Letter to FEMA on Denial of Reasonable Accommodation. 12-27-13

Federal Emergency Management Agency
Joint Field Office / Hurricane Sandy
Federal Coordinating Officer / Disaster Recovery Manager

RE: Reasonable Accommodation in Temporary Housing

December 27, 2013

Dear Federal Coordinating Officer:

As you are aware, FEMA stopped paying for my temporary housing, despite Stafford Act Protections for disabled individuals, on September 15, 2013, when they removed all able-bodied individuals from Hotels, ending the Temporary Housing Assistance Program.

As you know, xxxxxxx xxxxx, your predecessor, repeatedly committed to keeping me at this hotel, renting this room under a Direct Lease Program, if the TSA Program ended, until I could return home. I had personal conversations with Xxxxxxx and Xxxxx xxxxxx on this: he designated a “team” specifically to work on my case. They were the only FEMA allowed to speak with me: he removed all my personal information from the system. I was not contacted again until xxxxxxx xxxxx was leaving FEMA in June 2013 for a job with a different agency.

I am still in a hotel solely and exclusively because FEMA missed Substantial Damage in their Inspection of my house and gave me an unreasonable repair grant of $5,035 for my substantially damaged, and now toxic, house.

You have read my medical files, documenting medical limitations and hazards: why I require special options and consideration in housing. Let us be clear, my home accommodated all my needs: my home is not available to me now! I am adjudicated permanently totally disabled for 36 years and the grave implications of my unusual condition are voluminously documented. Despite this information, FEMA removed me from Temporary Housing Assistance at the Best Western Hotel: and, against my will, forced me to the DHAP/HUD Program. DHAP/HUD claims I am not their responsibility: I am FEMA’s responsibility, repeatedly refusing to help me in any way whatsoever. DHAP/HUD, like FEMA, is completely unprepared, unwilling and it would seem unable to deal with special needs, special circumstances, or disabled individuals: dismissing, denying, placing a whole class of people in terrifying jeopardy.

I filed two housing Appeals: to FEMA. The first was filed exactly as FEMA Agents told me to do, on 12-29-12. It has been posted on the internet since 2012 and repeatedly discussed with FEMA. An Appeal was filed by my attorney on August 22, 2013: a 504 Request for Reasonable Accommodation. Neither Appeal was answered. After assuring me the proper people were working on it for months, FEMA finally told me of the first appeal, “We do not answer Appeals. A non-answer was received on the 504 Appeal, saying if I attended DHAP Orientation FEMA “might” consider it. I did so. There has been no response from FEMA. However, I was told that FEMA flipped the 504 responsibility over to HUD. HUD is ignoring me.

BE Advised:

-FEMA has extensive medical documentation that it is hazardous to my health to relocate me to an apartment.
-I paid the hotel bill for the past seven weeks. I am out of money.
-The Rental Assistance/Transient Accommodations grant issued on 11-30-12, in the amount of $4,695.34 (which I tried to return to FEMA Agents at Cedar Creek Park 4 times and was rejected with. “We know you have related expenses. That is your money.”) Was exhausted on Temporary Housing. You have that documentation in your hands.
-I am participating in the BuyOut/Acquisition Program of NY Recreate. I was told several months ago that Resolution would take 2 to 6 months. I have no control of their timeline. The alternative to a BuyOut of my Substantially Damaged, Toxic house would be NY Rising Rebuild Program, which would be a hardship for me to begin after 14 months of futile repair attempts on a home that floated off its foundation and must now be bulldozed and elevated 12 feet.
-I was told by your legal department through Mr. Xxxxxxxx, by Xxxxx Xxxxx and Xxxxx Xxxxxxxxxxx, that there is $8,600 in my FEMA file (because you miscalculated repairs on my totaled house), available to me, that can be used for housing and has been provided to others for this purpose. I request this money to pay my Hotel bill now, committed to and implemented by Xxxxxxx Xxxxx and his Disability Team as Reasonable Accommodation from January until June of 2013, when he left FEMA for employment at a different Agency.
-I have sent Hotel receipts. I expect those bills (in excess of the initial $4,695.34 grant I exhausted at FEMA’s direction) to be reimbursed in a timely manner and my housing at the hotel to be paid from the $8600 withheld by FEMA on my totaled house, pending NY Recreate Buy Out.
-Note: Under the Stafford Act you are not supposed to charge the disabled person for temporary housing.

Please do not compound this horrific sequelae by again putting the blame on me, for still being in a hotel. I am here solely because FEMA failed to identify substantial damage, validate and deal with disability compliance, follow protocol, answer voluminous, properly directed complaints, or to act in a timely manner. I have been injured and scarred by FEMA’s lack of response. I am asking you now to demonstrate good faith: to cease and desist distributing outlandish letters with a litany of falsehoods to officials, falsehoods that can be expeditiously disproven. You have wasted so many people’s valuable time and effort with this frivolous, cavalier tactic. I am reluctant to believe that FEMA is that incompetent.

When we make grave mistakes, it is most facilitative to admit them and try to mitigate the consequences in an equitable solution. Without a doubt, FEMA, DHAP//HUD are making a mockery of disability and literally killing disabled people, because they don’t know what to do with us. I have seen too many of my disabled friends die because of the way they were treated in this disaster system. Don’t make my beneficiaries litigate this case!! Be assured that I have tried, and will continue to attempt, to settle this matter amicably.

Let us work together to rectify the devastating consequences that the Disaster systems have visited upon myself and the disabled community. Disabled people should have been the first population sent back home, not the last.

Sincerely,
Wendy Wagner

cc:
Senator Charles E. Schumer
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand
Senator Charles J. Fuschillo
Congressman Peter King
Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy
Assemblyman Brian Curran
Assemblyman Harvey Weisenberg
Legislator David Denenberg

My Toxic House – Substantially Damaged. 11-29-13

My Toxic House: Substantially Damaged. 11-29-13

It is a location, a place where you belong. Where nobody can take your pictures off the wall. And when it is suddenly torn away by a vile and violent cyclone, and systems and people hammer at you that you do not belong, pull the blankets from under you as you sleep, you hold tight to the polluted soil of your own sweet land.

I sit on my land every day, by my home of 48 years where I raised my sons, now a gutted, toxic death-trap. I sit in my accessible van that no longer functions as it should, because it is packed tight with suitcases, winter blankets, food and living necessities. I cannot use the mechanisms of the access seat. It is blocked and impotent by the trauma of my life.

The land grows dark. I sit still in my van with my service dog Pollyanna in my arms, staring at a fading rock garden that I carried stone by stone from forests, beaches and mountain streams: now raped by looters stripping what is left of me. My face and blouse are soaked with tears flowing from eyes never dry these days. Pollyanna licks the salt away. Eventually, she tires, rests her silky head upon my sobbing breast, then slides onto her fleecy coverlet, exhausted from comforting the inconsolable.

It is so hard, impossible, to function: and it is impossible for able-bodied people to understand problems they have never experienced. But for me, it is my new, horrific, terrifying reality. It is beyond my comprehension that a life that was so manageable, is now so hideously out of control. I am thrust into a world where I am an alien, a freak: a world of systems and people that have no tolerance for difference, for pain, or those who use equipment. I am so lost: isolated. I walk through a dark, bleak, compassionless wasteland that is life post-Sandy, alone. I am alone!

My neighbors approach me, as I weep in my van, with, “Bulldoze the house and leave. You are bringing down our property values, because your house is still obviously storm-damaged. We want people to forget this neighborhood was flooded, so we can sell.”

It hurts to be dismissed.. But, I understand property values, and wanting to forget, to go on. Beyond that, I understand that I am a metaphor: a visible reminder that it can all be gone in a moment: your home, your health, your life. I hate that people now see me for my inadequacies. I was such a productive, appreciated person before Sandy: making unprecedented differences for disabled individuals. How fragile are our roles in life. How fickle is the cruel fist of fate.that turned a massive cyclone to my yard.

With my house, it did not happen all at once. It has been a slow process of loss, upon loss, culminating in my house sucking the breath from me and leaving me unconscious on the floor.

In the beginning, all the insurance adjusters who inspected my house said it was “totaled” by Hurricane Sandy. They were empathetic to the $50,000 loss of my accessible equipment and environment, but powerless. I had $300,000 in homeowners insurance: $100.000 contents. I only had $14,600 in flood insurance, because I did not live near the water and that was the policy my agent gave me. I received the flood insurance and $275 from the Homeowners Policy, for food spoilage and a front door bashed in by the wind. It was leveling.

In the disaster equation, if you had any flood insurance, it hurt you with FEMA. Survivors say that rather than being rewarded for doing the right thing, paying premiums: those of us who did, were “punished” and those who did not were reimbursed many times more, for the same loss. This was just the first of a litany of puzzling realities and inequities in the disaster repair/restoration marathon.

Initially, all estimates said it would cost over $100,000 to restore my house, before discovery of the foundation damage. FEMA never validated Substantial Damage to my house. FEMA inspected my house and gave me $5,000 for repairs. What could they be thinking!!

My house was now gutted, but there were still gross brown stains where feces spilled out of the toilet bowl, slithering through bedrooms and living room, and sewage bashed in the metal front door, splattering its imprint into my cement front porch. Mold crept deep into the walls, floors and floated visible in the acrid air. My house was initially sprayed for sewage and mold. It was declared safe. Six weeks later, a Mold Expert consulted, reported the house must be “Shocked,” then scrubbed down. Eight men cost me $4,000. He said it was the only way we could be sure the mold would not return. Afterwards, the house looked spotless.

In June I got the first indication that there was structural damage to my house. FEMA requested an inspection of my house by the Town: an inspection denied in November because Town inspectors said the house was “contaminated” and they could get “Hepatitis”. But in June, FEMA Program Directors claimed if the inspection revealed substantial damage, they could award me total: $31,900. Then, I would be allowed to apply for the Empire State $10,000 Grant. They assured me, “We accept a Building Department report over our own.” However, when it validated structural damage, foundation damage, FEMA declared, “You are not getting one penny more!”

White cottony puff-balls floated through my gutted house and clung to the walls. It was sprayed again for mold. In August, after further demolition of the walls and removal of objects and insulation from the attic suggested further contamination, the house was “Shocked” one last time and scrubbed, to death.

On September 20, 2013, I entered my gutted house, dreaming of holidays at home and pretty colors. How could I know a malevolent force had taken up residence in my personal space, and made my home a deathtrap. Insidiously, it overcame me, the polluted air. As I became increasingly dizzy, I did not notice my eyes swelling, my throat closing, until severe stomach pain doubled me over. Nausea and headache overwhelmed me. I could not breathe. My head, my face: the pain. I could not get a breath. Darkness slashed me to the ground as I passed out smothering in sweet yesterdays, gone bad.

For days I could not move my head, from excruciating pain in my face. I developed respiratory infection and rashes. Pollyanna woke up the next morning throwing up bile. She gasped and struggled for air all night. I sat outside my hotel room giving her oxygen and holding onto her life all that long dark night: I would not let her go. My doctor said, never go into that house again. It was terminal.

NY Rising, Governor Cuomo’s loan-to-grant Program touting restoration help for Sandy Survivors, sent me a letter offering a $145,000 Loan-to-Grant to “Elevate and Restore or Bulldoze and Rebuild” my house. I inquired, and like other homeowners, I was told it was not enough: it would cost at least $200,000. It is about $100,000 just to elevate the house. Also, the Program requires that the homeowner own and also live in the house for 3 years after receiving the loan, for it to become a grant. Many homeowners want to rebuild to recover equity in the house, and sell. The goal of this Program is to repopulate the land and revive devastated neighborhoods.

Now, I was being told that I had to elevate my house, repair it, and live in it for five years in order to forgive the debt, and that a ramp to that elevation would go around the whole house. Floodplain codes and costs for piecing my tattered house back together were making returning home increasingly impossible, for the lady in the wheelchair.

I told everyone I wanted a meeting with the Governor. There was a New York State BuyOut Program for totaled houses. But they were presently only considering clusters of houses and houses on the shore. Mine was neither. But, I felt my house qualified, except for the cluster and shore rules. And, I had observed that some Programs were being modified as time passed and justification became clearer. Then, after I passed out in my house, amazingly, I heard that they might be considering individual homes for BuyOut.

Be careful what you wish for! Considering a BuyOut is bittersweet, at best. In addition to the loss and trauma of the decision, the NY Rising Program airs commercials stating, “We are New Yorkers. We are stronger than the storm. Our communities are rising, better than before.” They make you feel like a loser because you are never going home: like you are giving up. In reality, there are few choices in this disaster equation: only best worst options.

NY Rising is a vendor-based Rebuild/Rehabilitate Program. That means, the State designates a fixed ceiling of money to be paid to contractors not homeowners, to restore your home to the same footprint, at basic quality, using new building and flood codes. The Program is faulted and disorganized: it is being designed in progress; rebuild allowances are unrealistically low; contractors are being paid in unfair increments, so many will not participate; and payment is extremely slow (Only 4 of 4,000 applicants have to date received any payment on their house.). It is a loan to grant program: the homeowner must own and live in the house for 3 (originally 5) years before it becomes a grant.

The BuyOut Program is called NY Recreate. NY State will purchase shoreline and high-risk houses at assessed value before the storm. This land is no longer habitable and may be used for parks. It was originally offered only to clusters of homes. Presently Buy Outs are only offered in Suffolk County. Recently certain individual “substantially damaged” homes are being considered for “Acquisition.”. The cash amount to a homeowner is low, but better than the un-repaired market value post-Sandy. The problem with this Program is that the “sale” price is not enough to replace the house with a similar house, in the same geographic area. Homeowners are devastated by the loss of place, often Long Island.

After 13 months of very intensive work, of being denied, and passed over by every program and charity, and putting $23,000 in repairs into my house, my house was overcome by chemicals and died a horrible death, leaving me stranded in the cold, cruel season of Good Will to All men: sitting on a building lot demolished by ax-slinging maniacs by mistake. When well-meaning people wish me a “Happy Holiday,” I wonder why they cannot see me bleeding.

NY Rising and NY Recreate require a Letter of Substantial Damage to proceed. This became my first clear definition of what was wrong with my house. Surely if I had this information when FEMA inspected my house, when they insisted that I put the heating system and electric in, I would have made different decisions.

“It was determined by inspection by the area building inspector that the floodwaters reached an average of five to six feet around and in the home. The water inundated the sub grade crawl space resulting in the entire building being shifted off the foundation and in some areas actually washing away the existing masonry blocks. The damage to the foundation and floor joists of the home has resulted in deflections many structural framing elements. The entire dwelling has shifted off the foundation. The Department of Building has therefore determined that the dwelling has been substantially damaged….”

I do not live on the water, or close to the water. But my house is slightly south of Merrick Road, on land that was once marshland. We never even got water in the street, unless leaves block the storm sewer: you rake them away, the water is gone. I would have been in my house, in my hospital bed that went on fire, with my service dog, if my sons had not nagged me out of the house. How vulnerable our decisions make us.

So there it is in black and white, on the day of SuperStorm Sandy, October 29, 2012, my house was fatally injured by a post-hurricane cyclone. I tried to breathe life back into her, but the diagnosis was wrong and she was too weak to survive the timeline of broken systems. On that day, my life was changed by the fickle fist of fate, forever!

Life post-Hurricane Sandy is a nightmare: of failed systems, apathy, toxic houses and substantially damaged people. No one cares about the agony of broken homeowners trying to stand brick on top of brick, in gunk. Everyone is broken in some way, limping through moldy cobwebs, gagging on sour milk. Priorities of programs and systems are gutted structures and paperwork, not people. Every day I wake to the stench of my life now, the reality that today will be worse than yesterday: as my body falls into irreversible loss, medical disaster, invisible to others. The reality of escalating loss is grounding, liberating, empowering.

People strive to regain some semblance of normalcy and financial stability in the horrific scenario called recovery – non-help, inequity. Process, procedure and outcomes shout down humanity. The weak are trampled. As we grow stronger, as the shock of Sandy trauma becomes our new reality, we understand we are our own best help. We are stronger than systems and cruel fate. Men climb up on the rubble of their land, are energized by their own autonomy, and wade through the sewage to the other side, conquerer: stronger, wiser, sadder than before.

Do Not Drink the Sand. 11-8-13

Drowning duck in blue water

It was the end. The final deadline in a marathon of deadlines, that told me, all Sandy Survivors, “You do not belong. This is not your home.” It was the final confirmation of America’s lack of preparedness to deal with disaster and protect her people in time of crisis. Today was terrifying, because it is me they are evicting this time: but it is all of us. I was being thrown out of the hotel, but, in a few months survivors are to be systematically thrown out of DHAP/HUD temporary housing apartments, the second stage of their housing marathon.

The government is not prepared for Recovery. Survivors are pleading to deaf ears, at televised rallies and to legislators, for recognition of unrealistic deadlines.

I had witnessed the others, one by one, dragged from hotel rooms by paid bullies representing broken systems: people hanging on to hotel room doorways with bleeding fingertips. And I contemplated what I would do, when they came to get me.

It was a raw cold day. Once again, I/we were abandoned by every entity of the Disaster System supposed to help survivors return home. I spent my first full day officially without temporary housing, without one phone call from Case Workers, Agencies, Programs, or Charities, inquiring if I was o.k. It was jarring to realize how bankrupt disaster systems ignore, deny and pass over you, and that one can fall from hero to derelict, not by your own actions, but the actions of inadequate, broken systems assigned to help in crisis, that have failed. I floated in a cold hissing mist that numbed my senses and isolated me, the whole long day.

The final deadline was issued via U.S. Mail by the Health and Welfare Council of Long Island on a cold November 8, 2013. The letter was a very carefully-worded legal document, obviously designed to protect the Unmet Needs Roundtable from culpability if their action caused me bodily harm. In a way, it was a relief, to be cut off from their judgmental, unsympathetic consideration: help clearly communicated to me only offered to procure my potential NY Rising Grant.

They picked up my tenure at the hotel on September 15, 2013 when FEMA ended the Temporary Hotel/Housing Program, and FEMA issued a non-answer to my 504 Appeal for Reasonable Accommodation on the basis of my Disability. FEMA’s TSA program had been a series of bullying and threats of eviction every two weeks since Sandy hit. At termination of the TSA Program, FEMA dismissed me with a barrage of internal machinations and misrepresentations, clearly stating they do not validate or respond to Appeals. DHAP/HUD was assigned to provide the next stage of appropriate housing for 12-18 months for all Survivors.

The problem for me has always been that I am disabled, with severe medical and physical consequences, that were completely accommodated in the adapted environment of my home pre-Sandy. It has been hideously difficult and painful for me to be without that environment. I cannot function in a generic space, a high-rise apartment, a basement, a house up to 50 miles away from my medical care, options offered by uninformed, unconcerned case workers. I requested being permitted to remain in the hotel, where I am functioning.

DHAP/HUD absolutely refused to keep me at the hotel, and refused to consider every single viable option I suggested that could accommodate my needs. Still, DHAP threatened since June, that if I did not sign their paperwork (which states that I would then be cut off from returning to FEMA programs) “today, the last possible day” that they would list me as “non-compliant” and close the case. The Red Cross, NY Rising, all the “charities” that got the Robin Hood/Concert donations for the Survivors, refused to consider temporary housing for the lady in a wheelchair waiting for a Buy-Out of her now-toxic house. The world has become a caricature: compassionless officials with pearly white eyes that can not process images.

FEMA/DHAP insisted, “Drink the sand. Drink the sand and we will help you.”.

I said, “I cannot drink the sand. It will kill me.”

They called it cooperation, compliance, but it was sand. I choked down the putrid grit offered by hypocritical bullies, and puked up the bowels of my devastated home. I gasped, tears burning my abraded face, and fell into the muck.

I thought of all the people throughout history eliminated by barbarians because they were weak or disabled: in concentration camps, slavery, war-time death marches, and the man on the hijacked Mediterranean cruise ship thrown overboard in his wheelchair by terrorists..

I said to FEMA, “I did what you asked. Help me to go home.”

They replied, “Go to DHAP/HUD. They will build you a castle.”

I said, “You promised.”

FEMA responded, “Promises are words. We have lots of words. Do you want some more?”

I ran against the fierce, cold wind, sobbing, but I was sinking fast into the shifting sand. I was smothering.

One year post Sandy I hold these truths to be self-evident: that, no men are equal. The weak and infirm hold up the line, are disrespected, left behind, trampled. He who is different must endeavor to be the same and keep up, or be dismissed and exterminated by broken, out-dated systems. Agencies and Programs for helping, are businesses and figureheads, not facilitators. There is no help for those who fall down. If your life was a pillar of good works, no one cares. Individuals do not exist in systems.

Every person could fall down from a freak of nature, through no fault of his own and be dismissed, forgotten, smother in the shifting sands of broken systems. You are on your own. If you give your power away to barbarians, you lose your ability to take care of yourself, to revive. Do not drink the sand. Sand kills people!