Three Christmases after Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc in New York, Staten Island couple Helena and John Mahon have something to be merry about. Thanks to the gift of mild weather this December, construction on the Mahons’ home can conclude and the couple will finally have a home for the holidays.
“They said it was too much damage… it would cost too much,” said Helena Mahon. “We were just like in limbo this whole time.”
The Mahons lived in the Sandy-damaged house for two and a half years before Habitat for Humanity New York agreed to repair their basement. Construction officially began in October of this year and is expected to finish just in time for the holidays. Michael Gilliard, of Habitat for Humanity, stated that completing their house in time for January has been a real push.
“This is by far our largest and most extensive project,” said Gilliard. The Mahon’s home will be Habitat for Humanity’s 43rd Superstorm Sandy repair project in the New Dorp community but finishing construction on the Mahon’s house has been not been an easy task.
“It’s not as sexy to sell Sandy as it was three years ago,” said Gilliard. “I think the Critical Home Repair Division [of Habitat for Humanity] will continue to perform Sandy work as long as the grant dollars are available – but there’s a burn out on the part of volunteers and donors.”
Habitat for Humanity is a volunteer driven non-profit organization. Gilliard stated that Habitat for Humanity typically loses most of their volunteers directly after Thanksgiving, making the holiday season particularly hard to complete housing projects. Facing low volunteer turn out rates means that Habitat for Humanity has had to purchase paid labour to get these families back into their homes for the holidays.
“It’s kind of what you have to do,” said Gilliard, “There is no legal obligation to get things closed and completed, but it’s a good milestone for us to see people return to their homes by the holidays.”
Habitat for Humanity is not the only organization that repairs homes in Staten Island, New York, and some New Dorp residents have sought assistance from the city’s Build It Back Program and Yellow Boots, a disaster relief organization that provides assistance for the long-term recovery of Staten Island following Superstorm Sandy.
“Our neighbor down here, they went through Yellow Boots. Next door here, the Deli, they had insurance,” said Mahon. “I know one of my friends…she did the [paperwork] and she got reimbursed from Build It Back. Everybody has a different story. It’s amazing.”
The Mahons have lived in their house on New Dorp Lane for the past 38 years. Superstorm Sandy marked the third time their home flooded. Despite this, they have no plans to leave. Some, however, did choose to leave New Dorp after Superstorm Sandy. An estimated 30 to 40 percent of affected residents in New Dorp left the Staten Island community. For Helena and John, Superstorm Sandy has forever changed their neighborhood.
“Before Sandy, if I looked out my window and I saw somebody, I’d know who they were. Now you don’t,” said Mahon. “There are a lot of abandoned houses, which is sad.”
As the holiday season approaches, the Mahons are optimistic about the future of their New Dorp community. They hope New Dorp will be a safe place to work and live for their new neighbors.
“Three years on, I think there is a lot more hope in the neighborhood now,” said Mahon. “I still love the neighbourhood. And the future looks pretty good actually.”
On this windy Sunday morning, hundreds of New York City Marathon supporters came to the South Bronx to welcome and cheer 50,740 runners competing in the 26 mile race. This year, the race was marked by memories of the Boston Marathon bombings and Hurricane Sandy.
For Laura Rodriguez, 34, of the Bronx, the connection with the tragedy in Boston was personal. Though she escaped unscathed, she finished the marathon in April just an hour before the first bomb blast.The attacks killed three people and wounded more than 260 others.
On Sunday she was wore a banana costume and cheered her friends running in the marathon.
“It is very important for us to be here today and to show we are very resilient and very strong,“ she said.
“It was a scary experience,” she said of the Boston Marathon bombings. “So, we are here today to prove that we are not going to be scarred.”
The images of Boston bombings are also not a distant memory for Karin Ortiz, a resident of East Harlem. She came to encourage her four friends running the last six miles before beating the finish line.
”This [the marathon] is very poignant,” Ortz said, “There is a big link between New York and Boston, the cities are pretty close and a lot of runners from the Boston marathon are also running in this race.”
Security in New York was high today, with unprecedented precautionary measures. Helicopters, scuba divers, police boats, K-9 dogs with explosive-detection capabilities and hundreds of cameras were deployed along the marathon route.
Alma Luccirnia, 70, a veteran runner from the Bronx said she had no trepidation of being at the race and did not feel anxious.
“I am not scared of coming,” she said, “We have a lot of police here, I have never seen so much protection.” Luccirnia has completed more than 11 marathons, but came today to support her two friends from Dallas, Texas who participated in the race.
Last year, the big race was canceled after Hurricane Sandy pummeled New York and it was still on the minds of many.
“This is a special day for New York City, we are back from Hurricane Sandy and we want to show that we are resilient and we keep doing what we do,” said Garry Stubbs, 61, of Mott Haven.
He held a sign to cheer his adopted 25-year-old daughter, Yvette Davis. It is the first time she was running the race.
Volunteers came together this Saturday to plant 20,000 trees at Rockaway Community Park, giving new life to the area that was ravaged last year by Superstorm Sandy. Reported by Zahra Ahmed and produced by Nidhi Prakash.
Dee and Scott McGrath aren’t going anywhere. When Hurricane Sandy battered the coasts of New York and New Jersey Oct. 29, the storm surges destroyed everything they owned. In one of the hardest hit areas of New York, residents like the McGrath’s of Staten Island’s New Dorp Beach refused to give in to Mother Nature.
“What, am I going to live in fear for the rest of my life?” said Scott, 45. “I can be in the house and put on a switch and get electrocuted. Do I not put on a switch?”
In fact, the McGrath’s embraced their beachfront community so much post-Sandy that they formed their own non-profit, Beacon of Hope New York, to encourage local residents to stay. The McGrath’s, along with neighbor Stacey Sclafani and Jessica Ardi of nearby Midland Beach, started the grassroots Sandy recovery organization as a way to not only promote solidarity amongst residents, but also provide resources and help to many of their displaced neighbors.
“(We) wanted to reenergize the neighborhood and show that we are staying so that these houses don’t become abandoned,” said McGrath.
“It really does rejuvenate people,” Dee McGrath, 43, added.
Moving on and the Home Buyout Plan
Unlike New Dorp Beach, residents of nearby Oakwood Beach are moving out and moving on. Of the 184 residents in the small beach community of Fox Beach, 170 homeowners have agreed to sell their homes to the government under a $400 million home buyout program introduced by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
“There are some places that Mother Nature owns,” Cuomo told a crowd at the College of Staten Island Feb. 25 shortly after announcing the Fox Beach community of Oakwood Beach as the pilot program for his home buyout plan. “I want to be there for people in these communities. I want to give this parcel back to Mother Nature.”
The program, which would pay qualified homeowners 100 percent of their property’s pre-storm value, does not appear as advertised, said McGrath.
“Do they really want to start over?” he asked. “You’re going to have to start over anyway.”
The McGraths, who have owned their home since 2002, argue that the mortgage payments left on their home is not proportionate to what they would receive from the buyout; even if they wanted to leave, it would not make sense economically.
“They’d have to offer me twice what the house is worth for me to accept the buyout,” said Dee McGrath.
Beacon of Hope New York recently started a campaign to promote their neighborhood by handing out “We Are Staying!” lawn signs to let homeowners show that they are not leaving.
“New Yorkers, we take care of ourselves,” said Dee McGrath.
Six months later: Road to recovery
Over the six months since Hurricane Sandy, a long road to recovery remains. The McGraths were without power for nearly two months, and did not have heat until Jan. 2. They still have mold problems that need to be addressed before they can begin rebuilding the interior of their home. Many other homes are still in need of repairs, with many homeowners facing more uncertainty than confirmation.
“It was the perfect storm,” Dee McGrath said. “You had the full moon, high tide. It was just perfect timing for the worst storm you could possibly have.”
The new Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps, if approved, would add more than 65,000 structures in New York and New Jersey to the 100-year flood zones. However, it is unknown when the new FEMA flood maps will be approved or if people will be reimbursed for the costs. State officials estimate that the new requirements won’t be released until at least next month.
Many areas of New Dorp Beach have expanded to the “V Zone,” the most vulnerable federal flood zone, which changes the flood base elevation from 8.9 feet to 15 feet. As a result, many homeowners are reluctant to begin the process of applying for grants and having their soil tested to see if their foundation can be raised, said Dee McGrath said.
“I really thought we’d be recovered by now,” she said.
Another issue homeowners face is the added costs of repairs to their homes, much of which are not covered by insurance. Some homeowners were using mortgage money to pay for repairs, leaving many behind on their already deferred federal home mortgage payments.
Maintaining the ‘American Dream’ at all costs
Gov. Cuomo recently allocated $47 million in FEMA-approved funds to reimburse costs incurred to homeowners following Hurricane Sandy, according to an April 29 release.
“Restoring communities damaged by Superstorm Sandy is our department’s highest priority and these Public Assistance reimbursement funds will help each of the affected communities, such as New York City, to get their fiscal affairs back in order,” said NYS Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services Commissioner Jerome M. Hauer in the release.
Yet the efforts by the state and federal government have not been soon enough, according to the McGraths, which is why they formed their own model for recovery and neighborhood restoration. Beacon of Hope New York is currently in the process of receiving grants for beautification efforts in New Dorp Beach and organizing events in conjunction with volunteer service organizations such as Yellow Team and Boots on the Ground.
And for the McGrath’s, there’s no place like home, no matter how prone it may be to Mother Nature’s wrath.
“This was all down to the bare wood,” said Scott. “Everything here was done by family members, friends, and people that became friends. They broke a sweat building this house and helping us.”
As the Service Events Coordinator for New York Cares, Diane Conroy spends her time figuring out how to connect volunteers with meaningful projects that help New Yorkers in need.
One of the most notable events she coordinates is the citywide coat drive. The headquarters in midtown opened its doors nearly two weeks early this year to begin collecting for Hurricane Sandy victims. So far, they have gathered over 27,000 coats. They hope to reach 200,000.
“I’ve been doing this drive for three years and I feel like it’s such a tangible way to see how good New Yorkers are, and the rest of the country,” Conroy said.
Although she encounters generous volunteers daily, Conroy specifically remembers a phone call she once received from a woman who bought 400 brand new coats for New York Cares.
Unfortunately, despite Conroy’s efforts and the remarkable generosity of thousands, tough economic times have impacted New York Cares in recent years. Nearly 5,000 kids who requested coats last year did not receive them.
Still, Conroy prefers to focus on the 76,800 people who did receive a coat they desperately needed.
“Every one of those coats someone took out of their closet and thought of someone else to give. So it’s really an amazing thing to see,” she said.
Coat donations are accepted at New York public libraries and New York City Police Departments until December 31st.
“Seeing the amazing generosity of people on a daily basis is probably my favorite part,” Conroy said.
The water came rushing into Vincent Fusco’s home in Rockaway Beach from what appeared to be out of nowhere. The basement was flooded with eight feet of water, the white caps smashed against his front porch and quickly rose to the first story of his multi-family home on Beach 119th Street.
Fusco said he did not know how high the water was going to rise.
“The cat started swimming in the foyer,” he said. “That’s how deep it was.”
His family and the cat survived, but the furniture, stove, washer and dryer, and fresh Kentucky bluegrass sod on his front lawn were all but destroyed when Hurricane Sandy made landfall Oct. 29 in New Jersey and New York.
As a barrier island, the Rockaways peninsula was a vulnerable area that received the brunt of the hurricane’s wrath. The storm uprooted trees, knocked down power lines, flooded basements and even ripped some beachfront homes off their foundation.
Like Fusco, many residents of hard hit areas of the Rockaways–Breezy Point, Rockaway Beach, Belle Harbor, Rockaway Park and Far Rockaway found an inspection tag from the Department of Buildings affixed to their front door when they returned to their homes after the storm. A green tag meant the home was stable and suffered no structural damage; a yellow tag indicated restricted access due to structural damage; and a red tag determined the house unsafe and unsalvageable. These homeowners are now in limbo. There is no timetable for razing their homes or if there will be any financial assistance to do it. They are not even sure how much it will cost. Although Fusco found a green tag in front of his home, many other residents were not as lucky.
Fusco on what was covered by insurance through homeowners association and FEMA
Vincent Frusco Homeowners Clip One
Two hundred homes in the Rockaways alone were classified as beyond repair, and about 500 others with significant structural damage were inspected to determine whether the properties needed to be razed. However, a red tag does not necessarily mean the building will be demolished, according to the Department of Buildings
Although the tags restrict use of the building, buildings and homes would not be bulldozed without notifying the owner unless it was in danger of collapsing.
Fusco on preserving what he can
Vincent Fusco Clip 2 Items Destroyed
The New York Department of Buildings has inspected close to 80,000 buildings that lay in shambles in Staten Island, Brooklyn and Queens, as part of a systematic effort to assess overall damage to properties in the hardest hit areas of the city.
Calls to the Department of Buildings seeking comment were not returned, and emails to councilman Eric Ulrich–who represents Breezy Point–and his chief of staff, Rudy Giuliani, were also not returned.
Fusco, 69, recently stood outside examining the pile of gutted drywall and insulation, he faced the inevitable: a prolonged recovery for a home that still suffered extensive flooding damage.
“Bring back Irene,” he joked. “We had Irene last year but this was ten times (worse),” he said.
However, Frusco added that the inspection was done weeks ago, and is worried a second inspection will find foundation damage he discovered in his kitchen and living room.
William Polis, also of Rockaway Beach, Queens, was not so lucky. He came home one day to find a yellow tag affixed to the door of his home on Beach 115th Street.
“I came home from work and saw the tag on the door and thought, ‘What the heck is this?’” he said.
While still without heat, Polis was not worried about the inspection notice and the possibility of restricted access to his home, and was upset that the Department of Buildings was recommending what repairs were needed.
“We’ll recover. I have repairmen,” he added.
Although power has been restored to 1.1 million customers, 9,442 customers are still without power in the Rockaways, according to a Nov. 26 release from the office of the mayor on recovery and assistance operations. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg also announced on Nov. 26 a measure requiring owners and landlords of multi-family homes to immediately take action to restore heat and electricity. The release added that owners and landlords who, “…fail to restore essential services to their buildings will be subject to the commencement of enforcement proceedings.”
“It’s an owner’s legal obligation to provide their tenants with essential services such as electricity and heat,” the Housing Preservation and Development Commissioner Matthew M. Wambua said in the release.
Further exacerbating recovery efforts is the requirement by the city for houses to be checked for flood damage before the Long Island Power Authority (LIPA) , can begin to restore power to homes in the Rockaways and the southern shore of Long Island. LIPA has already been highly criticized for its slow response to Hurricane Sandy, leading to the resignation of the chairman Howard E. Steinberg, on Nov. 30 and prompting a response from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for a complete overhaul of the third largest electric utility service in the nation.
And over one month after the storm, thousands of people still remained displaced and looking for answers. Restoration centers like St. Francis De Sales Parish church in Belle Harbor, Rockaways, are still in full force, providing clothing, food, lawyers to handle insurance claims, and representatives from LIPA and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
Rev. John Brown on prolonged recovery process
Rev John Brown Clip
According to Rev. John Brown, the pastor of St. Francis De Sales Parish and director of the restoration center, what started as a clothing and food drive with 20 rolling beds turned into a designated restoration center that served 4,000 to 10,000 residents at the peak of recovery efforts. Now that number is down to approximately 1,000, he said.
“We became the command post of the (Rockaways) peninsula,” he added.
Rev. Brown empathizes with residents, having suffered structural damage and severe flooding in his home across the street from the church, which is one of many buildings in Belle Harbor still without heat or power. He is currently residing in Ozone Park, Queens.
“I think they’re doing the best they can with what they have,” he said of FEMA, mayor Bloomberg and representatives for respective Rockaways neighborhoods. “It’s a lot of people hurting. It’s going to take time.”
Yet amidst the destruction, Rev. Brown remains confident the Rockaways will reestablish itself.
“This is a very healthy community. They all take care of each other and work very hard,” he added. “I have no doubts that we’ll come back.”
But for Fusco, the second major storm to hit the peninsula in as many years has him questioning whether he should keep his house, which is less than 100 yards from the Atlantic Ocean.
“We really don’t have much stuff left,” he said. “Whether or not we are going to stay here I don’t know.”