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Storm-ruined vans leave LI's disabled stuck

Kenneth Curry, center, of Far Rockaway, is helped

Kenneth Curry, center, of Far Rockaway, is helped by sales manager Peter Zarba, left, and by friend Anthony Buggs, right, at a van while visiting Bussani Mobility in Bethpage. He was looking to purchase a new van to replace the one he lost during superstorm Sandy. (Dec. 7, 2012) Credit: Steve Pfost

Some of superstorm Sandy's most vulnerable victims are still stuck in their homes and unable to resume their normal routines because the wheelchair-accessible vans they depended on were destroyed in flooding more than a month ago.

The luckier owners were quickly able to get used ones. But others are still waiting for replacements to be ready and for funding, insurance and loans to pay for them.

Vans adapted for wheelchairs and customized for handicapped drivers cost $60,000 to more than $80,000 when new. Getting them can take weeks, and -- for more customized vehicles -- months.

"I keep praying, it can't get worse, it can't get worse," said Kenneth Curry, a 47-year-old quadriplegic. He has been housebound since floodwaters destroyed the van he drove, with limited arm motions, from Far Rockaway to an accounting job at a Plainview law firm. Compounding his hardship: his motorized wheelchair broke weeks ago.

Curry just found a used van he hopes to buy with a bank loan. He is able to work from home but, "Honestly I'm at the point where it's been a little over a month and I'm going stir crazy in this house," he said. "My life is totally changed now. The storm really did something to me . . . think of it, sitting in the house in one place every day. It's hard."

Peter Zarba, sales manager at Bussani Mobility in Bethpage, said between 30 and 40 of its customers lost their accessible vans. A month after the storm, about half were still waiting to replace them, he said.

The disabled face "an additional level of expense, an additional level of delay, a lack of understanding, and limited alternatives," said Zarba, who uses a wheelchair and had to temporarily evacuate his storm-damaged home in Island Park. "It's not like they're hopping on a bus."

Daniel Rolland, owner of Specialty Conversions in West Babylon, said about 10 customers lost vans, and half still lacked new ones. John Romano of Abilities Unlimited in Deer Park said he has customers still grappling with insurance and financing. "Unfortunately, as soon as any of my customers lose their van they're stuck in the house," he said.

Arguing with insurersAndrew Branigan, 22, of Massapequa, is deaf and has cerebral palsy. Until Dec. 12, he had been virtually homebound, unable to attend classes at Nassau Community College. Floodwaters damaged his house, his wheelchair-accessible van and two family cars.

When the new Honda Odyssey finally appeared in his driveway, he was thrilled. "He just kept saying, 'yes, yes, yes,' " said his mother Jean, who had been "beyond frustrated" by the effort it took to expedite funding to help pay for it.

Before then, she had spent weeks on the phone arguing -- first, with the insurance company USAA over what she said was its failure to cover the replacement cost of the van's ramp system (which she said she believed the policy fully covered), and then, when she turned elsewhere for help covering those costs, with the state and nonprofit agencies that administer the program for independent living in which her son is enrolled.

A USAA spokesman wouldn't discuss specific cases, but said "payments for damaged wheelchair ramps are based on the actual cash value of the equipment at the time the loss occurred." Branigan took their check for $35,000, but says it was too low.

The state eventually agreed to shortcut some of the usual requirements and approved $20,000 for the ramp. While the process may seem "like a long time to Mrs. Branigan, it happened in a very short period of time," said Suffolk Independent Living Organization's Christine Rigg, director of the program in which Andrew is enrolled.

Normally, approvals can take months, she said. "It's Medicaid money and we want to make sure that the right modifications are done to make sure the client is safe and traveling safely."

But Jean Branigan, who translates in sign language for her son and takes notes for him at school, resented having to argue for what she saw as logical shortcuts in an emergency.

"It's not just the storm, it's the way things are run," she said. "It makes you crazy." Before getting the new van her son had "said he's very sad, he's stuck in the house and he misses going to school. He's bored."

Desperate for replacementSheila Hahn, of Moriches, is desperate to replace the accessible van she drove for her disabled husband Richard, 78, until the stormwaters destroyed it. Her husband was a scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory until he suffered a stroke four years ago.

She too fought with her insurance company, Kemper Preferred. The company wanted to give her $18,000 for the van, which she'd bought used six months ago, and would not cover its modifications. Hahn said the van had a higher value and thought she needed at least $30,000 to replace it.

"I think for the small amount of money I'm asking them for, it's bizarre for them to put me through this," Hahn said.

A few hours after the company was contacted for comment by Newsday about the Hahns' claim, Sheila Hahn said she was called by the insurers, told there had been a mistake in the original settlement offer, and that she would get $38,000. "The claim has been resolved," said Leslie Kolleda, vice president of marketing and communications, in an email to Newsday.

Liz Treston, 52, of Long Beach, a quadriplegic since a diving accident at age 19, lost her new adapted van when it "danced with the ocean." Fortunately, she was able to get back her old van -- it was still at the Bussani dealership, where it was being prepared for donation to a nonprofit. She'll drive it until a new van is ready.

Life wasn't easy for the retired speech and language pathologist after the storm, which forced her, her companion dog Finney, and her sister's family to evacuate their flooded house for their mother's home in Yonkers.

"I hate to be a Lifetime movie," she said, comparing her predicament to TV melodrama, "but my body was pretty bruised and battered for the next few weeks. I didn't have any of my equipment that makes me independent, my power chair, the lifts to transfer from place to place. I was in a bed that gave me pressure ulcers. There was no bathroom access."

Her family has helped for 30 years, but "everyone is older and it's harder for them to lift."

And, she said, it isn't easy to be always dependent. "I don't like asking, I don't want to have to say 'please' and 'thank you' 24 hours a day," she said.

Eventually, a friend who read of her plight on Facebook brought over her motorized chair in a truck, and she moved into an accessible hotel with FEMA funds. She's returning, with her equipment, to stay with her mother again until house repairs are complete.

Paratransit difficultiesA huge frustration, however, was trying, and failing, to get a ride on the paratransit system for the disabled during her stay in Yonkers. A disabled person who lost a van and needed a paratransit ride would still have to register, providing medical documentation of disability and awaiting approvals that could take several weeks.

"It's not an automatic 'My van is out, boom, come get me,' " said John Khzouz, director of marketing and communications for NICE Able-Ride in Nassau County, which has similar requirements to those in Westchester and elsewhere.

He said it is possible for registered disabled riders to arrange trips across county lines via connections to paratransit systems in abutting counties, and riders registered in one county can arrange for rides if they are visiting elsewhere.

For Treston, the struggle to recover from the storm is "like peeling off a Band-Aid a millimeter at a time." Being unable to even get a ride on public transportation when she needed it had a sting all its own. "I almost threw my phone against the wall in frustration," she said. "I wanted to put the phone on the floor and roll over it."

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