The first bite of the excavator's jaws chomped into the roof above the living room of 187 Hudson Ave., the heart of the two-story Freeport home that Konstantinos Mastrogiannis had shared with his wife and their 11-year-old son.
Glass, wood and walls -- together the stuff of sanctuary, memory, protection -- broke apart and crashed to the earth.
Mastrogiannis, 58, a Roslyn florist, was on hand with a smartphone to witness this violent end to life as he had known it where Hudson Channel meets Van Buren Street. The demolition began promptly at 8 a.m. on Friday, Oct. 17. Ten minutes into it, he put away the phone, too distraught to continue.
"I thought I was going to be buried right over there," he said, pointing to a patch of grass in the yard as men in hard hats and safety vests watched the machine smash the skylight, sliding doors, floorboards, vertical blinds. "It's amazing. It takes two months to put up a house and two hours to take it down."
Almost two years after superstorm Sandy, the razing of the Mastrogiannis home was the first demolition of a Long Island property purchased by New York Rising, the state agency administering $4.4 billion in federal relief funds -- with much of that money for more than 50,000 single-family houses in Nassau and Suffolk counties that were severely damaged.
The second such razing on the Island came Tuesday in Lindenhurst on Pacific Street, and federal Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro was on hand to witness the start of the process. Nearly 30 homes on the street, with its southernmost point jutting into the Great South Bay, are receiving some kind of aid from NY Rising, including nine properties that the agency has bought and will be destroyed.
These demolitions and potentially hundreds more will dramatically alter the landscape in some communities, especially Freeport, Island Park, Long Beach and Massapequa in Nassau County, and Lindenhurst, Babylon and Mastic Beach in Suffolk. Demolitions of state-purchased homes are expected to accelerate soon, reaching a rate of five per week, NY Rising officials predicted.
But the programs' probable impact on the Island, with fewer homeowners agreeing to buyouts, will be a hodgepodge of elevated homes and lots given back to nature. It will be different from Staten Island, where homes in entire coastal neighborhoods -- Oakwood Beach, Ocean Breeze and Graham Beach -- will be destroyed and the land returned to its marshy origins.
Sellers' mixed emotions
Long Island homeowners who have elected to sell their property to the state say they do so with a profound and unsettling welter of emotions: sadness, relief, and, for some, frustration with the bureaucracy they must navigate to eke out a sense of closure. Others thank the agency for sparing them financial ruin.
"We've been operational for a little over a year, and in that time we have put in place these programs where upwards of three-quarters of a billion dollars has been awarded," said Jon Kaiman, the Long Island representative of NY Rising, calling the agency's record an extraordinary accomplishment. "It's moving forward. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been awarded."
Critics, however, said NY Rising's performance has been uneven at best, citing the mounds of documents and paperwork that homeowners have had to wade through, months of fits and starts, and unanswered emails and phone calls. The delays have sparked protests via social media, some with political overtones as the Sandy recovery effort on Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's watch was linked to his re-election bid.
The agency had allotted almost $750 million as of Oct. 24 -- about $494 million for repair and reconstruction, and $243 million to buy homes that fall into two categories: acquisitions and buyouts, in which NY Rising pays owners pre-Sandy market value.
Acquisitions are homes that will be demolished, with the property redeveloped to be storm-resistant. Buyouts are those that will be demolished and the land left vacant to be repurposed as environmental buffers for future storms, NY Rising spokeswoman Barbara Brancaccio said.
The latest breakdown of the agency's 161 purchases and pending deals includes:
In Nassau, 60 acquisitions valued at $23.5 million. The buyout program was not offered in Nassau, agency officials said, because storm victims did not express enough interest.
In Suffolk, 52 acquisitions valued at $21.2 million and 49 buyouts valued at $17.5 million.
Pending offers on another 616 properties.
Payments for homes on the Island have ranged from $110,000 in Mastic Beach to $804,000 in St. James, according to the most recent records of transactions through the state's Housing Trust Fund Corp. The average sale price for acquisitions and buyouts is $360,000, NY Rising officials said.
'They've done a terrible job'
Michele Mittleman, an attorney who lived a few doors down from the Mastrogiannises before her home was sold to NY Rising last June, is unimpressed with the agency's track record, saying delays have been extensive and professionalism lacking.
"I think they've done a terrible job," said Mittleman, who supports Republican gubernatorial candidate Rob Astorino and runs a Facebook page, Sandy Victims Fighting FEMA, which she said has nearly 1,000 participants.
"Everyone's unhappy," she said. "Everyone's frustrated. There are caseworkers who don't call back and answer questions. The problem is -- and I do believe it is moving more quickly now -- is that at this point we're two years out. They don't get a pat on the back after two years."
But Joseph Madigan, superintendent of buildings for the Village of Freeport, praised NY Rising, saying the agency has exceeded the performance of officials handling recovery efforts after other weather-caused catastrophes, such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
"It's a process," said Madigan, whose Freeport home near Mastrogiannis' took on 14 inches of water during tropical storm Irene in August 2011 and then 4 feet during Sandy. "Being a person who has been in mitigation for 27 years, and I have seen other states, NY Rising is a quick process. If you were down in New Orleans, those people are still struggling to get back on their feet."
Madigan stood beside Freeport Mayor Robert Kennedy and watched as Mastrogiannis' home was taken down. Neighbors stopped by and took pictures.
They swapped stories of the night Sandy struck, when waters from Hudson Channel and Woodcleft Canal -- a block apart -- cleared the bulkheads, soaked lawns and merged in east-west streets including Van Buren. The flooding rose to waist-high levels in the streets and lifted boats out of the canals, to bob and crash against the picket fences of homes filled with water.
The demolition, Madigan said, is a symbol of better times to come.
"The house that's going to be rebuilt there is going to be up to current code," he said, noting that Freeport has established stringent guidelines that exceed state regulations, including the mandate that homes in the flood zone be elevated 2 feet above the state-required level.
And, he said, the new home's flood insurance premiums will be a fraction of previous ones.
"Instead of paying thousands of dollars a year, down the road they're going to pay about $425 a year," he said.
Just how to mitigate the next disaster and its effects on insurance, infrastructure and municipalities' budgets dominated a conference earlier this month in Stamford, Connecticut, where planners and policymakers discussed lessons learned from Sandy and best practices to implement as the climate warms and fierce storms are expected to become more frequent.
"Let's think about the ways in which we can regionalize disaster remediation, disaster preparedness, coastal resiliency," said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Congressional Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, and one of about two dozen speakers at the Northeast Risk and Resilience Leadership Forum.
"Let's think about the assets that we can provide to help those individual towns along, and then let's all engage in a broader conversation at the federal level about how we are going to be honest about coming up with the money to pay for all of our infrastructure needs," he said.
The daylong conference featured presentations by representatives of governments that are responsible for distribution of the federal government's relief aid, including New York City, which has been running its own version of recovery efforts separate from, but parallel to, NY Rising.
Garage complicates sale
On Long Island, not everyone hoping to sell a home to the agency can claim even modest success yet.
Larry Gruttemeyer, 64, of 168 West Lake Dr. in Lindenhurst, lives just feet from a canal. His property also was substantially damaged by Sandy.
The real estate broker and Marine Corps veteran, who fought in the Vietnam War, thought he and his wife, Linda, would be eligible for the buyout program. They own two adjacent lots with a total area of 100 feet by 125 feet.
Under the program, houses will be razed and either returned to nature or reconfigured as wetlands or coastal barriers to help minimize the damage from any future storms. Eligible homeowners also may be entitled to up to an additional 15 percent above sale price under certain conditions.
But the Gruttemeyers still are living on only the second floor of their gutted home, until recently stuck in a kind of Catch-22.
The home is on one lot, and the garage -- that is, most of the garage -- is on the adjacent lot. Because a few feet of the garage juts onto the lot where his home sits, NY Rising officials told him they could not give him an offer on both parcels until he knocks down the garage, Gruttemeyer said.
He was reluctant to do that, because he's not sure the price the agency would offer in that case would be in line with the pre-storm value of both lots, including both structures. If he didn't like that offer, he said, he would have wasted money and the property may be worth even less.
"I've been trying to get a buyout from them," Gruttemeyer said, adding that he has reached out to elected officials such as Legis. Kevin McCaffrey (R-Lindenhurst) for help. "But they wanted the entire two properties for the price appraised for the house alone. And now they said they can't give me a price for the house alone until I knock down my garage, because it's on the property."
He has dozens of emails to prove he's had lengthy exchanges with his case manager and other NY Rising officials.
"They're just trying to use the appraisal for the house for both properties," he said, adding that the pre-Sandy value was $550,000 for his house and the land under it, and the state has offered him $550,000 for both properties. "I just want a fair deal on this so I can decide what I want to do."
After many months of email exchanges, telephone calls and McCaffrey's inquiries, Gruttemeyer said he is expecting an offer but is not sure if it will meet his expectations.
The Salvia family, formerly of Lindenhurst, had no complaints.
They, too, had water rush into and drench their high-ranch home on South Fourth Street, and where they lived while it was under reconstruction, post-Sandy. They also decided to shift their strategy -- from repairing and elevating the house to selling it.
Satisfied with what they received from NY Rising, they say they made a smooth transition to a new home in Sayville.
"When we got hit with Sandy, we got hit in both directions," said Jacqueline Salvia, 46, who is raising two daughters with her husband, Donald, 50. "In 17 years, we never had a drop of water in our house. But this time it came in all sides all at once -- and it just filled up like a bathtub."
Night of Oct. 29, 2012
Like many of those hard-hit by the storm, the Salvias vividly recall the night of Oct. 29, 2012. The couple had sent their daughters to their grandparents' home and figured that they'd ride it out.
Big mistake, she said. Water rose and seeped into the wall sockets, which started emitting smoke.
"We thought our house was going to catch on fire, and then all the lights went out and we sat in the dark until the next day," Salvia said.
"I would say my particular experience obviously with Sandy was horrible. I wouldn't want to go through that again," she said. "But NY Rising was very good to us. They were timely. I hear all sorts of horror stories, but that wasn't my experience at all."
For Mastrogiannis, too, the acquisition program was not the first choice, but it turned out to be a godsend.
"I liked where I lived," he said, adding that he is an immigrant from Greece who was so in tune with island life that he learned to swim before he could walk.
He said he had planned -- as did many storm victims who were interviewed -- to repair the house, elevate it if he had to, and remain there.
His son played freely in the yard, he recalled, and swans strutted about the 165-by-125-foot parcel. It reminded him of life in his native Nysiros in Greece.
"I liked it very much," Mastrogiannis said. "I loved the house."
But the numbers were a stark reality.
The cost of repair and elevation far exceeded the figure that NY Rising was offering, and his florist business was not thriving in the region's still-stagnant economy, he said. So he and his wife chose the less desirable but more practical option: Get rid of the house.
"They said they'd give me the pre-Sandy price and I thought that was very fair," he said, though he declined to give the amount. "It took them a while, but it worked out great for me."
The family is living in a rental in Bayside, Queens, and thinking they will remain in the borough.
When the excavator was finished at 187 Hudson Ave., workers loaded the shards of Mastrogiannis' house into the trailer of a big truck and hauled it off, leaving an unobstructed view of Hudson Canal and Cow Meadow Park and Preserve.
The next day, Mastrogiannis said he went back, alone and at night.
"I didn't believe the house was gone," he said, explaining why he returned. "This is like -- I don't want to get emotional about it. I didn't stay long, for like five minutes. I looked. There's nothing there, just all this garbage laying down in the yard."