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The unemployed help Babylon residents tackle storm woes

Luis Suarez, right, hands Mary Rogers disaster relief

Luis Suarez, right, hands Mary Rogers disaster relief supplies as he visits her superstorm Sandy-damaged home on Little East Neck Road South in Babylon. (Feb. 1, 2013) Friday. Credit: Barry Sloan

The four workers guiding Babylon Town residents from below Sandy's flood line through the slow, uncertain process of storm recovery are no strangers to struggle.

They include a former chief financial officer for a real estate company and a former yacht club manager, both laid off last year; a former warehouse manager in search of a job with health benefits; and a new college grad unable to land the teaching job for which he trained.

They are among the undetermined number of those put to work by superstorm Sandy. Only their focus has been Babylon.

"The storm gave us a job, an opportunity, but I'm not going to say I'm thankful for the storm," said William Hein, 24, of Babylon, the would-be teacher. "I've seen so many people out of their homes."

Their work for the town began in early December, when they joined a team of 27 that visited 9,036 homes and businesses south of Montauk Highway. They made 6,043 contacts, distributing a 14-point questionnaire about storm damage, housing and recovery needs.

The results, intended to direct the town's follow-up efforts, also serve as a sort of misery index for its residents. A sampling: 2,005 cases of severe flooding and 1,488 families living in homes missing a roof, wall or floor; 490 families without heat, 237 without electricity, 210 without running water, some missing all three. Oil or gasoline was spilled on 358 properties.

The last four members of the team are working on about 500 of the most intractable cases. Their work has evolved from canvassing to advocating for town residents -- documenting damage and holding insurers and banks accountable.

"One of the major areas of problems we're having now is that insurance companies aren't releasing funds quickly enough to homeowners," said Michael Ferruso, 60, of West Babylon, the former chief financial officer. Acquiring mortgages often makes for a second bottleneck, with the bank freezing loans until homeowners show proof of repair work. "People are depleting personal savings or retirement plans," he said.

Much of his work is done in conference calls with companies and residents, Ferruso said. "There are cases where I've made 15 calls," he said. "It helps when . . . the caller ID says Town of Babylon."

Four months after Sandy hit, these four -- whose homes all escaped major damage -- say the job has had some low moments. "It's gotten hard to see people still going through this," said Luis Suarez, 44, of Islip, the former warehouse manager. But there have been good moments, too. "People are happy to hear from us," said Debbie Ursillo, the former yacht club manager from Babylon.

Deborah Charland, 59, a retired bookkeeper, and her husband, Robert, said they felt both their bank and insurance company were slow to react to the 4 feet of water in their Pecan Street home in Lindenhurst. That changed when Ferruso joined her in a conference call with the insurance company, she said. Ferruso urged the company to speed up, or else: "He said, 'You're not abiding by FEMA regulations. The next call you get is going to be from the town attorney, and then I'm going to the attorney general."

The settlement check got cut. "I called the governor's office, the senator's office, and really the only one who helped was the Town of Babylon," Charland said. "I was kind of surprised myself."

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