Six years since superstorm Sandy wrecked thousands of Long Island homes and businesses in one of the worst storms to hit New York, the majority of its victims are back in new or rebuilt homes. But thousands of others in the state's main recovery program still await payments or final repairs.
Officials at the state Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, which was created in 2013 to administer up to $4.6 billion in federal funds to help victims of superstorm Sandy and tropical storms Irene and Lee, say they are proud of their many success stories. GOSR officials said this month that 8,185 of 10,117, or 80 percent, of Sandy victims on Long Island who applied for help through the NY Rising Housing Recovery Program have completed their repairs and that they have distributed more than $1 billion for projects ranging from reconstruction to elevation.
The flagship housing program funds repairs and reconstruction and may include mandatory elevation, an optional elevation program for those in high-risk flood zones and an interim mortgage assistance program for people displaced while their homes get rebuilt.
“The Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery has helped New Yorkers build back after superstorm Sandy devastated Long Island so that our communities now stand stronger against rising sea levels and increasingly destructive weather,” said Thehbia Hiwot, GOSR executive director of housing, buyout, and acquisition programs. “GOSR is working with the remaining homeowners to help them join the vast majority of New Yorkers who are better prepared for the next storm.”
While some homeowners, like Arthur Strachman of Massapequa, can't say enough good things about NY Rising — which handled his reconstruction, elevation and interim mortgage assistance — other homeowners, like Daniel O'Sullivan of Babylon and Phyllis Boland of East Rockaway, are less enthusiastic. They say they have been stymied by bureaucratic headaches and, as Sullivan is, are still living in limbo because they are waiting on payment from the state.
GOSR officials did not comment on the applicants' concerns.
“It’s heartbreaking to talk to people who have gone through this agony or are partially through the way done or who are owed money that they need to live on,” said state Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach), adding that his office is handling at least 40 outstanding Sandy-related cases. "We’re far from the end here and I think because of bureaucratic entanglements and contractor fraud and other more localized issues, the process is moving much slower than it should and people feel trapped in an endless tunnel.”
State legislators passed a law in November 2015 requiring GOSR to provide quarterly reports on its progress getting people back home. Those reports offer a different image of Sandy success stories.
While the state agency declares 80 percent of the applicants to the NY Rising construction and elevation programs are done, the most recent report that GOSR supplied to state lawmakers says the caseload at the end of August was larger — 8,168 applicants from Nassau and 2,885 from Suffolk, or a total of 11,053 — with 6,423 of those cases being completed.
That suggests 58 percent of applicants have been made whole — still a majority but markedly less than the figure that GOSR officials are reporting to the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which funds the recovery programs.
State officials said the discrepancy lies in that GOSR counts closed out cases for the legislative report differently than it does for its reports to HUD.
The method for the legislative report designates as pending, or incomplete, any cases where applicants have finished required repairs but still have optional work to do, resulting in a lower number of completed cases.
GOSR’s method for reporting to HUD, meanwhile, counts as completed those cases where mandatory work like reconstruction and repairs are finished even if optional work, such as an elevation, has not been completed. The applicant pool is smaller because some have dropped out of the program since the legislative report was issued.
“GOSR has two different reporting requirements," said Catie Marshall, a spokeswoman. "One shows more than 80 percent of homeowners have completed their required repairs and therefore meet HUD's standard to rebuild a 'decent, safe, and sanitary' home. The other, required by the New York State Legislature, combines required repairs with optional work, which can mean some projects can be ongoing or still in progress."
For Strachman, an accountant, the numbers have been favorable.
He and his family left his waterfront home before Sandy and returned two days later to find his first-floor furniture — couches, lamps, appliances — had floated out of the front double doors that the storm had ripped off as it blasted Long Island’s southern coast.
“The water was right up to the ceiling in the living room,” he said, recalling the damage of the storm that hit Long Island on Oct. 29, 2012. The force of the water had even dislodged the granite kitchen countertop.
But Strachman took the disaster in stride and applied for NY Rising, which paid about $240,000 for repair and elevation of the Brockmeyer Drive house he has owned for 35 years. His home, which overlooks South Oyster Bay, was fully restored after 2½ years.
“I’m thrilled,” he said, adding that the first year living out of his home during repairs was tough, but that he is satisfied with the process he endured — even complimenting the state employees of NY Rising who handled his affairs. “I can’t say anything bad about the program. I can’t say anything bad about the people.”
The O’Sullivans of Babylon, however, give the agency’s performance a mixed review at best. They are grateful to be back in their Prospect Street home, but a full year after having moved back in on Sandy’s fifth anniversary the family of eight still sleeps on mattresses on the floors because they say they have run out of money as they await a $40,000 payment from NY Rising.
The O’Sullivans say they were forced into personal bankruptcy by bureaucratic inefficiency and several public and private entities' failures. They were reimbursed significantly less than what it cost them to demolish their home, they say, and had to pay $80,000 in attorney fees to fight to get the full value of their flood insurance policy.
“We got to the point where our only asset is our home,” Daniel O'Sullivan said. “Even now, without the money from NY Rising, we are paying the contractors to prevent them from putting a lien on the house.”
Like at least hundreds of other Sandy victims, the O’Sullivans said they were also victims of a fraudulent contractor who performed shoddy work and skipped town. The hurdles packed on months of delay and drained their bank account.
Now in a house built to their liking by Michaud & Savinetti Construction of Lindenhurst — a new contractor who O'Sullivan said has been generous and patient — the O’Sullivans eat and entertain guests on second-hand furniture.
“Why didn’t we just walk away from this?” O’Sullivan asked. “We promised the kids we were going to get the house built. We wanted them to hold onto the fact that were going to get the house built and get onto our street and get back to normal. That’s the commitment we made to them, to keep going.”
East Rockaway’s Phyllis Boland said she also had her severely disabled son in mind as she fought to get her home reconstructed and fend off mounting debt when her interim mortgage assistance ran out.
She laughs and wears a smile from ear to ear now while pointing to the structure of a lift to be installed on the exterior of a home she won’t occupy until the end of November. The old structure has been replaced by a house with a new design, and it sits 12 feet off the ground to guard against any new disastrous storms.
The picture was grim last May, though, when Boland was several months late on her $400,000 mortgage and her home, which was built by NY Rising Reconstruction, was not due to be finished before December 2019. Like the O'Sullivans, she reported red tape with NY Rising and the Village of East Rockaway.
But Boland lobbied state legislators, including Kaminsky. She attended forums for Sandy victims, including Suffolk County Legislature’s Sandy task force sessions. In an act of desperation, she approached Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo himself, breaking down in tears as she shook his hand at one of his Long island appearances last June.
Soon afterward, her construction plans got approved and her case seemed to pick up speed. Even her bank eased up, she said, giving her time to sort out mortgage payments.
Boland spoke as hard-hatted workers from Almas Construction of Wading River buzzed about the grounds of her house and yard, racing toward the Nov. 30 target date for her home to be finished.
“I’m happy that this is finally happening,” she said.
Sandy by the numbers — six years on
The Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery was granted $4.6 billion in funding to help victims of superstorm Sandy and tropical storms Irene and Lee and has used up $3.3 billion so far.
The NY Rising Housing Recovery program, which pays for reconstruction and repairs and elevation, has spent over $1 billion.
GOSR officials report that 8,185 of 10,117 — or 80 percent — of Sandy victims on Long Island who applied for help have completed their repairs. A September report that the agency prepared for state lawmakers says 6,423 of 11,053 applicants — or 58 percent — have completed their repairs.
The Interim Mortgage Assistance program has disbursed $41.2 million to 1,387 homeowners in Nassau County and $13.3 million to 531 homeowners in Suffolk County.
Through the Buyouts and Acquisitions program, the state has purchased 155 homes in Suffolk for buyout, demolished them and maintained the properties as undeveloped land. The state has purchased another 435 homes in Nassau and Suffolk as acquisitions and auctioned them off to private buyers.
The GOSR Construction Program for homeowners who have had great difficulty completing their repairs was started in 2016 and includes 297 homes, 200 of which have been completed at a cost of $62 million.
There are 3,381 people in Nassau and Suffolk in the mandatory and optional elevations programs. GOSR reports that 1,724 elevations — 1,079 in Nassau and 645 in Suffolk — have been completed.
The NY Rising Rental Properties program funds the repair of year-round rental properties. There are 682 landlords in the program who have received a portion of $70.4 million in funding that has been disbursed. Of those, 311 have completed repairs and closed out of the program and 371 have repairs ongoing.
Source: Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery