3 months after Sandy, victims waiting for relief
NEW YORK -- Devon Lawrence neatly stacked bricks on the gas burner of his kitchen stove and turned up the blue flame, creating a sort of radiator that warmed the ice-cold room.
His two-story house in the Far Rockaway section of Queens hasn't had working heat since Superstorm Sandy's floodwaters destroyed the oil burner in the basement. Now mold is growing upstairs because the house has been cold and damp for so long.
Lawrence wakes early every morning to heat the bricks and light a kerosene space heater while his 75-year-old mother sits in bed in a hat and gloves.
"That way she doesn't freeze," said Lawrence, a former Army medic who served in Afghanistan and Iraq. "Even the dog is cold."
Three months after Sandy struck, thousands of storm victims in New York and New Jersey are stuck in limbo. Waiting for the heat to come on, for insurance money to come through, for loans to be approved. Waiting, in a broader sense, for their upended lives to get back to normal.
While Congress passed a $50.5 billion emergency aid package on Monday, many say the rebuilding has been complicated over the past several weeks by bureaucracy. Some people are still living in mold-infested homes, while others are desperately trying to persuade the city to tear theirs down. Illegal immigrants who don't qualify for federal aid are struggling to scrape by. Small businesses are shutting down in neighborhoods where nobody seems to shop anymore.
Federal officials say they understand the frustration and are working as quickly as possible to compensate people for their losses and rebuild.
"The infrastructure and the homes that were in place that Sandy took away took a lot longer than 90 days to be built up and put into place," said Michael Byrne, who is overseeing the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Sandy response in New York state. "If there's any assurances I can give folks that feel that way, we're not leaving until we get it done."
The Oct. 29 storm damaged or destroyed 305,000 housing units and disrupted more than 265,000 businesses in New York state. About 14,000 housing units have been repaired so far through New York City's Rapid Repairs program. In New Jersey, 346,000 housing units were destroyed or damaged, and 190,000 businesses affected. Nearly 18,000 households have received aid for repairs from FEMA.
"This is a war zone down here still," said Donna Graziano, who has been running a 24-hour relief hub near the beach on Staten Island in a tiny white tent heated by a generator. "This looks no better than it did three months ago."
On a recent snowy evening, at least a dozen people huddled over plates of food in Graziano's tent, which has become a gathering place where displaced residents can exchange greetings and get daily updates.
"This is three months now. And we're still fighting," said Nicole Chati, who is waging a battle to convince the city that her flood-damaged home must be torn down. "And we're still filling out more paperwork. And we're still cutting more red tape."
Chati said two contractors have advised her that it would be safer to demolish the home rather than try to salvage what's left of it. But the city's Buildings Department disagreed.
Along with her husband, 7-year-old daughter and mother, Chati is renting a basement apartment with aid from FEMA. But the family can't move forward with plans to rebuild until the house comes down.
"I had to hire my own engineer, my own architect, to prove that my house is caving in on itself," she said.
Government officials and nonprofit groups could not provide numbers on exactly how many people are still living in damaged homes, but stories abound in neighborhoods that suffered the worst flooding.
The furniture is still wet and the curtains are black with mold in Pura Gonzalo's Far Rockaway home, where the 89-year-old Cuban immigrant says she has throat problems and feels exhausted.
"My son tried to clean the basement as much as he could, but the mold is still there," said Gonzalo, who lives with her son, Jorge. "I feel very frustrated seeing my home like this, but I don't have the strength in my body to do anything anymore. I feel sick."
Anthony DiFrancisco refuses to move his family of seven out of his mold-infested ranch home on Staten Island. Until about two weeks ago, the family had been living without heat or hot water, relying on electric heaters to keep warm and showering at friends' homes.
"We're cleaning the mold as we go," he said. "I'm cleaning it with the bleach and doing it a little bit at a time, so we don't kill everybody."
Mold remediation usually requires people to move out of their homes for days at a time, and the job can cost as much as $15,000. Some homeowners complain that the lump-sum payments they get from FEMA aren't big enough to cover mold removal along with rent and all the other things that need to be repaired.
Advocates for immigrants and other poor storm victims say many people have also been subjected to the whims of corrupt landlords who aren't repairing flood damage and are still demanding the rent.
Norma Mancia, a Salvadoran immigrant, lost precious documents when her Far Rockaway home flooded. Because she lives illegally in the U.S., she hasn't received any FEMA money. Her destroyed furniture is still piled up in the backyard.
"We lost all the receipts and papers we could need in case we have the opportunity of solving our legal status here," said Mancia, who has received only $500 in aid from a local church. "I have cried a lot."
The past three months haven't been easy for small-business owners like Violet Sanabria, whose flower shop in Hoboken, N.J., was filled with floating lilies and roses when the water rushed in. Sanabria spent weeks cleaning up Vera's Flower Shop, where she has worked for seven years and officially became the owner -- a long-coveted dream -- on Nov. 1.
She has yet to receive any insurance money.
"The storm just killed everything," she said. "We used to make 24 orders a day. Now we're down to one if we're lucky."
Sanabria fears she may have to close the shop. "When are we going to see the light?" she asked.
On Staten Island, Chati visits her sodden little bungalow every day in a ritual that keeps her going and renews her resolve to rebuild.
"Sometimes I curse at it," she said. "Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I just look at it in disbelief."