is back in their home."
Still waiting for aid
Their verbal barbs are trained on NY Rising, the agency distributing $4.4 billion in federal recovery funds to homeowners, businesses and municipalities after Sandy and tropical storms Irene and Lee. It has become, for some, the epitome of bureaucratic molasses, as storm-affected residents continue to live in rentals or the homes of relatives more than 23 months afterward.
D'Amaro, still living in a trailer outside her home, drew nods from the group when she said on one episode that NY Rising needs to "step up" and attend to residents' needs.
Agency officials said such characterizations are unfair and inaccurate. Delays reflect the sheer scale of the recovery effort, they said, and often there are glitches in victims' applications for money for repair, reconstruction or property acquisition.
"The homeowners profiled on this radio show have already received checks from NY Rising for as much as $130,000 to over $200,000," said Barbara Brancaccio, spokeswoman for NY Rising.
"Collectively, they have been awarded over $800,000 from NY Rising, in addition to funds they have received from insurance, FEMA and other public and private sources," she added. "Any delays they are experiencing are the result of further federal requirements because they have requested more money, or because they have chosen to switch programs and instead have their homes purchased at pre-storm value through the acquisition program."
The homeowners acknowledge they have received some money from NY Rising, but none is fully reimbursed.
One of them, Mary Ellen Malone, a 25-year Island Park resident, told listeners that she razed her home in December but still is awaiting payments.
"First we were victims of Sandy," she said after a segment at the unpaved empty lot on Kent Road where her home once stood. "But now we're victims of NY Rising."
Wide reach on radio
Appel, 57, of Merrick, has broadcast the Sandy-focused shows from community locales as well as the AM station's West Babylon headquarters.
Recent venues are Jimmy Hays Steakhouse, Bridgeview Yacht Club, Gran Paradiso restaurant and Wood Designs Deluxe Corp. The shows at homes, he said, remind listeners that many remain gutted.
On one August night, the porch of Magdalena Stovickova and Carmen Skrine's home on Sunset Avenue did the trick. Other weeks, it was D'Amaro's home, or the vacant lot where Malone's home once stood.
The show's non-Sandy guests have been as varied as psychologist Thomas Ferraro of Williston Park, general contractor Ben Jackson of Freeport, and Christine Filardi of East Atlantic Beach, author of "Home Cooking for Your Dog."
Stovickova's home's exterior was covered with signs saying, "Island Park Needs Help, Not Promises," "Homeless With A Mortgage" and "We Survived Super Storm Sandy But Not NY Rising & FEMA."
On one show, she took the phone and spoke of her daughter's birth two months after Sandy struck Oct. 29, 2012 -- and how she still isn't in her home.
"It's very upsetting, because when I was leaving the hospital they were asking me, 'Do you have postpartum depression?' " she said. "I answered, 'No, I have post-Sandy depression,' and actually I was suffering from it and freaking out every day since Sandy."
A raw reminder
The show is raw and unscripted. Appel can make last-second switches of guests halfway into commercial breaks, sometimes asking guests if they think it's a good idea.
Volunteers Maor Minch and Rocco Passafuime film shows with a smartphone and post them on YouTube and Facebook.
While each week has a main theme -- superstorm Sandy victims, depression, bullying or home cooking for pets -- each also has mainstays delivered by local residents, usually high school students and college-age residents such as Minch and Passafuime: local history, a travel or science report, an arts review, live singing, sports.
Sandy became a focal point after Appel saw a posting online by D'Amaro. He invited her to the show after she wrote a post on the Facebook account of a group called Long Beach Rising.
That was more than four months ago. Since then, D'Amaro began advertising her firm, Sea Coast Realty, on the show as she serves as a contact for Sandy victims with a lot to say.
"We were one of the first 2,000 applications with NY Rising, and they've messed up our files so badly that we have no idea when we're going to get the money we need," Cathy Corbett of Island Park said on a recent show. "Our house is half-done, but there's no pipes, no electricity."
The show is a weekly reminder of Sandy's enduring damage.
"I think it's been pretty good," D'Amaro said of how it has drawn Sandy victims to the airwaves.