Five years ago, superstorm Sandy slammed Long Island like an angry bull shark, its colossal waves and raging gales wreaking havoc on homes in the region.
The wind and water juggernaut — recognized as the largest storm in New York history — brought the Atlantic Ocean into living rooms, converted streets into marinas bobbing with unmoored boats and sent trees crashing through roofs.
In all, some 50,000 Long Island homes suffered major damage, officials said.
The centerpiece of New York State’s effort to help residents recover has been NY Rising, created from scratch in Sandy’s aftermath to offer financial assistance through several programs. As revealed by numbers released recently by state officials, it’s an effort that continues, five years after the waters receded.
More than 7,600 of the 11,000 Sandy-damaged Long Island homes that participated in NY Rising’s flagship Homeowner Recovery Program have finished their repairs — leaving one-third of them, about 3,400, short of that goal.
At the same time, the elevation of homes in flood-prone areas is proceeding at a slower pace. Just 1,243 of the 3,438 elevations scheduled to be performed have been finished, according to state figures.
Those responsible for the program have touted its success.
“I am very happy with where we are as we inch closer to the fifth anniversary,” said Lisa Bova-Hiatt, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, which was created in April 2013 and oversees the several NY Rising recovery programs. “I feel very proud with the work that our office has done.”
Others, however, have given it mixed reviews, with complaints focusing on bureaucratic glitches, delays in processing paperwork and frequent personnel changes among the caseworkers handling individual cases.
The NY Rising program “has allowed homes to rise from Sandy’s ruins into beautiful, storm-resistant structures that will withstand the test of future storms,” said state Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), who, along with other legislators, successfully appealed to state officials in March to extend the deadline for completion of elevation work to June 1, 2018.
“However, everyone is not home yet,” he added. “I am still hearing from families every day who are displaced, living in partially repaired homes or in debt. This has been a five-year ordeal for these storm victims, and our government must not forget them and must exhaust every last resource and marshal every effort to get them home.”
Money for disaster recovery was part of a massive $50.5 billion federal aid package that aimed to help communities damaged as Sandy ripped up the East Coast from Florida to Maine — causing at least 48 deaths in New York alone, according to federal figures.
In New York, funding went into two big buckets, with $4.2 billion to New York City and $4.5 billion to Long Island and other affected counties outside of the city. The package included money for programs designed to help New Yorkers recover not only from Sandy but from tropical storms Irene and Lee, which hit upstate communities especially hard in 2011.
Bova-Hiatt said the state has disbursed more than 60 percent of the $4.5 billion in federal Community Development Block Grant-Disaster Recovery funds distributed to the Island and upstate counties for programs designed to help New Yorkers recover from Sandy, Irene and Lee.
Nearly $2.7 billion of the $4.5 billion allotment was allocated for housing, with the bulk of that, or $1.6 billion, devoted to the homeowner recovery programs. In addition, $680 million was earmarked for the state to buy and resell or demolish damaged homes; $49 million for mortgage assistance; $234 million to shore up rental properties; and $700 million to fortify other structures in communities wrecked by the storm.
Architects of the funding programs also set aside money to elevate homes, especially those in flood zones, to make them less susceptible to future storm damage.
“As you will hear in storm recovery repeatedly, there’s no one single approach to storm recovery, no one-size-fits-all approach,” Bova-Hiatt said. “We need many tools in our toolbox.”
Here’s a look at the status of the various programs under NY Rising on Long Island.
Homeowner recovery program
By late September, participating families had received $927 million in funds to fix their homes, officials said. Bova-Hiatt said that 7,646, or roughly 66 percent, are done, while another 3,300 remain works in progress. Of the completed repair jobs, 5,691 are in Nassau and 1,955 in Suffolk, officials said.
The program also is funding the elevation of 3,438 homes on Long Island and has disbursed $610 million to homeowners who must raise their homes, because they are in a 100-year floodplain, and to those who choose to elevate despite being outside of the flood-prone area. There have been 634 elevations completed in Nassau and 609 in Suffolk, officials said.
Bova-Hiatt said delays in performing the elevations could be because there are not enough contractors for the volume of work.
Buyouts and acquisitions
This two-pronged program allowed homeowners to get rid of storm-damaged homes by selling them to the state.
Under the buyout program, properties would be demolished and the parcel “returned to nature” or another environmentally resilient use. The outcome for properties in the acquisition program differed in that the state was allowed to resell those houses back to the public, generating revenue for use in other housing or storm recovery programs.
On Long Island, the state purchased 150 Suffolk properties under the buyout program at a cost of $54 million. Those properties were slated for demolition or conversion into environments designed to help flood-prone areas better cope with storms, such as wetlands, which scientists say can absorb a high volume of water as well as wind and tidal forces.
More than 100 properties have been demolished, and some were vacant land at the time of purchase. More than 50 of the parcels were donated to municipalities or sold, state officials said this month.
Under the acquisition program, the state bought 361 properties on Long Island — 199 in Nassau and 162 in Suffolk — and resold them at several auctions at a fraction of their pre-storm value, allowing some $54 million paid by new homeowners to be reinvested for other housing and storm recovery programs, Bova-Hiatt said.
The revenue generated from the sales of acquired properties, Bova-Hiatt said, will help fund other projects such as the construction of a new complex to replace the Moxey Rigby apartments, a 100-unit public housing development in Freeport that sustained extensive damage from Sandy.
Interim mortgage assistance
Homeowners who were ousted from their living spaces so that their homes could be repaired were provided mortgage assistance. As of late September, state officials said, $41 million had been distributed to 1,550 Long Islanders to pay mortgage loans during the time they were displaced from their homes — $30 million in Nassau and $11 million in Suffolk.
This program, with $698 million in funding for Long Island and upstate counties, has directed approximately $250 million to 86 projects in Nassau and Suffolk counties, including the $8.2 million American Venice Bridges project, consisting of the replacement of two bridges over the Santa Barbara Canal in Copiague.
Sandy aid agency
NY Rising, which comes under the umbrella of the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, was created in April 2013, six months after superstorm Sandy.
The agency administers funding for a variety of recovery programs. It has a staff of about 200 people in offices in Albany, Farmingdale, Oceanside, Manhattan and Staten Island.
Lisa Bova-Hiatt, executive director of GOSR, said the office has provided technical assistance to Texas and Puerto Rico after officials there reached out to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo following hurricanes Harvey and Maria.
— Zachary R. Dowdy