The Blanco family of Manorville will celebrate Christmas in their nearly rehabilitated house for the first time since superstorm Sandy — and for that they are grateful.
Now they may get the gift they really wanted this holiday: a reason to believe that a life of work, faith and community won’t end in them losing it all.
The couple learned earlier this week that New York Rising, the state’s storm reconstruction agency, is substantially increasing its award to them for Sandy damage — enough to soften a financial blow that threatened their once-comfortable life in the ranch house they bought in 1977.
Wind, water and a sinking foundation damaged their house in the October 2012 storm. It was the first in a succession of setbacks for the retired telephone company workers, John, 70, and Eileen, 64, who adopted and are raising their grandson Joey, 13.
Their insurance company paid only a small percentage of repair costs. In 2013, New York Rising made an award offer, then withdrew most of it. Last year, a local contractor hired to shore up and repair the house cashed their checks, then abandoned the project after demolishing the rear half of the house, the couple said. With no heat, they were forced to take out a large loan to pay another contractor to do the work and rebuild.
John Blanco has cancer and feared his family could lose the house if he were not around to help pay off the loan with his pension and Social Security checks.
“I don’t understand why things like this happen,” he said. “Just morally I didn’t do nothing wrong.”
But things have taken a turn for the better, just in time for the holidays.
New York Rising, after reviewing their case, informed the Blancos this week they would get an additional award of about $52,900, for a total of about $68,500. And the Town of Brookhaven is expediting their paperwork, John Blanco said.
“Instead of crying, I’m so excited,” he said.
New York Rising, he said, “stepped up for us. I thank God for everything, and we can have a Christmas.”
The Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery said it was “pleased” to have been able to make the award after “reviewing all aspects of their situation.”
The initial award in 2013 was reduced after the agency found the house wasn’t eligible for elevation funds. It awarded the recent increase to cover damage from the shifting foundation after verifying it was caused by Sandy.
Blanco, who fled Cuba as a child, said they had been able to make payments only on the interest on their $250,000 adjustable rate loan. “Now we can get a regular mortgage at a fixed rate and be able to handle this.”
He added, “I believe in God very much, and I know we’re going to survive this.”
They are hoping for further redress from the contractor they say took their money, then abandoned them in mid-demolition in May 2015. That contractor failed to appear at an arbitration hearing Wednesday.
The Blancos’ attorney, Ralph Hummel of Woodbury, said the Blancos are asking for $149,000 in damages and costs, and should hear the arbitrator’s decision soon. A favorable decision can be converted into a civil judgment, allowing the Blancos to pursue the contractor’s assets.
The Blancos say they had known the contractor for several years through youth sports. They later hired another contractor, Ron King of King Construction, to rebuild and stabilize the house with piers. King testified at the hearing this week about the home’s condition when he took the job over.
“The whole back half of the house was ripped off, the roof overhanging about 6 feet, and plywood boarded it up along the back. The baseboard heat was outside the house,” he said in an interview. “It really looked like an abandoned home in all honesty.”
Blanco was active in volunteer work despite his illness, said Moriches Seahawks president William Hotaling. He came to every practice and game of the Police Athletic League youth football team to watch his grandson play, Hotaling said — each time bringing a cooler full of sports drinks for the players. Blanco was given a team jersey with the word “Waterboy” on the back, which allowed him to stand by the field.
“He’s a very caring guy, and always good with the kids,” Hotaling said. His only problem, he said, was that “he trusts people a little too much . . . it’s a shame. He’s nice to people and expects they’ll be nice to him, but life isn’t like that.”
Their ordeal has been nerve-wracking, the Blancos said.
“Stressful isn’t the word, but I kind of hold everything together,” Eileen Blanco said. “It’s been so long, which is why I try to take a deep breath and take it one day at a time.”
They had hoped to celebrate Christmas Eve in the house with several of their five adult children and their families, but with the kitchen installation incomplete, they may have to go visit them instead. Still, they are enjoying their Christmas tree, especially for Joey’s sake.
“This is going to be his first Christmas celebration in three years because we haven’t had a place to sit,” John Blanco said. “This is still unfinished and not what you expect it to be, but it’ll be much better than it’s been — and I can’t wait.”