Thousands of Long Islanders are still struggling to survive superstorm Sandy and face years of rebuilding battered homes and bruised lives.
While many streets appear back to normal two years after the storm, those hardest hit still show dramatically uneven progress. Repairs are complete for only 2,000 of the 8,896 Long Island households that received at least one check from the state's housing recovery program, NY Rising, out of a total of 15,269 Long Island applicants. Of those waiting to hear if they are eligible for a check, more than 5,000 applicants, many could find they are not. Many homeowners are still not home.
The financial and emotional consequences of the storm's ravages — depleted savings and heavy debt, personal bankruptcies and lost property values, deferred retirements and college plans, foreclosures, strained relationships, stress and heightened anxiety at each storm alert — will likely play out far into the future, experts and advocates say.
"People think Sandy is over. It's not over," said Tom Pellicane, 49, whose Tom's Bayview Deli in Babylon was one of the 95,534 Long Island structures, including more than 50,000 single-family houses, damaged or destroyed on Oct. 29, 2012, by flood, wind or falling trees.
Pellicane and his wife are still dealing with its effects: His wife declared personal bankruptcy because of debt on her credit card for repairs, they have little money for extras and their daughter goes to community college rather than a four-year school. "I pulled all of my savings out and did what I had to do," he said.
Pellicane said he paid almost $100,000 out of pocket to repair the damage from nearly 5 feet of water after insurance denied his claim. As of mid-September, he had received several payments from NY Rising, with the bulk still to come.
And business isn't back to normal because so many neighborhood customers aren't back in their houses yet, including families like Lauren and Jonas Norinder of Babylon, who are living with Lauren Norinder's mother in Massapequa.
Waiting to go home
They and their two sons, Noah, 6, and Lucas, 5, were elated this past August when a modular home purchased with borrowed money was installed atop a new elevated foundation. But they ran out of money, she said, and are stalled until they resolve some issues with NY Rising, including a contested insurance deduction, to get their first payment.
"I can't help but curl my toes every time I hear someone say, 'You're STILL not home? Why not, didn't you have insurance?' . . . They have no idea that insurance hasn't come even close to paying us what we needed to rebuild our home," said Lauren Norinder, 32, whose first floor flooded, while rain soaked the second floor through the wind-damaged roof. She said their insurance, savings and borrowed funds still leave them short by an estimated $70,000.
"Before this I was a mom and a volleyball player and a happy-go-lucky person. We told jokes and enjoyed life. Now I'm a Sandy survivor; that's how I identify myself. All day every day, that's what fills my mind."
People who repaired relatively quickly, in general, had enough insurance, personal funds and credit, plus initial FEMA and charitable aid, to make repairs.
But the many Long Islanders who are not yet back in their homes or fully repaired lacked the personal resources to complete their projects. They also may have faced inadequate insurance payouts, the complexity of documenting losses in a disaster, an often frustrating process to get NY Rising awards, and intense demands on time, emotions and focus. Depleted funds, construction and contractor issues, stalled permits and any number of other obstacles can compound already difficult situations.
"There are still a good chunk of people who are still sitting and waiting as if it were only weeks after the storm," said Kim Skillen, 42, of West Babylon and a leader in Neighbors Supporting Neighbors, Babylon, one of more than a dozen grassroots relief groups that sprang up along the South Shore to help Sandy victims.
"It's a long-term recovery process and I think we're going to see more and more people walk away from their homes," said Skillen, whose home was not damaged by Sandy. "That's because there's going to be an unmet need between what they get from NY Rising and what they can take out of their own pocket."
NY Rising, one of several programs that have funneled federal dollars to storm victims, offers a last resort to recoup expenses and fund repairs, reconstructions and elevations.
So far it has awarded (though not fully disbursed) a total of about $494.8 million to 9,554 homeowners statewide, including more than $464 million to 8,896 Long Island homeowners.
Defending NY Rising
And it has awarded more than $19 million to 543 Long Island small businesses.
Barbara Brancaccio, a spokeswoman for NY Rising, defended the program against widespread complaints that its process is frustratingly slow, awash in red tape, lacking transparency and marred by the uneven quality and responsiveness of its case managers. "At this point in comparison to New Jersey and New York City, New York State has accomplished far more in our program," Brancaccio said. "I'm not disputing that people aren't happy and are complaining but that's not the totality of the representation of this program."
People deciding their futures are still bobbing in the storm's wake. Therapist Laurie Nadel, who runs support groups in Long Beach to help people deal with post-Sandy anxieties, said conversations about the storm, its financial toll and angst about the future were "kind of the background audio wherever people congregate in Long Beach."
And as people watch elevated houses arise on streets of once-cozy bungalows, they must decide to accept further change and disruption, or leave, she said. "People have anxiety about making the right decision with a lot of variables that are not in their control. There are no magic bullets here; there's no easy fix."
It has taken Christopher Collins, a 54-year-old solar panel installer, nearly two years to come to terms with the destruction of the peaceful paradise he'd created in a waterfront home in Massapequa.
His girlfriend had been scheduled to move there a few days after Sandy. Today, they still live apart, he said, explaining he was too full of anger to move on or focus on recovery until recently. His house on Bayview Place, a short dead-end street where only one house escaped flooding, still sits gutted. Now, after time and therapy, he's decided to elevate his home and return.
"I guess I look at it as a test: Nature is testing me," he said. "Am I going to fold up and crumble or am I going to become stronger and stay here?"
The disruption that Sandy caused the Bein family of Babylon is far from atypical. George Bein, 59, a bartender and personal trainer, said they were "choking" in debt, angry at their insurance payout, and still waiting for NY Rising funds.
He and his wife, Christina, a neonatal intensive-care nurse, and four children ages 11 to 24, moved back into their newly elevated house in Babylon in early September. Weeks after moving in, they were still entering it via a steep ramp because stairs and other exterior repairs were still incomplete.
"I took out a second mortgage to do this. I couldn't wait . . . anymore," said Bein, whose two eldest children lived with friends while the rest of the family moved four times.
His insurance, like almost all federally backed flood insurance policies, did not cover foundation damage that the company said was caused by earth movement rather than flooding. Many homeowners counter that the earth movement was a result of the surge in floodwater.
For Bein, that exclusion felt like a "bait and switch" scam in which he paid for a $250,000 policy and received only $78,000 for $300,000 in damage.
"I think, overall, we put a lot of faith and heart in the government and in insurance and they disappointed us tenfold," he said. "They did help, but . . . the rules just kept changing . . ."
Yet Karen Westerlind, 52, of Lindenhurst, said that without the help of NY Rising, "I could never have gotten back into my house." Between the $82,000 in NY Rising money and $94,000 in insurance, she said, she's had enough to elevate the house and do most of the repairs.
She is asking for more funds to finish. However, she said, final payments won't be released until work is complete, and she has no money to complete it. In what amounts to a Catch-22 for many homeowners, NY Rising does not pay out the final 50 percent of an award until the entire project is completed and inspected, as required by federal rules governing the use of federal funds. Those rules aim to prevent contractors or homeowners from walking off with the money without doing the work.
"I'm tapped out," Westerlind said, but "I'm almost whole. I was one of the lucky ones."
Check soon in the mail
Of about 2,000 NY Rising applicants who have completed repairs, 1,344 paid for their own and were reimbursed by NY Rising. The other 670 are now waiting to get that final installment of their NY Rising award. Brancaccio, the spokeswoman, said those checks would be mailed in coming weeks.
Brancaccio said the program is trying to come up with individual fixes for homeowners whose projects stall for lack of more NY Rising money. But, she said, they were bound by HUD regulations to withhold final payments until completion.
Business owners say they have also suffered from the failure of insurance to cover their damages, and the longer-than-expected wait for federal aid, also disbursed through NY Rising in a separate part of its program.
Gary Steiner, 58, owner of Pancho's Cantina in Island Park, said he and his wife, Helene, 57, were also in debt after repairing their flooded restaurant. Plans to move south, he said, have been delayed indefinitely. "I'm definitely working harder and more at a point when I was hoping to cut back a little more." Getting $50,000 of his NY Rising award for the physical losses "helps a lot," he said, adding, "I'm hoping to get another $50,000 for economic losses. Even with all of that, it still cost a lot more than that to get back in business. It cost $700,000 to repair, pay the mortgage and taxes, and keep afloat during the 7 1/2 months I was out."
NY Rising grants and federal loans came through in time to help one Deer Park company, 10 percent of whose clients — delis and bagel shops — were flooded. Marshall Coffee, which installs and services coffee-making equipment, was able to buy new equipment and find new customers and "we didn't have to let anybody go," co-owner Gary Marshall said.
But for Christina Santos, 53, of Long Beach, recovery will come without any federal aid. She and her husband repaired their home with insurance and borrowed money. They didn't know she could apply for aid to cover losses in her rented florist shop. Now she rents space in the Allegria Hotel where she hopes old customers will find her. "I'm still in the red," she said. "I've really become a slave to my business."
Brancaccio said most NY Rising applicants just want the money, get the check and "aren't heard from again. The people we hear about have issues, lots of financial paperwork, don't have their paperwork together, or have problems with the program."
She estimated 35 percent of the total 15,269 Long Island applicants, or more than 5,000 households, won't qualify for any checks, either because NY Rising determines that damage was covered by insurance or because homeowners failed to meet guidelines.
She added: "We're not deluded that this is not a difficult process for a lot of people. For some people it's not."
A short stretch of South Fourth Street in Lindenhurst exemplifies the uneven fate of Sandy's victims. Several families have sold their homes to the state and moved out of the neighborhood, and others face months of disruption during house elevations.
Other houses still aren't fully repaired. Luigi Stolfa, 32, has endured robberies, long delays getting plans and a contractor who did work that the homeowner says was incomplete or incorrectly done.
Stolfa is finishing the job using other contractors. This past Friday was his first night in the now-elevated and enlarged Colonial he bought two months before Sandy. Also moving in are his girlfriend Stephanie Emery and her daughter Ava, 3, who loves her new bright pink bedroom. "Financially, especially, it's really hurt me," Stolfa said, but "it feels great to finally be back in after two years. We have a great future in this house."
Rhonda Verrier, another neighbor whose bayside property is eroding behind the damaged bulkhead, says the last two years have left her fearful, nervous and angry. She still attends a weekly support group as she and her husband, Remi Verrier, both in their 60s, apply to NY Rising to elevate the house and fix the bulkhead after rejecting its acquisition offer as too low.
Many of Sandy's far-flung victims were new to flooding, but those closest to the water were not. Many had barely completed repairs from 2011's Tropical Storm Irene when Sandy rolled in. They chafe under criticism about federal aid going to those who choose to live along Long Island's waterways. They had insurance, they say, and pay taxes to help others in need.
For Kevin Reilly, 47, a founder of the grassroots group Long Beach Rising, helping Sandy's victims is a question of Long Island's identity and economic viability.
"If you were to lose Long Island communities south of Merrick Road, where are you going to put these people?" he said. "You'd never recover from the economic devastation to Long Island if you lost those communities and drove those people out."
Paying to help homeowners elevate their homes now will end the repetitive damage from flooding and repetitive loss claims, and make a repeat of Sandy's ravages less likely, said Reilly, who will get $160,000 in NY Rising funds to elevate his own home.
His group is urging NY Rising to streamline its procedures, more quickly resolve errors, speed processing final payments and mortgage assistance, and push HUD for permission to give out award money as repairs are completed rather than holding back half until completion. "They're asking us to fund our own award, and hope we'll be reimbursed," he said, shortly before he was to participate in a protest rally in Long Beach.
Ultimately, as infrastructure is strengthened, said Jack Schnirman, city manager in Long Beach, his post-Sandy city will be "a rebuilt city that looks a bit different . . . stronger, smarter, safer — that hopefully becomes a model of resiliency for others to follow."
The uneven recovery so far — most blocks have houses in all stages of repair — grows out of the "complicated, individualized" circumstances of each family, he said. But Schnirman said that the city's eventual $350 million in federal aid — for the boardwalk, dunes, bulkheads and critical services — will make their lives safer.
Dan Caracciolo, 34, president of the East Rockaway grassroots group The11518, described a landscape where people were "slowly recovering, coming home, finishing up," but also where houses sit lifted for more than six months awaiting money for a foundation to be poured. Some houses remain empty and boarded up. Some families have left for good.
As Sandy's second anniversary neared, huge generators set up right after the storm to help run the damaged Bay Park sewage-treatment plant still roared 24 hours a day, he said, a constant reminder of the devastation. "The stress level, both emotional and financial, is on people's minds continuously," Caracciolo said.
In Seaford Harbor, where seagulls squawk over marinas, a new development of big houses with unobstructed bay views advertises itself with a sign urging prospective buyers to "Live your dream." It looks peaceful, but nearby the narrow streets wedged in between canals face years of construction as homeowners complete repairs and more of them begin to elevate.
Tim Byrnes, 49, a computer software operator, demolished his condemned house on a canal there in December (after his insurance company, he said, called it a "wash and clean" job) and rebuilt using a small modular house elevated more than 11 feet. He and his family recently returned after renting in Baldwin for nearly two years.
Sandy's toll was high: His actual rebuilding costs, "all in all about $400,000," he said, were about double the amount he got from insurance and NY Rising combined, and he had to take out a new 30-year mortgage a year short of paying off his old one. He spent half his 401(k) retirement fund, he said, and his daughter had to turn down acceptance to St. John's University to attend community college.
But he insists "The storm didn't beat us down. It's nice to be near the water and now we'll never have to worry about flooding. It's going to be a process but hopefully time will heal."