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Tropical storms' impact still felt upstate

WINDHAM -- Tropical storms Irene and Lee have left their upstate victims tired and frustrated more than a month after the back-to-back disasters swamped homes, washed away roads and upended lives.

Hopes and promises of many for fast bailouts from government and insurance companies are dashed. The critical force of volunteers is dwindling as the storms fade from memory. New problems arise and the looming onset of winter brings new threats to recovery.

Some survivors have spent a month sleeping on friends' couches, some in cars. Places such as Schoharie are still little more than blocks of gutted shells of stores, bars and homes.

The disaster is far from over.

FEMA so far has approved $76 million for statewide relief for damages estimated at more than $1 billion. Although typical homeowners insurance doesn't cover flood damage, residents are being told they still must get a time-consuming "declination" of coverage before FEMA can provide a final grant, according to the Professional Insurance Agents of New York State.

Many, even the few with flood insurance, say they still are awaiting insurance company checks delayed in part by the volume of claims and that has, in turn, delayed Federal Emergency Management Agency funds.

"This is almost worse," said Heather Vilegi, co-owner of Middleburgh Hardware in Schoharie County. Like most, she is indebted to scores of neighbors and volunteers who came from afar to help in the recovery effort.

"Now everyone is tired and cranky and finding there isn't much government help," Vilegi said. "Flood insurance is taking a long time."

When checks do arrive, FEMA says they average $5,000; the maximum is $30,200 for total loss of a house. That's far less than many expected after a string of press conferences by state and federal officials promising that insurance and government aid would cover most of the $1 billion in damage caused in New York.

Even comparatively wealthy Windham, a Catskill ski resort and the weekend home of many New York City residents, still had 5-foot high piles of soggy drywall, hardwood planks and debris along a 90-foot stretch of curb last week. Reconstruction continued at some businesses six weeks after they were shut down. Thirty garbage bags lined the curb within sight of the Batavia Kill, still churning reddish brown from the Catskills' clay.

"Nobody thought we would reopen," said Nick Malegiannakis, 65, owner of Michael's Diner in Windham, where he still waives the lunch tab for some young recovery workers. The Greek immigrant left Queens after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for the serenity of his hunting lodge in Windham. He lost a month of business and $67,000 in food, with more losses at home.

"The scary thing now is, will people come back?" he said.

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