Flailing FEMA

Sandy-ravaged communities dealing with cold and lack of housing while FEMA trailers sit idle in PA

December 3, 2012

Dozens of residents are still living without heat, hot water, or electricity in condemned structures flooded by both sea and sewer water in the Gerritsen Beach community of Brooklyn after a request to FEMA for temporary housing after Hurricane Sandy was denied.

"We need structures and housing. It is truly desperate," said Jameson Wells, executive assistant to the director of GB Cares Sandy Relief, a volunteer relief organization. FEMA has said they did not have appropriate trailers.

"They told us they were unavailable because they are unheated and not insulated," Wells said.

However, around 92 FEMA trailers are sitting idle and unused 145 miles away in Pennsylvania, the Free Beacon has found. Two employees from different companies located near the trailers’ location on Route 315 in Plains Township, Pa., confirmed the trailers were there.

One employee of a nearby store who asked not to be identified said some units are bigger than others. All of the units are equipped with heat pumps.

"Maybe someone should call FEMA to tell them about these trailers that can be used for the victims of Sandy," the employee of the nearby store said. "The people in New York and New Jersey who are suffering, they should definitely give them these trailers. … They are living for a month without heat or electricity. God bless them. I lived without power for four days and it was painful."

Wells said that Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) requested the FEMA trailers for Gerritsen Beach.

The site manager for the FEMA location, John Donahue, told Eyewitness News: "We first have to receive a request from the state involved. These trailers were sent here to help victims of last year’s floods in Northeastern and Central Pennsylvania."

"There are certain parameters that must be met," he went on. "The request and then the location they are needed … does it fit the requirements for these trailers such as facilities, sewers, power, etc."

Gerritsen Beach is not alone in its frustration with dealing with FEMA. More than 1,000 Staten Islanders met last Thursday at New Dorp High School during a town hall meeting organized by Staten Island Borough president James Molinaro to voice their concerns with FEMA officials about the runaround they are getting from the government.

"We find ourselves running in circles and hitting walls. We don’t want to be another Katrina, we want to rebuild. You said it’s family—you keep saying keep saying we’re family. Family sticks together. We need you to stick with us," said Nicole Chati of New Dorp Beach.

Chati’s plea was an emotional one. "These people are frustrated. These people are heavy hearted. Lives were lost, my house I can rebuild a house. My neighbor—he’s dead. We need your help, sir, we need cooperation," she said.

When contacted about the trailer request by GB Cares for its residents, Ed Conley of the FEMA New York office said he would look into the request. He added that FEMA is giving "grants for rental assistance and grants for emergency repairs to homes."

He also said the state is being reimbursed for aiding victims with housing needs, and New York’s RAPID response program is helping to get displaced residents back into their homes.

Asked about trailer homes, Conley said, "We do not have a mobile home program in New York" because the "priority is financial assistance to help the most people possible."

"FEMA works with state agencies and volunteer organizations to determine what is appropriate for the community," said FEMA spokeswoman Hannah Vick. "The temporary housing units are not necessarily a good option," she said, citing the space they occupy and the need for water and sewer hookups.

The Free Beacon asked if FEMA has heated trailers available.

"FEMA has all different resources available that we stage all across the country," Vick said.

When asked what could be done for Brooklyn residents living in sewer-filled, condemned homes, Vick responded, "You want to make sure they register for disaster assistance."

Gerritsen Beach is now doing for its new homeless what FEMA is not. They have sent out an urgent call this week through social media for motor homes.

GB Cares’ Wells said one RV owner contacted them already and was driving his unit down on Sunday, Dec. 2, to be matched up with a family.

GB Cares is in the process of going door to door and contacting more than 3,000 families. It is an arduous task. Wells said 189 families were surveyed and 55 are in desperate need of temporary housing as these families were living in unfathomable conditions as of Friday.

More than 3,000 of the 3,500 homes in Gerritsen Beach were flooded, according to Wells, and for 10 days "no one was on the ground helping residents." Only local volunteer groups were on hand to help those in desperate need.

FEMA arrived on Nov. 9.

"I meet residents every day and I have yet to hear one wonderful thing about FEMA," said Wells.

"Every day, someone here is in tears. … If it weren’t for the local charity organizations, folks here would have nothing."

For Gerritsen Beach resident Lois Robb, FEMA has not been effective in meeting her housing needs. She said she is frustrated. She said her home was completely destroyed. "I don’t even have a spoon left."

Living with 11 other people in a cramped apartment and forced to sleep sitting up on a couch with four other adults, Robb was told by FEMA she was eligible for a hotel stay. She finally found a hotel room in Manhattan after weeks on a waiting list because of hotel room shortages. She was told she had to leave after four days. She used a $2,900 rental assistance check to stay at the hotel for another nine days.

"I went looking for rentals and nothing was available and I didn’t have furniture either," she said. "All the landlords wanted me to sign a one-year lease but I hope to be back in my house soon."

After numerous calls to FEMA, including speaking to supervisors, Robb said she was told the same thing over and over: She had to leave the hotel as per FEMA’s guidelines.

"They were all reading from the same script," she said.

She asked if the hotel stay guidelines were extended and was told they were not.

FEMA’s Conley said hotel stays were extended for Sandy victims and that Robb could stay at the hotel, but she had already checked out of the hotel on Monday and learned afterward she was eligible for an extension through Dec. 13.

"Now I’m back on the waiting list again. It took two weeks to get a hotel room the first time," she said. "FEMA said the hotel made the mistake and the hotel told me FEMA made the mistake."

Robb has flood insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program administered by FEMA. "I’ve been calling and calling, trying to get an adjuster to come out. I finally got an adjuster because they had an open slot on Thanksgiving Day. It was the only reason I was able to get an appointment."

Things are now in limbo as Robb awaits not only her settlement from the flood policy but also for a hotel room to become available.

Four thousand homes in Middletown in central New Jersey were damaged and 1,300 homes are uninhabitable, according to Mayor Anthony Fiore.

When asked about FEMA’s response to victims in Middletown, Fiore said, "It’s really hard to gauge. There are so many unanswered questions so it’s tough for me to say how FEMA is responding. The jury’s still out on that."

One Middletown resident, Tracey Lewis, pitched in to help victims of Sandy who were holed up at the local Comfort Inn. She organized local neighbors to cook and bring food to the 30 families staying there. Many of the Middletown residents could not get rooms at the FEMA-approved Marriott as it was booked so they chose to stay at the Comfort Inn.

Families had to spend their own savings to pay for their hotel stays since the Comfort Inn is not an approved hotel by FEMA. A few displaced residents are still at this local hotel.

Many Middletown residents are still in the process of filing claims and have yet to find out what their flood insurance will cover. "The vast majority of residents haven’t gotten answers from FEMA about what their flood settlement will be," Fiore said.

"I’m not sure FEMA is doing a great job explaining that this process is a long one," said Fiore. "I just feel no one knows truly what to do and where to go at this point. … FEMA has been helpful in trying to give people direction, [but] I’m not sure they have the answers for each person’s case."

"I would like to see the government move as quickly as possible. I would hate to see bureaucratic red tape keeping people from moving back into their homes, but I do suspect that could happen."

This is not an idle fear. FEMA is still dealing with the impact of Tropical Storm Lee that over 14 months ago flooded homes in the town in Pennsylvania with the idle trailers.

A press release from FEMA shows that the process of cleaning up after Lee is ongoing.