A year after superstorm Sandy, many homes in Mastic Beach...

A year after superstorm Sandy, many homes in Mastic Beach are still empty. Homeowner Donna Karr and her husband Mike Shershenovich are still living in a trailer next to their flood-damaged home. (Oct. 16, 2013) Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Sewage and fuel coated lawns in East Rockaway. Soldiers patrolled Long Beach, where the famous boardwalk was wrecked. Spray-painted plywood signs in Seaford warned, "You loot, we shoot."

Boats from marinas in Amityville and Lindenhurst were strewed in streets and yards. Neighborhoods in Babylon Town sat empty for weeks, and the town supervisor worried publicly about their future.

A year after superstorm Sandy and its wind-driven surge washed out the South Shore and caused an estimated $8.4 billion in property and economic damage across Long Island, communities from East Rockaway to Mastic Beach continue -- however wearily -- to claw their way back from catastrophe.

Beaches reopened; marinas drew boaters. Key indicators such as building permits, home sales and the declining number of vacant homes show progress is being made.

But the recovery, much like the jagged shoreline itself, is uneven, its pace and extent determined largely by geography, the personal resources of homeowners and businesses, and the vagaries of insurance coverage.

In Suffolk County's Mastic Beach, where many homes still appear empty, Donna Karr and her husband, Mike Shershenovich, live in a trailer in the driveway of their flood-damaged, three-bedroom home. She hasn't cashed a $77,000 insurance check she says is far less than the home is worth, holding out hope for a better settlement.

A state program to buy land in flood-prone areas and return it to open space has sent out letters to owners of 107 parcels in Mastic Beach.

Karr received a letter saying she is eligible for a home buyout through the state's NY Rising Housing Recovery Program, but she doesn't yet know how much she could receive.

To demolish her home and put up an elevated modular structure will cost at least $150,000, she estimates, and money is scarce. The monthly mortgage payment on the house is $800, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will stop paying the $1,700 monthly rent on the trailer at the end of this month.

Karr doesn't know what she'll do then. "I can't pay the bills and build a house at the same time," she said.

She feels trapped. Lying in bed in the trailer at night, she said, "I can hear the waves pounding. . . . Now the waters are coming in strong again."

More than 50 miles to the west in Woodsburgh, near the Nassau County border with Queens, John Mignone's affluent neighborhood is verdant and seems virtually untouched by the storm's effects, even though the waters of Brosewere Bay surged over lawns and shrubbery, killing them with its salt. Most were simply and quickly replaced, Mignone said.

"You can't tell what happened here," he said. "The money's here."

Geology's role in storm path

Across the South Shore, the shorthand that people reflexively invoked, post-Sandy, was pegged to their east-west thoroughfares: The water was south of Merrick Road, south of the Sunrise Highway, south of Montauk Highway.

These roadways, clipping through the communities along the Long Island Rail Road's Babylon branch, were the locals' dividing line between the most severely damaged neighborhoods and those with less harm.

Nearly all the shorefront in Nassau County was affected. To the east, the worst of the damage largely ended at Mastic Beach, though Westhampton Beach and its chronically flooded Dune Road took a big hit. The sand-swept barrier islands that are home to Atlantic Beach, Long Beach, Lido Beach and Point Lookout, the Jones Beach and Robert Moses state parks, and the quaint colonies of Fire Island bore the full brunt of the angry Atlantic.

The pattern of damage was partly a function of Long Island's geology. The 20,000-year-old glacial moraine that forms the Island's backbone left steeper slopes on the South Shore's East End, with more gradual slopes and lower elevations to the west, said Henry Bokuniewicz, a Stony Brook University oceanographer. "If you're on a low slope, then there's a very wide area at risk," he said.

A bonanza of development after World War II changed the lay of the land and obliterated wetland buffers -- and the protection they gave inland areas.

"We're learning now how these habitats are really important for reducing risk and exposure to storms," said Nicole Maher, senior coastal scientist for The Nature Conservancy. "They reduce wave energy and coastal erosion."

Maher has an electronic copy of a topographic map of 1913 Long Island, including Brooklyn and Queens, which was engraved from U.S. Geological Survey sheets. The sepia-toned map is in the catalog of Stony Brook University Libraries' Special Collections.

All along the South Shore and the barrier islands, the map's land masses are marked with blue to show wetlands and swampy areas abutting bays, rivers and creeks. The scores of islands, hassocks and meadows that dot the bays between the barrier islands and the mainland all are colored in blue.

The correlation between what is shown on the century-old map and the acres upon acres inundated by Sandy's surge is undeniable.

Postwar, in South Merrick, Oceanside and the Massapequas, and in Amityville, Copiague and Lindenhurst, residential and commercial development pushed farther and farther into those very wetlands, with structures built on dredged fill and bog.

"Builders were able to get land as relative gifts," said Lee Koppelman, director of Stony Brook University's Center for Policy Studies, whose warnings of the perils of shoreline development were prescient. "We lost more than two-thirds of the natural wetlands that existed at the beginning of the 20th century."

Thousands of houses were built with "no plan and no control," he said. Some were summer bungalows, winterized and turned into year-round homes. Most were built on slabs instead of pilings, sitting low on ground that itself was rarely more than a couple of feet above sea level.

Koppelman recalled one figure that showed just how low the ground was, and how high the water table: "By 1960, we were getting more than 2,000 cesspool failures annually."

Risks of building by water

Consider the LIRR's Babylon branch as the South Shore's spine. By the 2010 census, more than 800,000 people lived in South Shore communities from Lawrence to Mastic Beach and on the barrier islands. Nassau's South Shore communities, with nearly 396,000 inhabitants, crammed more people into less land area than those in Suffolk, where about 410,000 people lived from Amityville to Mastic Beach, census figures show.

The march of development traveled from west to east, spreading to the old fishing and farming villages along the railroad's path and steadily filling in the gaps between communities. In Nassau's villages, the astonishing increases in population occurred primarily from 1950 to 1960, census figures show; as Nassau was built out, that pattern was repeated in Suffolk's communities, from 1960 to 1970.

Damage from Sandy was most extensive, in general, in the lower-lying developments on the waterfront or laced by canals, where houses and decks and piers were built mostly from midcentury on: South Merrick, Seaford's harbor section, Biltmore Shores in Massapequa, the fragile finger of land between Amityville and Ketcham's creeks in Amityville, and Lindenhurst's Venetian Shores, among others.

Jay Tanski, a scientist at New York Sea Grant, a program that promotes stewardship of coastal resources, pointed out a lesson underscored by where the water went.

Neighborhoods built in what had been natural marshes, using fill, were "more exposed than where perhaps there's a natural shoreline that increases in height," he noted. Just west of Mastic Beach, in the Village of Bellport, for example, the 15th hole of the golf course was damaged, but not a single home was unlivable after the storm.

Such differences in vulnerability have fueled conflicting views about the course that recovery should take, with tension between those at different stages of the process.

Choosing what to repair

The state's NY Rising program, with details recently released after months of questions from residents, has offered to buy 613 damaged homes in particularly flood-prone locations. The "enhanced buyout" offering would give those property owners the pre-storm market value of their homes plus monetary incentives, and the buildings would be demolished. The land never would be built upon again, so it could act as a buffer against future storms.

All of those locations are in Suffolk County. So far, state officials say only 70 eligible homeowners have indicated they plan to pursue buyouts.

In Mastic Beach, many residents continue to be nervous about the Sandy-created breach at Fire Island's Old Inlet, which they believe could leave the area vulnerable in another storm, Deputy Mayor Gary Stiriz said. And, he said, the nerves are slowing recovery: "People are not willing to rebuild while their houses are still in jeopardy."

Meanwhile, in Bellport, "the majority of people want it left open," Mayor Ray Fell said of the breach. "It clears out the bay. The increase in high tide has not been as devastating to us as maybe it has for the lower areas." Maybe, he added, homes shouldn't be built at all in some of those low-lying areas.Geography played out in some less obvious ways, too. Because of Sandy's path, "the storm surge and other relative impacts for a lot of the facilities we're dealing with increased from east to west," Tanski said.

Much of his work over the last year has been with marinas struggling to return to normal operations. Many that had eastern exposure to the water saw sustained damage due to wave action, he said.

And, as Tanski pointed out, living in a flood-prone area didn't necessarily mean extensive water damage.

"There's a clear difference between houses built to flood standards and those not," he said, referring to modern building codes imposed in the 1970s."It's rather surprising when you see structures essentially right next to each other."

Access to ready money in the months after Sandy is another defining dichotomy evident from community to community at the anniversary mark.

Theresa Regnante, president of United Way of Long Island, which helped coordinate disaster response by the region's nonprofits, pointed out the critical difference. Some residents paid upfront for repairs and mitigation, and others waited to navigate the cumbersome systems of government and nonprofit aid.

Some of the hardest-hit areas -- Long Beach, Freeport and Island Park in Nassau, and Babylon, Islip and Brookhaven in Suffolk -- had concentrations of lower-income residents.

In Freeport's Moxey Rigby housing project, for example, residents said the Freeport Housing Authority still has not fixed the electronic locks and security cameras left inoperable by Sandy's damage. A management office and a laundry room, both of which flooded, never have reopened, they said.

"Anyone at any given time can enter the building," resident Vanessa Clarke said, demonstrating how the doors open freely and pointing to nonfunctioning security equipment. "Cameras are right here, but they're not in use, so what good are the cameras?"

A state report in the spring said the housing authority had spent more than $207,000 for "immediate repair needs" there and at two other locations and estimated it would need to spend $342,000 on further repairs. The authority was seeking mitigation assistance to "elevate and relocate major systems in order to alleviate potential costs from future disasters."

Ed Pearlman, the authority's executive director, acknowledged that the facilities were not operable but said they would be "upgraded and hopefully replaced in the near future" and that "a lot of places are worse."

Among those who'd thought of themselves as comfortably middle-class, the costs of repairs and mitigation were a staggering surprise.

"If you didn't have cash on hand, if you had $100,000 in work to be done on your home, and you said, 'Well, I have some of it, some's going to come from insurance, I settled with FEMA but I don't know about New York Rising,' the contractors are going to be off to the next house," Regnante said.

Finding funds to lift homes

In parts of the South Shore closest to the water, the elevation of homes is a concrete example of the difference that having money -- or being able to patch enough of it together from various sources -- makes.

"The people who've done it already had the money and means to do it," said Guy Davis, owner of Westhampton Beach-based Davis Construction House & Building Movers, whose company has done dozens of lifts. "People who just can't afford it are waiting to see if the state comes through with anything."

For homes in designated flood zones, elevation can provide not just peace of mind but a way to limit an anticipated increase in flood insurance premiums for houses not above base flood elevation. And for homes designated as "substantially damaged" -- that is, with damages of 50 percent or more of their pre-storm value -- elevation to code is required to be able to get flood insurance.

But raising a home can cost well above $100,000. FEMA's Increased Cost of Compliance payment, for those who are eligible, maxes out at $30,000, and not everyone is eligible for help lifting their homes through NY Rising.

Kendall Frulio, a television producer who estimates it will cost $120,000 to lift the East Rockaway home she shares with her husband, Ciro, and their two young daughters, is uneasy about the cost.

Frulio, who started a Facebook page to share information with neighbors about storm recovery and attended all the NY Rising meetings she could over the last year, still isn't sure if the program will help pay for elevation of the family's three-bedroom house. If she and her husband have to raise that money themselves, she said, "I don't have 100 percent of a plan of how it's going to happen."

But she knows it must. Every storm makes her anxious now, and she's tired of the feeling.

On a walking tour of her neighborhood, she pointed out a recently built modular house that rises high above the others around it. "This is the first visible example for us," she said. "That's what it's going to be like."

'Things are moving along'

As Sandy swirled toward Long Island, many homeowners who had flood insurance -- either through private companies or the National Flood Insurance Program -- figured that the premiums they had paid would translate into coverage of storm-related damages.

For some fortunate South Shore residents, that was true.

Nick and Camille Perrotti, who live steps from the ocean in Long Beach's West End, got a Fed-Ex'ed insurance check 48 hours after meeting an insurance adjuster. The check covered most of the damage to the first floor of their split-level home.

"The inspector flew in from Alabama and went through everything," said Nick Perrotti, who was Mr. America in 1965. He wasn't able to salvage all the couple's furniture and appliances, but rescued his bodybuilding trophies. "We have no complaints. It was 100 percent."

But every time it rains, Perrotti finds himself checking the tide tables and walking to the beach to confirm there is no onrushing wall of water. Even his and his wife's relative good fortune after Sandy is a source of unease. "I still have friends with no home," he said. "I feel embarrassed when I talk to them. . . . I feel guilty that I'm moving along."

Many on the South Shore describe their experiences with insurance companies, banks, mortgage companies and government bureaucracy as nightmarish.

Not far from the Perrottis' house, Bill Carlo, a paperhanger and painter, gets steamed as he talks about what he says was shoddy behavior from banks and insurance companies. A month and a half passed before an adjuster surveyed damage to his home in the Canals neighborhood, he said, and by that time he had paid for more than $30,000 in repairs.

"It decimated me," he said. "It took all my savings." With about half the homes on his block still vacant, however, he considers himself among the lucky ones.

In Amity Harbor, Laura and Anthony Parisi were approved for a FEMA hazard-mitigation grant in September to help with the cost of lifting their home -- from the flood damage they had from Tropical Storm Irene in August 2011. The approval came more than a year and a half after they applied, and too late to avert the 3 feet of flooding they got during Sandy.

They have spent most of the past year camping in a tiny RV parked in their driveway. Recently, they were approved for rental assistance that could help them move into an apartment.

The RV has been cold in winter, hot in summer, cramped and uncomfortable all the time. "You don't know how many times a day we bump into each other. And the kitchen is like a Barbie kitchen," Laura Parisi said.

Most frustrating is the feeling that it all could have been avoided. "I still think it's outrageous how long it took," she said of storm-related assistance. "I'm not happy to be in this position a year later, but I feel a little better that things are moving along."

The last year caused some residents to think hard about leaving, trading in the water views for a quieter, easier life.

Jimmy and Kathi Jones' home in Long Beach burned almost to its foundation on the night of the storm, one of 10 neighborhood houses that Jimmy Jones said were aflame. They believe the fire started when floodwaters short-circuited a neighbor's vehicle.

Repairs weren't an option, but the couple couldn't afford to pay for demolition until they got a check from their insurance company.

In March, they received a letter from the city Building Department, saying they faced fines or jail time if the home was not fixed or demolished.

"Our neighbors rightfully wanted to know when the demolition was going to happen," Jimmy Jones said, recalling the foul "smoke smell" given off by the ruins.

"Everybody had a legitimate argument here."What was left of their house was razed in early May. Speculators soon filled the mailbox at the 40-foot-by-60-foot lot with brochures. One offered to buy the land for $110,000; Jimmy Jones believes it is worth significantly more. "People were trying to steal the land," he said.

For a time, the Joneses relocated to the Bronx. But Jimmy Jones had an epiphany. "I don't fit in and I don't belong there," he said. He and his wife realized, after all the heartbreak and aggravation, that they want to stay in Long Beach, the self-described "City by the Sea." They are renting there now and plan to build an elevated modular house on their property.

"This is our environment," he said.

With Olivia Winslow

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