Three Months Later

Hurricane Sandy’s destruction still apparent in ravaged communities

Hurricane Sandy clean-up / AP
January 29, 2013

The destruction from one of the worst storms to hit the East Coast is still evident in many towns and cleanup continues three months after the storm made landfall.

Rebuilding has taken much longer than victims originally thought it would. They are vowing to recover, rebuild, and reclaim what Sandy took away.

Many victims continue to live in homes without heat or electricity. In Union Beach and Keansburg, N.J., and in the Rockaways, N.Y., many people are living without the basic necessities even as temperatures dip into the single digits.

Rebuilding along the coast will come at a steep price. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie last week adopted the recently issued FEMA flood elevation maps. Many residents must now rebuild or raise their homes to a new elevation as a result.

Residents who fail to do so face flood insurance premiums of up to $31,000 a year. If an owner does rebuild to the new elevation, he would still have to pay about $7,000 a year for flood insurance.

For the working-class residents in the hard-hit borough of Union Beach, even $7,000 would not be feasible.

"They are talking about $7,000," Union Beach Mayor Paul Smith said. "We’re a working class town, who can afford that? Most residents are working two jobs now."

Smith estimates 60 to 70 percent of the town’s 2,336 homes were flooded and left uninhabitable, and over 300 homes were completely destroyed. They are still being torn down.

New flood elevations now require many homes be built 14 feet above sea level, a cost that could be prohibitive for many.

Smith’s residents are scattered and some are reportedly staying in unheated homes. When asked about how many Union Beach residents may be living in their unheated homes, Smith said, "I hope it’s not a lot, it’s just too darn cold."

"FEMA has plenty of trailers, they just don’t want to give them out," he said. He spoke to FEMA about getting trailers.

"They told me the last resort is trailers." Smith said FEMA then said they wouldn’t place trailers in the borough as it’s a flood zone.

Smith then secured 50 lots in two trailer parks in the nearby town of Hazlet.

"FEMA wouldn’t do it because the electricity didn’t meet their standards," Smith said.

Smith said he had electricians at the ready, willing to upgrade the service so residents would have a warm place to stay. However, the trailers were never approved.

Union Beach residents Rose Degugas and Rose Marie Walsh, along with Walsh’s son, William Semmens Sr., are all displaced. Degugas and Walsh failed to heed mandatory evacuation orders and watched the water start flooding into their homes. Walsh was trapped in her attic and was rescued by boat.

Both said rebuilding would take longer than they originally thought.

"I saw 57 years of work lost in two hours," said 80-year-old Degugas.

Walsh checked out of the hotel two weeks ago because she was told by FEMA her hotel stay was not extended. She received a call from FEMA saying she was eligible for an extension this Friday. Walsh said her hotel room sat empty for two weeks because of the agency’s incompetence.

"I slept in my van for a week and a half with my son, who’s 18," Semmens said. He now shares a hotel room with his son, who has since qualified.

Kerry Hon, a Sea Bright resident displaced with her two daughters, also criticized FEMA’s handling of hotel stays. She was being kicked out of the hotel, while those who were single without children received extensions.

She said she cried to FEMA, asking them, "How could they kick out a mother and two kids." She was finally extended until Jan. 12, but had to find shelter until her rental was ready last week.

One volunteer group, Respond and Rebuild, has been on the ground in the Rockaways, N.Y., since the day after Sandy hit. The disaster response team helps residents return to their mold free homes and its services are free.

Terri Bennett, one of the group’s members, said she knows that many residents are living in unheated homes without electricity.

"There’s a lot, there’s plenty," she said. "There absolutely are people living in their homes in this weather."

"We are in an emergency situation especially with the temperatures we are dealing with," Bennett said.

Respond and Rebuild, which is funded by donations, has completed over 200 homes so far, as well as a church and a community center. The process is a long one, Bennett explained. She said the first home they pumped out months ago just got heat restored two days ago.

The NYC Rapid Repair Program, hailed as innovative and success, was touted in a release last week for repairing more than 10,000 homes. But over 12,000 homes are still without heat and electricity. Work is still being done on 7,878 buildings, and work has yet to even begin on 4,303 buildings.

Bennett said that although the work they are doing is admirable the homes are not being "repaired" just restored with heat and electricity. It does not mean they are habitable, as many are filled with mold. Additionally, the mayor’s program is just putting electric boxes where they were before, and where they are prone to flooding.