No End in Sight for Many Sandy Victims
After three and a half years many victims of Superstorm Sandy continue to struggle. Homeowners whose lives were turned upside down are still battling to obtain benefits from insurance companies and government programs and are grappling with FEMA recoupments, foreclosures and contractor fraud.
FEMA continues to actively seek repayment of grants years after awards were granted. This can be devastating for people who have already spent their FEMA funds. These clients need help challenging the basis for the recoupment on its merits, or persuading FEMA that they cannot afford to repay the grant. Many of those who applied for funding from the NY Rising housing recovery program are still waiting on their applications, while others who have received payments are being audited for potential overpayments.
The entire pool of 144,000 Sandy flood insurance claims, tainted by concerns of widespread fraud and other problems in the processing of these claims, are being reexamined by FEMA. NYLAG has received a steady stream of inquiries from worried clients who saw media reports about the problems. Clients need legal assistance to decide whether or not to submit to reexamination, taking into account such issues as the risks and benefits of proceeding, their likelihood of succeeding, and the impact of any increased flood payout on other recovery programs. Those who do decide to move forward need help to prepare their reexamination papers and interact with FEMA.
Contractor fraud – always a problem in the aftermath of a disaster – persists. Some people gave thousands of dollars to scammers who simply disappeared with their money. In other cases, repair work was defective, but it has been difficult to secure full recovery from contractors who don’t have it, or from unlicensed workers who are not held liable. Predictably, a flurry of payments from NY Rising and Build It Back has created a new spike in fraud cases.
According to Will Friedman, Acting Director of the Storm Response Unit, with about 100 new cases coming on board every month, the storm’s fourth anniversary on October 29 will come and go with many victims still trying to resolve their situations.
“We are looking at hundreds of open cases, with people facing the same kinds of challenges they have been dealing with since the storm hit, only even more complicated now because of the passage of so much time. NY Rising and Build It Back have brought some people closer to resolution, but many others are still displaced or living in homes in need of extensive repair.”
Fighting Her Way Home
For Rockaway resident Linda Gold, 65 years old and disabled, the repercussions of the storm have been uniquely painful. She and her husband, Richard, bought their house 37 years ago, and raised their two daughters there. Over the years they had become accustomed to severe weather and rising waters. They were used to losing power and phone service and were old hands at being prepared for a storm. Still, the evacuation warnings leading up to Sandy were so dire that Gold, who also suffers from asthma, decided to leave and stay with friends on higher ground in Brooklyn. She asked her husband to come with her.
“But he was one of those people” said Gold. “He was 67 years old, but strong. He thought he could help people. When the American Airlines crash happened in 2001, he was directing traffic – that’s just who he was.”
Richard Gold was hauling possessions up the stairs when a surge hit, trapping him as the water rose. It took his wife several days to find the morgue where his body lay.
Their home was devastated, all the plumbing work needed to be redone, the driveway and garage replaced, and the basement entirely restored. And after the original plumbing repair turned out to be defective, her home was flooded a second time. For ten months Gold lived off and on with one or the other of her daughters, not sure at first whether she could ever return home, but knowing that she had to try.
“The storm took my husband and overtook my life. But he died trying to save the house. I needed to come back. He loved it here, and my life is here.”
The road to recovery has been difficult. Contractors came and went – some of them took advantage, others were capable and kind. She received FEMA and flood insurance payments, but has spent tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket – including all of her savings – on repairs.
Gold’s situation remains precarious. Because of her disability she cannot work, but with her savings depleted she needs a source of income. She had expected that she could rent out part of her home to fill the gap, but then a dispute arose with New York City about whether the house is zoned as a two-family home. She and her husband purchased it as a two-family and have always paid taxes and insurance at two-family rates, but due to complicated changes in local building codes, the City now states that the home is only zoned for one family. So portions of the house remain in shambles, while Gold worries about paying her bills. NYLAG has filed an appeal to grant a waiver on the zoning matters. A decision is expected soon, and Friedman is hopeful that it will be positive.
“Mrs. Gold’s ordeal is in many ways emblematic of what we see every day: so many people who were fine, maybe not wealthy but with enough. Then the storm hit and other issues surfaced. People ate up their savings wading through red tape and delays. Ill health, disabilities or other factors play a role – it’s a full time job just dealing with the everyday demands after a disaster of this proportion.”
For her part, Gold is still hopeful that things will turn out alright in the end. She is grateful for her family and the friends who have stood by her. She especially cherishes her seven-year-old grandson, Lucas, who she takes care of regularly.
“He’s the reason I didn’t fold.”