Sandy Isn’t Over

NEWS
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Take a drive through Broad Channel, and on any given street today, you’ll find several houses dotting the block that are fenced up as construction crews may or may not be working on them. Same is the case for parts of Breezy Point, Arverne, and some homes on other parts of the peninsula. Five years have passed since Hurricane Sandy rolled through. On the surface, many of these communities seem to have come back strong. Yet for many families, Sandy still isn’t over.

Broad Channel resident Jeffrey Rhodes and his five children still aren’t back home. After the storm, Rhodes thought he would just need to elevate his home, but was told through Build it Back (BIB) that he’d be better off tearing down the whole house and starting from scratch. Opting for the choose your own contractor option, he found that finding a contractor that wasn’t going to overcharge and that could be vetted by the BIB program, proved to be a challenge. He was finally able to find a contractor in 2014, but couldn’t sign a contract with him until October 2016, as the contractor needed to be vetted. The demolition occurred quickly, but then no action took place until this past spring, when construction started, but it started to slow down, Rhodes said. “They started working and there were delays here and there, but my contractor hasn’t been getting paid by Housing Preservation and Development (HPD). He was only reimbursed for the demolition, but the foundation was poured, the house now has frames, windows and a roof, but he hasn’t been reimbursed for any of it. These guys need to get paid,” Rhodes said. Rhodes added that construction has been starting to move more quickly as the 5th Anniversary of the storm approaches, but he doesn’t have high hopes for getting home quickly. “My contractor told me we’ll be back by the end of November and I laughed. I’m just hoping we’re in around Christmas,” he said. “I never though we’d be in this position five years later.”

Breezy Point resident George Donley was able to move back into his home in July 2013, but after hearing about the potential for flood insurance premiums to go as high as $10,000 in the future, he decided to reduce this risk by elevate his home using BIB. Donley has once again been out of his house since May. “We don’t have a completion date. We know better than to even ask since the whole program has been a botch job. We’re just hoping to be back by next May,” he said.

Megan Phillips, of Broad Channel, decided to drop out of BIB completely due to frustrations with the program. When working with BIB, Phillips says her family was planning to increase the size of their former home. The old house was demolished in May 2014 and they worked out a reasonable price with BIB for the construction plan until Phillips says, BIB turned around and said the additional square footage to make the new house larger would cost more than $200,000 alone. “They were trying to screw us over,” she said. So they pulled out and went with a private contractor instead. Phillips adds that her battle included fighting with FEMA after the agency had underpaid them. After a year and a half, they finally got the additional money to use toward the rebuild. The waiting game also came into play. “We had to wait 11 months just for building permits before we could begin construction,” she said. Construction began in April of this year and with work done by the architect and whatever her husband could do himself, Phillips is hopeful that they’ll be able to move in by next month. “We’re aiming to be back in before Thanksgiving,” she said. “I never thought it would take five years. We’ve been paying rent and mortgage on top of this, and we’ve moved six times over the past five years. I can’t wait to just put this all behind me.”

For others, putting Sandy behind them, even five years later, seems impossible. While Sandy became a much-unwelcomed obstacle, regular life had to go on. Following Sandy, Broad Channel resident Kathy Smilardi-Kelly and her family had to relocate to the Bronx as she had health complications that would make it unsafe to try to stay in her damaged home. She says she enrolled in BIB from the start, but wound up using much of her own funding to rebuild her home to move back in within a year. Meanwhile, her husband Jimmy was diagnosed with cancer shortly after the storm. “Sandy wasn’t even a thought at the time. After we moved back in, it was in the back of my head. The most important issue was Jimmy,” she said. Her husband, James Kelly, died in March. And Sandy still lingered. “I hadn’t heard anything from BIB for four-and-a-half years after the storm, until my husband was dying,” Kelly said. “When you’re told someone has six months to live, you’re just distraught. I remember getting a phone call while I was in Rite Aid, trying to get Jimmy his meds, when BIB called me and I had to tell them to call back at another time,” she said.

Kelly says that BIB started asking her to leave her home in September so that they could start on an elevation project. Yet for Kelly, who is disabled and has two dogs and a bird, the search for temporary housing hasn’t been easy. Last Friday, she received a letter from BIB saying that she’s now in default for not following their timeline. “I don’t know if I’m going to get kicked out of the program now. BIB doesn’t realize that life goes on, and they always talk about ‘the house.’ They don’t realize it’s my home. I watched my husband die here,” she said. It’s been five years since the storm and now BIB wants to do something and I have nowhere to go. I’m probably going to get kicked out the program.”

With normal life needing to continue, some aren’t sure if returning is still worth it after five years. “We didn’t evacuate for Sandy. But after the house wasn’t livable, PS 114 wasn’t functional, so my daughter started school in the city, and the gyms where I taught were closed. We relocated our lives in Manhattan,” Belle Harbor resident Libby Schlesinger said. Schlesinger says her mother has attempted to fix the house, but the contractor she had hired turned out to be fraudulent and disappeared after doing shoddy work and creating fake work permits. “My mom also has PTSD from the storm. She can’t go a day without saying anything about Hurricane Sandy. She would still consider coming back to Rockaway if the house could miraculously be back to normal at this point, but she’s burnt out. It’s just been so long at this point, I feel like she’s done, so I don’t know if we’re even going to come back at this point, but Rockaway will always feel like home. I just never thought in a million years that we wouldn’t be back after five years.”

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