A house is not a home. A house is a structure, a definable space, an estimate-able property, a piece of real estate that can be transferred, knocked down, flooded. A home is history, sensation, comfort. recollection, security, sanctuary. The survivors of Hurricane Sandy each had a home: lost a home, treasures, a lifestyle. Some had a house.
FEMA validates a house but not home. However, FEMA has formulated its own definition of a house. A house is a shell: walls, floors, heat, electric. It is stripped-down, patched-together, barely safe or sanitary, space: basic function. And as Hurricane Sandy destroyed everything that many survivors owned, FEMA forces them back into barely safe, barely functional, empty shells. These are the people who have not been forced back into houses without walls, floors, electric, heat or mold removal, because FEMA abandoned them without explanation. These are the people whose houses did not float away, were not condemned. The people forced back into functional empty shells are the lucky ones. FEMA has down-graded the American dream: it is the American nightmare.
Tens of thousands have been forced to live outside of their homes, with no place to belong, under constant threat of eviction, unwanted, uncomforted, unclothed, because their home is standing, but totaled: and FEMA gave them a laughable grant, without explanation, without mercy. They cannot repair their houses, because there is not enough money to repair even one room: there are no walls, floors, bathroom, kitchen, electric, heat, not even a toilet bowl. There are no contents, furniture, belongings, left. Their home is nothing, only fertile soil where mold and bacteria breed. Every day their house moves closer to being condemned. These people wander about, bewildered, frustrated, disillusioned, terrified, ignored by the systems, denied by the general public: a class alone, living in an alternate universe, created by the SuperStorm, not living at all, pacing putrid time.
I first experienced FEMA when Hurricane Sandy destroyed my house, terminated
my home: wiped out my past, present and future. Before that, I only knew of FEMA through media reports. I believed the promise: I believed it helped people. Hurricane Sandy left 200,000 Americans along the East Coast homeless and destitute. All of the survivors experienced FEMA or chose not to.
My house was insured for $300,000. It was totally paid off, except for $3,700. The contents were insured for $100,000. I lost all of my furniture, belongings, most of my clothes, $50,000 in medical equipment and $10,000 in office equipment. FEMA, all Insurance, County, and Fire Inspectors said my house was totaled, with great sympathy. In November, the County declared my house too dangerous to enter without a respirator, because of sewage and mold contamination, and inspected it from the front yard. Some inspectors called friends to help me, and even offered to come back and put up walls. The houses in my neighborhood sell extremely fast, because it is close to bus, train, highways and parkways, stores, the bike path to the beach, and Ocean Parkway to Jones Beach. The school district is excellent. Houses in my neighborhood are a great investment.
I didn’t live on the water. I didn’t live near the water. My neighborhood never flooded before. I lived there for 48 years. But, I lived right above the Cedar Creek Sewage Treatment Plant. The houses on the west side of the street are four-floor splits, plus a basement. Most, lost the basement: some, lost the family room also. The houses on my side of the street are one-floor ranches: we all lost everything. Salt water was not the worst! Sewage damage was throughout the house: it seems that it came up the toilet and also in the front door. Sewage was on top of my hospital bed in the living room. There is a storm sewer directly in front of my house. Many people in my neighborhood believe that the Sewage Treatment Plant malfunctioned. Everything was lost to sewage contamination: a horrific way to let go of your lifetime keepsakes and tiny treasures.
I was told by eyewitnesses: from 7 p.m. until 12 a.m. water rose rapidly up from the ground; a river rushed up the center of the street toward Merrick Road; 6 feet of water entered my house. Those who stayed, report it was terrifying: the violence, the power of the water. I had water and sewage damage up to 48″ above the floor. It was like a tornado hit inside of my house: furniture, equipment, appliances, belongings, objects great and small, were thrown around with alarming violence, smashed and encrusted with sewage. I cannot get the putrid, acrid stench of devastation out of my nostrils. My hospital bed went on fire. My front door was torn off. A cinder-block wall outside the side door was thrown against the house.
That is the reality of the event and the loss. The reality of the response and the help, are a life apart. The survivors must deal with both. Inadequate response for restoration by governmental agencies has turned this Natural Disaster into a National Tragedy in America, and it has become our national shame.
While everyone realized, at the end, that the storm was huge, damage was devastating, and the victims included hundreds of thousands of survivors, the government did not react in a timely or effective manner for the magnitude of the event: management, personnel, funding, housing, emergency survival and support services, were inadequate. Response of FEMA, the agency designated to manage the event and aid survivors, was so slow, that it was extremely detrimental to the victims.
There was no housing, no food, no gasoline, no electric. We were told that FEMA could not bring in trailers to house the homeless, because the area was so congested. They did not bring in gasoline. Without gasoline and operating gas stations you had to remain close to your property or wherever you were going to bed, because if you used up the gas in your car it would remain where it stalled. And, they were dragging abandoned cars away to remote dumping grounds. There was no food. Fast food stands and restaurants alike, were closed down. They had nothing to sell, and no way to cook it. There was no way for the public to cook food, because most people, even if they had homes, had no electricity and no heat for weeks. There was little food, and less water, in the few supermarkets that were open.
The Red Cross handed out sandwiches and hot dinners, blankets, and cleaning supplies, after a few days, in devastated neighborhoods and parks, if you could get to them. They had boxes of donated used clothes, because most of us lost our clothes and shoes. For months, the Red Cross and churches were the only source of nutrition for many. It turned out that the local churches would become the most solid source of support for housing, food, cleaning and sanitary products, counseling services, and, ripping out, building and renovation assistance.
Six weeks after the event, houses were stripped of contaminated furniture, belongings, walls, floors, and insulation: FEMA finally put in an appearance – inspection. The reality, the inspector’s report, and what FEMA translated into money, would not agree! The FEMA inspector spent 1 1/2 hours inside my house, measuring and taking pictures. She was sympathetic, said she put in a strong report, and reported the case to the Special Needs Hotline. Nevertheless, FEMA ignored my case for six more weeks, denied I was disabled for three months, claiming they never got paperwork from my insurance companies, paperwork that I submitted three times.
But it turns out the waiting was the easy part. Then came the rape of the survivors, the stripping-down and dehumanizing of Hurricane Sandy victims, the abandonment by America of those in need of help. After 2 1/2 to 3 months of waiting and believing in the system promising support, the grant letters started arriving. The grants were outlandish, ridiculous, pitiful. After all of the time, phone calls, paperwork and documentation that FEMA demanded, they were insulting, to our efforts to cooperate. Decisions would have been ridiculous, except that they were not decisions at all, because there were no explanations: only one or two words prefacing the dollar amount. Grant letters are generic: one form letter for all purposes, written so that it says absolutely nothing. There is absolutely no transparency. Dollar amounts are so outlandish as to be irrational. Not just for me, but for most! Grant amounts translate into no help, and leave a survivor with the inability to renovate his house and reclaim his life.
Over and over this sad story resonates, while the media reports that FEMA is awarding each home owner $30,900, and that if people apply for the SBA Loan, they can receive up to $40,000 more for their possessions. I was not allowed by FEMA to apply for the SBA loan, because I am disabled and make so little. I was not allowed to apply for the $10,000 Empire State Grant, because in order to apply you must first receive the maximum FEMA Grant. Not even close! The public thinks SuperStorm Sandy victims are being taken care of. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth!
My house was totaled. All repair estimates came in at $105,000. The estimates are for house repairs/renovation only. I also lost all of my furniture, belongings and appliances; $50,000 in medical equipment; $10,000 in office equipment. Nothing was covered, because it was a flood. When I get back into my house, it will be empty: they will all be empty. On 1-11-2013 FEMA sent me a Grant letter designating $5,035 for “Home Repair” and $7,989.51 for “Personal Property” (which of course must go toward house repairs), for a total of $13,483.86. When I opened the letter and read it, I could not breathe. My house is totaled and FEMA allotted $5,035 for home repairs! My eyes clouded over and the words went away. I shuddered, as Obama walked across my grave. I could not believe what I was reading. It was a mistake! Reality could not be this horrific. Was I dead and I just didn’t know it yet? But, it was true: the second half of our nightmare was upon us, those of us in the alternate universe.
I appealed the Grant Decision and requested Re-inspection of my house. FEMA made a farcical pretense at re-inspection, sending an Inspector and a “Disability Expert”, who stood by the car and talked to me. They prefaced this meeting by explaining that they were going to evaluate the access, adaptive equipment and medical equipment loss. I asked how they could do that, when the house was stripped and gutted: totally empty, except for a hole in the floor where the toilet used to be.. Nothing was left! Being an access expert myself, I knew that FEMA officials were making no sense at all with this explanation. But an Inspector went into the house alone, and refused to accept my pictures of the losses. The Disability Expert stood by the car trying to convince me to sign a blanket authorization that they could share all of my information with whoever they chose. When I refused, he called their Legal Department and tried to get me to talk to them on his cell. When I refused, they sent a short middle-aged pit bull who threatened that they would do nothing to help me if I did not sign the paper. I refused. FEMA shared my confidential information anyway: ever since I submitted financial papers to them, I have been getting “we know you are destitute” letters and emails.
The FEMA re-inspection awarded me an additional Repair Grant for my totaled house of $645.45. I was incredulous, but half expected it. I never thought it was a legitimate attempt to reevaluate, given the fuzzy rationale they verbalized for re-inspection. I tried to get an explanation. I was told the amount was “appropriate” and we could manage, with “free help” available. I am hearing this story over and over.
We, the survivors excused the waiting, the redundancy, inefficiency, ineptness, nasty people, unanswered telephones, constant threats, because of the magnitude of the event. We believed that FEMA was trying to help us: we trusted the system. We tolerated dysfunction within the system, lack of comprehension of the implications and impact of the event on real people. But we learned that to FEMA, people are numbers: houses are numbers: nothing more! FEMA workers are apathetic caricatures, propagating unremitting loss, hopelessness, helplessness: highly paid, transient, serial, disaster trainees, who depersonalize and dehumanize pathetic, tattered people in need. The survivors of Hurricane Sandy have learned that, in response to natural disaster, systems break their promises and fail. There is no help!
Presently, FEMA lacks transparency, logic, rational process and procedure, organization, focus, humanity: it is so out of touch with reality, human suffering, recovery, restoration, and hope, as to make it non-functional and irrelevant. It operates with personnel so transient, they lack continuity, it lacks consistency. It is an out-dated and irrelevant system that has lost sight of people, human suffering, and home.
FEMA must be investigated, re-organized, up-dated, monitored and made accountable. It leaves battered, bewildered, broken people in its wake, not from the event, but from the lack of assistance after maximum effort and cooperation by the survivor: lack of empathy, humanity and because of the apathy of the program.
Since Hurricane Sandy the meaning of home has changed forever for hundreds of thousands of Americans, made refugees by the destruction, and by what FEMA has forced them to return to: “functional space.”. Many are not structures, or are structures that are not safe, are toxic, hazardous, barely habitable: houses without walls and floors, kitchens, furnaces, bathrooms. Agencies will not even pay for mold removal. Houses are being patched together by laymen, and quickly fail in functional use. FEMA strives to get people out of the system as quickly as possible. There is no follow-up. Homeowners of lost or totaled homes are forced to move on to rented apartments, rooms, couches, houseboats, trailers, mobile homes, RVs, basements, garages, yards: inappropriate accommodations, not long-term solutions.
Grants for restoration are pitiful. The condition of houses is demoralizing and horrific. Many of us have been without a home for five months because FEMA gave us an unrealistic, outlandish, repair grant. Many people just abandoned their homes and moved off Long Island, because they have no money to restore their houses, and no options for help.
The program does not return survivors to some normalcy after disaster. FEMA actually prevents people from getting real help, by delays, false and misleading promises of aid, and untimely, inadequate to the point of absurdity, final grants. When they are finished giving us nothing for our homes and property, all the ‘free help” is gone, used up, worn out. It prevents resolution, by overwhelming survivors with paperwork, documentation and denials; repeatedly losing, misplacing paperwork: by using vague, private, covert codes and processes to maintain limitless proprietary power and generate unclear, inadequate, ambiguous, cryptic decisions. There is no help: there is no transparency.
I do not claim there are not professional people at FEMA who try to do the right thing. But they are high-ranking, inaccessible, bound by out-dated processes and procedures, and their commitment to the survivor moves on with their next assignment location. The system is designed to thwart contact and communication, recovery and resolution.
In the end, FEMA gives survivors laughable assistance and tells them to go find a way to help themselves. It tells people they can restore their homes with the pittance that FEMA allotted, plus free help. Realistically, Hurricane Sandy free help is scarce, unskilled, empty promises, filled-up answer machines, hotlines manned in other states by people who disclaim knowledge of aid programs: unresponsive programs, services, and agencies: non-help. Meanwhile, our homes sit vacant, growing mold and bacteria, being looted and stripped, and receiving exploitive offers of buy-outs of the land by house flippers. The system is designed to benefit everyone except the survivor of disaster. Materials that were donated for rebuilding were withheld from homeowners, and are now being sold to contractors at huge profits. Benefit monies that were raised by famous people and concerts were not passed on to survivors. Everyone is profiting from Hurricane Sandy, while the homeowners are victimized and abandoned by systems breaking promise.. FEMA fails.
FEMA devalues houses, allotting cryptic, unrealistic, pitiful grants for legitimate house repair and restoration necessary due to natural disaster: using out-dated processes and procedures to evaluate and decide. Therefore, FEMA devalues home, the bedrock of society: disrespects people, the strength of our country; destroys hope, neighborhoods, chunks of America; and the next generation, the children who lost their nest, their toys, their rock.
The system does not work. FEMA needs to be re-evaluated, reorganized, up-dated, re-designed, monitored and made accountable. Americans devastated by disaster, people, our neighbors, our neighborhoods, are broken, bewildered and expiring, because FEMA does not help them: does not validate home, promote restoration or recovery. Through FEMA, America is abandoning, failing her own people miserably. We are survivors of Hurricane Sandy: we are victims of FEMA.
The survivors cannot rebuild their homes, because, without money, for years the survivors are going to be trying to patch their houses, their lives, their lifestyles together, with spit and sea grass. And, everyone knows what happens to houses made of grass.