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LIers get FEMA aid to raise homes -- after Irene's damage

Donna Schwarz stands with her sons Eric, left,

Donna Schwarz stands with her sons Eric, left, and Steven, right, in front of their home on South Bay Street in Babylon which was recently approved to be raised. (Oct. 28, 2013) Credit: Steve Pfost

More than a dozen Long Island residents are finally getting federal money to elevate their storm-damaged homes. But the money isn't for the devastation from superstorm Sandy in 2012 -- it's for damage done by Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

Adam Panasuk, 31, had forgotten all about FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, for which he submitted "tons" of paperwork last October, before Sandy hit. As the months went by, he said, "I gave up, I thought 'this is never going to happen.' "

The Lindenhurst Village resident received approval just before Irene's second anniversary in August and is working with engineer Michael Drake of Babylon to plan his home elevation.

Flood zone relief

FEMA's Hazard Mitigation Grant Program was established in 1988 as part of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act. Homeowners in flood zones who have had multiple losses can apply through a local municipality for up to 75 percent of the costs of elevating their homes. The municipality submits the homeowner's application, which is reviewed by the state and then FEMA to determine eligibility.

Raising a home can cost $75,000 to $150,000, and the money is reimbursed to homeowners, with a six- to 10-week lag time, town officials said. With the program not well known and homeowners often unable to put so much money up front, few residents took part. Over the past 10 years, Lindenhurst Village has received approval for 28 homes to be raised, but only 14 homeowners followed through, said Deputy Clerk Doug Madlon.

Since Sandy, residents' interest has grown. Only three homeowners applied after Irene, Madlon said. Now the village has a list of more than 300 residents looking to take part. He said he has not been told when those applications will be accepted.

Applied 'on a lark'

Donna Schwarz, 52, had flooding in her basement and property and wind damage to her home after Irene. After repeated losses over 35 years, she filled out the paperwork "on a lark . . . never thinking something [like Sandy] could happen."

The storm destroyed most of her Babylon home and Schwarz forgot all about her application. When she got word she had been approved, she was shocked. "I couldn't believe it; I was ecstatic," she said. "I couldn't believe that the paperwork I had filled out turned out to mean so much."

Others who had applied after Irene were not as fortunate.

Lisa Ludwig, 51, and her husband Joseph, 54, of Babylon, only had water in their garage from Irene, she said, but they "realized we needed to raise the house because after 20 years being here, it was just a matter of time; it was getting worse every storm."

Their house was so damaged by Sandy that they had to knock it down and rebuild, making them ineligible for the elevation grant.

"It was just taking too long, I couldn't wait," she said. The family was renting a house and the homeowner wanted to sell. "We had to dig in our own pocket and do whatever we had to do to get back home."

Ludwig said the process took too long. "Had it gone through in a timely manner, my house would never have been destroyed in Sandy," she said. "I would have never had to go through this entire year with being displaced with my kids and just living a horrible life."

A spokesman for the hazard mitigation program did not respond to requests for comment. However, Brian Zitani, waterways management supervisor for Babylon Town, defended the program.

"It is not a storm recovery program," he said. "Its whole purpose is to fund projects that will stop or reduce flooding issues over a long period of time. It's not to get people back in their houses quickly. It's not to restore homes that were damaged."

Impatience at paperwork

Drake, who specializes in home elevations, said he has to be a cheerleader for applicants, who often become frustrated with the level of paperwork requested. "I tell them, 'You can't relax now, you've got to push through!' " he said.

Just months after repairing his one-bedroom house from Irene damage -- including putting in new flooring, drywall and an electrical system -- Sandy undid all of Panasuk's work. He said he was often discouraged by the hazard mitigation program's process but is "ecstatic" that he can now move forward with rebuilding and get back into his home next year. For most of the past two years, the 6-foot-2 Panasuk has been sleeping on a 5-foot futon in his parents' home in Massapequa.

"It's been a learning experience I never wanted to have," he said. "In my position, I was able to do it, but I know there are others who just couldn't wait it out."

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