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

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FEMA Housing Horror. 12-17-13

12-17-13
President Barack Obama
White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear President Obama:

I know that you are a father, and you have demonstrated that you have compassion for children. I was somebody’s daughter. I am imploring you to help me as you would wish someone to help your own daughters.

I am a severely disabled SuperStorm Sandy Survivor who is being discriminated against on the basis of my disability in temporary housing. On Saturday, I am due to be put out in the cold for Christmas.

I have enclosed for your information my 3 page letter to U.S. Senator Gillibrand, which explains the chronology of the problem. I have also enclosed the letter of Substantial Damage on my house issued by the Town of Hempstead. FEMA completely missed the substantial damage and grossly miscalculated the cost of restoration of my house, which is the sole reason I am still homeless and begging my president to help me.

FEMA refuses to communicate with me in any way because I filed a Civil Rights Complaint. They refused to answer my 504 Appeal, saying they don’t answer Appeals. The Department of Justice will not help me, saying FEMA has complete jurisdiction. FEMA forced me to sign a DHAP paper against my will and turned me over to DHAP, which has steadfastly refused to consider my special needs and refuses to keep me at the hotel, saying it is “illegal.” They have tried in no way to help me.

I am asking for a Congressional Investigation of my case and the unwillingness/inability of the Disaster Recovery Programs and Agencies to help me as a disabled individual, and the harassment, abuse and pain I have endured because of their inadequacies. I wish to testify before Congress.

Thank you very much for your consideration and anticipated assistance.

Sincerely,
Wendy Wagner

December 14, 2013

Honorable Kirsten Gillibrand
United States Senator for New York
780 3rd Avenue, suite 2601
New York, NY 10017
Fax: 866-824-6340

RE: Discrimination on the Basis of Disability by United States Federal Disaster
Assistance/Recovery Programs, Policies, Practices, Agencies
Attention: Sandy Relief

Dear Senator Gillibrand:

I am a severely disabled SuperStorm Sandy Survivor who desperately needs your help.

To summarize: I was notified on Friday, December 13, 2013 that I am Officially Denied participation in the DHAP/HUD Housing Program that is available to all able-bodied SuperStorm Sandy Survivors. In addition, FEMA refuses to answer my 504 Reasonable Accommodation Appeal. This is my second appeal for Temporary Housing/Hotel Reasonable Accommodation. I was informed of the first appeal, “We never answer Appeals.” I am told FEMA flipped this Appeal over to DHAP: DHAP cut me off because I am pursuing Reasonable Accommodation for my medical limitations.

**Next Saturday, I will be without a place to stay. I need help by December 21, 2013.

I have been for 14 months discriminated against by U.S. Disaster Recovery Programs and Agencies solely on the basis of my disability: even though they have my medical documentation, and are informed of the serious medical implications.

Before the flood, I was in a hospital bed all day due to Spinal Cord Injury with Severe Autonomic Dysfunction, with serious medical implications. I was functional: a disability advocate and ADA Consultant for 36 years. I require an electric wheelchair, oxygen and traction equipment, and a deep water therapy tub. I lost $50,000 in medical equipment, my home, and all my belongings in a SuperStorm sewage surge.

I began staying at Best Western at Bar Harbour in Massapequa Park in November 2012, after my home was totaled. This was the only place I found where I could function independently. It is close to my doctors, medical care, and my support network: my physical therapist treats me here, oxygen and medication are delivered.

Immediately, FEMA sought to remove me from the hotel, denying payment. They sent two agents to my room after dark to convince me to leave. I had to call for help to get them to go. When I did not attend a Housing meeting, they reported me to Adult Protective Services: I was followed around and threatened with police action for weeks.

Wendy Wagner. RE: Discrimination on the Basis of Disability

At that time, my house was estimated at $105,000 to restore. FEMA inspected it and awarded me $5,400 for repairs, telling me I could do it with that and “free help.” There was no free help. I remained homeless through inadequate funding. FEMA also failed to recognize my home had floated off its foundation, sustaining “substantial damage.”

In January xxxxxxx xxxxx and xxxxx xxxxxx of NYS FEMA designated a “team” to work with me. Mr. xxxxxx told us with witnesses that I would be kept in this Hotel room as Reasonable Accommodation under a “Direct Lease Program worked out by our Legal Department,” I trusted him. All of my information was removed by them from the system and everything was fine until May.

In mid May, xxxxx xxxxx and xxxxx xxxxxxxxxxx began harassing me: showing up at my room unannounced, telling me I must leave the hotel. xxxxx asked the Town of Hempstead Building Department to inspect my house, telling me if the report was conclusive, she would get me “total,” $31,900. Then I would be allowed to apply for the Empire State Grant. However, when the report came back that my foundation was “substantially damaged,” she said, “”You are getting not one penny more.”

They claimed the Transitional Sheltering Program was ending and I had to leave the Hotel or be removed. I informed xxxxx and xxxxx I had an agreement with xxxxxxx xxxxx for a Direct Lease of the room. They laughed at me: until one day they told me to call him. I made an appointment. When I called, he had an army of 13 advisors in the room, including 3 Legal Counsel. He said he was leaving FEMA on Friday, and that NYS never implemented the Direct Lease Program for this disaster so the “Gentleman’s Agreement” (“I don’t need to put it on paper. I am a man of my word.”) was leaving on Friday with him. There was nothing he could do.

Immediately after Mr. xxxxx left, I got a harsh letter from xxxxx xxxx, the tyrant who replaced him. Over the next weeks, he bombarded me with ever-changing demands to sign various agreements that I would give him multiple concessions in return for 90 days at the Hotel. Immediately after I finally signed an Agreement under threat of being thrown out “tomorrow morning,” Mr. xxxxx declared the Agreement was invalid, because I “do not have all of the building materials to restore the house in the yard at this time..” He demanded I sign the DHAP Agreement or he would throw me out of the hotel now.

xxxxx and xxxxx threatened. xxxxx called, over two weeks, with, “I don’t want to put you out in the street, but I will.” If I did not sign the DHAP paper “today.” Every day was the “last day” deadline. On July 16 xxxxx showed up at my door against my wishes.
She would not leave until I signed all DHAP papers. I was crying. She assured me that DHAP would keep me at the hotel: they had all my medicals, executives were briefed, and “They cannot find appropriate accommodations, so will have to keep you here.”

Wendy Wagner. RE: Discrimination on the Basis of Disability

Later, I was told by FEMA that if I attended the DHAP Orientation, FEMA would “consider the Reasonable Accommodation Appeal.” Two men from DHAP conducted it in my Hotel Room. One said they could keep me at the hotel, the other said he was not sure but he could see why they needed to. When I heard nothing, I called Ms. xxxxx. She said they will not keep me here, it is “illegal,” and said I must deal with xxxxxxxx. I called xxxxxxxx and she parroted Ms. xxxxx. After repeated negatives from her, I said, “So you are going to do nothing to help me. She snapped, “What did you say I said?
I didn’t say that!” I said, “You implied it.”. She said she would inquire. I never heard.

On September 15, 2013 the TSA Hotel Program ended. United Way paid for my Hotel for 6 weeks. I paid for the hotel for the past 6 weeks: the money runs out on Saturday.

I was informed if I did not again sign the Family Obligation form I signed in July under duress with xxxxx, they would cut off my eligibility for DHAP. Two weeks ago I modified that form for handicapped and faxed it to DHAP. They refuse to accept it. Friday I was “Officially” denied DHAP. They never ever tried to help me or accommodate my disability in any way. FEMA abandoned me, breaching Stafford Act protections for disabled individuals.

The reason I object to signing the DHAP paper is because it specifically states that if you sign and then do not chose to stay in the Program, you are barred from returning to any FEMA Program. I have two Open Appeals with FEMA pertinent to Temporary Housing Denial and Harassment. The agencies are collaborating to protect each other.

I am enclosing my medical reports and asking you to please help me. My “substantially damaged” house is being considered for Acquisition by NYS or Bulldoze/Rebuild by NY Rising. Thank you sincerely for your help.

Best regards,
Wendy Wagner

cc: President Barack Obama
Congressman Peter King
Congresswoman Caroline McCarthy
Senator Charles Fuschillo, Jr.
Senator Charles Schumer

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.

Bulldoze the House! 9-28-13

Bulldoze the House! 9-28-13

It is eleven months tomorrow, since my house went down in SuperStorm Sandy, since everything that was my life ended, and life became one dark hotel room that most days I cannot leave because I have become too sick without my medical equipment. Today, I am awaiting answers for new-found, soon to be broken, promises. Brand new requirements and emerging rules are being shoved down our throats, as helpers back off once more, intimidated by bureaucratic intervention aimed at rectifying the initial disaster management mistakes: all this at the expense of the last homeowners still standing un-renovated.

Municipalities and building departments that closed their eyes immediately after the SuperStorm, and let homeowners patch together houses with substantial damage, and inhabit them, are now redefining the rules, erecting insurmountable barriers, and preventing unfinished homeowners from restoring their homes as others were originally allowed, preventing return to home. Agencies are now demanding outrageous expense of homeowners and unprecedented structural modifications: proposing turning our scenic coastline into a grotesque collage of towering cement and staircases. We are told that officials want every house on the south shore of Long Island elevated.

Governmental agencies and hastily-formed committees plan permanent modifications to our land and communities, overreacting, instead of analyzing, evaluating, misunderstanding our environment and Long Islander’s relationship with the land, and the sea. Federal, state, local agencies and charities are conducting chat meetings to discuss the failures of the disaster/restoration process and results, untrained in the task at hand, receiving huge salaries, coffering millions in allocated and donated funds.

The Concert money, donated by well-meaning ordinary people to help their neighbors, is withheld from the neediest, by charities facilitating slow-moving non-programs helping a paltry handful of people. Federal, state and donated monies are eaten by administrative costs/salaries, not filtered to the people, failing recovery.

Gloom moves over the restoration process, as prejudicial treatment of homeowners located on newly drawn flood plains, spreads panic, and threatens destitution, bankruptcy and permanent homelessness. Families inhabiting the wetlands for generations are forced from land their great great grandparents were born on, not by fear or inability to cope, but by new prohibitive government financial barriers, rules and regulations proposed to prevent this from happening next time. Can one really predict how high the tides of the next freak event will rise?.

New York State set up the NY Rising “Grant” Program, that is bankrupting, the neediest. Applying to that Program has become the criteria “charities” are using to give people assistance. The “charities” are demanding to be paid by NY Rising for providing “free help.” People who do not apply to NYRising are summarily refused “free help” and/or materials by charities. NY Rising funds, are charged to the homeowner for five years, before they become a grant. Also, the five-year clause requires that the homeowner not only own the house, but also live in it, for five years after receipt of funds. This way, the State proposes to repopulate neighborhoods and ensure that communities continue to exist. However, the Program is hurting homeowners: because it takes choice away from the homeowner, who cannot freely choose to stay in his home or leave, it allows for no special circumstances, and because no charity will help him if he does not pay them with NY Rising Funds: it excludes him from help from almost every other program. Also, NY Rising is “recommending every home that applies elevate the house,” at a price tag of almost $100,000. Houses on flood plains and low elevation that do not follow the recommendation and elevate, face astronomical flood insurance rates next year.

Programs are staffed by hastily-trained people, operating with cell phones disconnected. Programs are failing the neediest. Charities are stockpiling money and supplies. Everyone gives a different answer: nobody knows nothing. The system is making it impossible for those left standing, withholding Certificates of Occupancy so that people cannot live in their homes or sell them, unless they elevate them. New rules and regulations penalize homeowners on flood plains, and those who have not yet restored their homes. Destitute homeowners are forced to take out outrageous loans to elevate homes they cannot even live in, or walk away from their homes penniless. The Federal government, off nation-building, ignores the financial burden to the Survivors of SuperStorm Sandy, providing little help filtering down to the people of America.

The media has hurt Sandy Survivors . They report that survivors are receiving lots of money from agencies, charities, donations. Most people have received a pathetic pittance: many nothing. The media spotlights a few individuals as enduring glaring hardship. The truth is, some people recovered quickly, because they used their bank accounts, erroneously believing they would be reimbursed. But most people are still living in substandard, hazardous conditions. Everyone is enduring glaring hardship. There is no help for Sandy Survivors!! Survivors need assistance, answers, results and resolution, now, when their children are breathing mold, sleeping in closets and eating ramen noodles off paper plates resting on cardboard boxes, standing up in back yards.

I remember the 1950’s, when there was a cycle of hurricanes in our area. At that time, we had a flood above the windows every two years. We were prepared. We understood our environment and weather patterns, and functioned within its perimeters. We helped each other. Neighborhoods came together.

During Sandy, no one warned communities in time. All the way up the coast, the media and officials told the public, the winds were only 75 mph. They didn’t warn of significant danger until the last few hours. We had so little time to prepare. The public was misled by officials. Officials and government were not prepared. Well into it, they could not even decide how to categorize this storm. The indecision and confusion of officials compromised the public’s ability to respond, react and protect themselves in the havoc.

Given the progressively emerging insurmountable barriers and negatives bombarding Sandy Survivors and persecuting the suffering middle-class homeless, I am second-guessing myself. A shrill voice inside of me scolds, “Who gave you the right to spend a year of your life like this? What were you thinking!”

My only defense is, I thought I could save my home. I thought it would be a month, maybe two. I believed hard work, government assistance, charity, support of community and country, were paths to success. After all, I lived through floods as a child. But that was a different time of community and official co-operative effort. I never imagined that when nature draws a line of demarcation, people do not cross it, and America only helps other countries in need, not her own people. We were all so naive.

When my house went down, my son said to me, “Bulldoze the house! Walk away! You cannot save it!”

I cried. I needed to fight for my home: otherwise, I would be a.victim, victim of a freak natural event. I did not know how to be a victim. I was a survivor of serious injury, cancer, and tragedy. Nothing could defeat me. My house was heavily insured. I paid off my house. I did not know how to be destitute. I did all the right things. I did not know how to surrender. I always won the battles.

Walking out of my stinking, gutted home recently, I said to my son, “You were right. I should have bulldozed the house.” When options deteriorate, choice narrows. Men lose hope: because hope is a bird whose wings fell off.

If I knew what I know now about the disaster recovery/restoration process, if asked to make a recommendation to another in this situation, without reservation, I would say, “Bulldoze the house. You have no idea how bad it can get, progressively, over time. Save yourself!!!”

Sandy’s Fickle Fury. 3-14-13

Deep Flood Water

When the post-hurricane cyclone hit Long Island, its monstrous arm spun across our fragile landscape like a scythe slicing grass. It decimated whole neighborhoods and towns, while sparing isolated homesteads with illogical precision. I have heard this same story, same ending, different towns, with intermittent regularity. The fickle fury of natural disaster marks its gruesome path with random accuracy.

I recently met one survivor of such a random sparing, sheepishly harboring survivor’s guilt for being untouched in a neighborhood where most homes were devastated by the flood waters. She felt, “like there was an umbrella over my house.” I asked her if her house was built up high. She lifted her hand and indicated with her fingers, just a few inches. She didn’t understand why her home was spared. I am not sure that we are meant to know the reasons why. It happened! I venture to think that it is what we do with what happened to us, that matters.

She spoke of a house in south Merrick, on the Bay, located on a peninsula surrounded by water on three sides. I have been there a thousand times, being the daughter of a man who built most of the bulkheads, pilings, finger floats and marinas in Nassau County: creating the docks that took on water like sinking ships in the neighborhoods that flooded. I, being the progeny of generations of bay-men, decoy carvers, clam diggers, tasted oysters clinging to the seagrass on her boggy plot before her house was built. Alas, all of the land below Merrick Road was originally mudflats, marshland, ditches, cattails, swamp grass: man claimed it for his home. How can we then be angry at the land that reverted to its natural habitat when a meteorologic aberration stressed it?

I respect the land the bore my ancestor’s names, as I respect the unpredictable, raging sea, that swallowed so many of my ancestors, their sons and fathers, following in their chosen occupation. The salt water of Long Island is in my history and in my veins: I can read the bays and ditches of Long Island like a blind man reading information from a page of braille. Mudflats were my childhood playground, jumping ditches, picking buttercups amongst sea grass, digging clams with naked feet in cotton bloomers. And all the while the bay breezes fluttered fragrant through my long blond frolicking curls. But on one stormy night in October the golden south shore turned terrifying and torrential, blasted and bleak.

The woman and her husband had evacuated for previous hurricanes, but decided to remain in their home for Hurricane Sandy. After all we were all confident: the weather reports as the hurricane traveled up the East coast, were quite benign.

Actually, the National Weather Service made a decision not to issue hurricane watches or warnings north of North Carolina. Weathermen reported 74 mph winds, barely a Category One Hurricane, downgraded to a post-tropical cyclone before it landed in Atlantic City; no significant damage along the coast. Until Jersey! Suddenly, there were state and local officials on television warning the public of a curve to the west at about the level of North Jersey, the hurricane joining with a middle-state storm, a cold front, a northeaster, The reports were ominous, frightening! It was too late for many of us to act. Many didn’t believe the eleventh-hour hysterics, given the rantings last year about the “Storm of the Century” that fizzled across Long Island. Most of us lost our electric: before the storm hit. After that, you knew what was happening only right here, in the dark.

I left the sweet solace of my hospital bed, because my sons wouldn’t stop calling, urging me to get out. I went to a converted garage surrounded by tall trees a few miles away, where the wind was so quiet, that I felt silly lying on the floor waiting for the storm to pass. But, on the Merrick waterfront, boats were bashed against splintering docks and finger floats jumped onto bulkheads. rain pelted black waters, sifting sand through whitecaps, slopping onto patios, swelling, pounding the shore.

And a man and a woman sat in their home, prepared to wait out the hurricane, with candles and flashlights. As the storm progressed, the rain was relentless: and the wind slashed mighty trees and tore their roots from saturated soil, chewing chunks of structures into tinder. The homeowners questioned their decision to stay as the winds grew more fierce, too late, wandering from window to window, seeking relevant information. But all was black and cold, as the storm spit out mighty power lines. There was no comfort. There was no communication. There was only anticipation.

A flashlight darted toward the bay at the peak of the peninsula, the location of the most imminent approaching danger. The man strained to see the bay beyond the murky downpour, seeking information too late to make a difference. The bay was a mass of skating whitecaps, crashing against docks, washing over lawns, battering boats. “It’s o.k. Hon.” He believed what he saw.

“The other way! Look the other way!” There was urgency in her voice.

He turned his head toward the east and peered into his neighborhood. “OMG, I don’t believe it”. He exclaimed.

A river roared toward the house, a wall of sea water advancing. She hurried to the window, and was horrified, to see through the darkness, raging, frenzied water rushing toward them, strewn with debris: patio furniture, tree limbs, household items, lumber, chunks of siding, life preservers, and motor boats. There were no streets, no yards, only water, as far as she could see, rushing water, churning rubble. She was terrified. The comfort of her home had suddenly become a terrifying trap. There was no obvious means of escape. No vehicle could provide transportation. No structure could offer shelter from natures’s mighty wrath. Raging waters were the master of the moment: in control, eclipsing choice, smothering security. There was no place to go but where they were.

The fury of the storm increased, the deluge swallowed up their yard. They peered from windows at the swirling floodwaters, realizing that there was no higher, safer place to go. They thought of the children they could not call from this heatless, lightless room, and they regretted having no choice, and staying behind. There would be no rescue until the storm was done with its awful rampage and it was safe for rescue workers to approach. There would be no help in time to save lives. They were on their own, surrounded by an angry sea.

And in those final moments of uncertainty they looked at each other and were comforted by the history they created together in this space. As they watched from inside, aware of options closing quickly, and longing for daylight, the whirling tempest approached the concrete steps to their house, lashed them, spit-up foamy wreckage upon them. and seemed to stop. It sat there turbulent, for hours, threatening, teasing, slowly receding, as the homeowners respectfully waited: barring alternate choice. In the end, not a drop of water entered their lovely home. The homeowners were grateful, confused, humbled, traumatized, harboring survivor’s guilt: marked with an indelible imprint.

So it happened, that on the night of October 29, 2012, wind and rain swept across Long Island with insidious precision: the tide rose and sea water engulfed homes, reclaimed virgin marshland. Two homes stood on a primal bog that night: one was spared and one was swallowed up, at the inclination of the tide. And that made all the difference!

And we all understood that it is wonderful to live on the shoreline of Long Island. But, we must respect the genesis of this land, and the authority of the sea. And when the sea enforces its original right of ownership, to borrow or reclaim the land we love, we must acquiesce to its will or relinquish our claim altogether. The sea is a powerful and unpredictable force: with dominance over man and land alike. We can only borrow paradise, not own it.

Empty Eyes. 11-8-12

Lonely tree and bench

I was alone, living in my car, not eating, not sleeping, not wanting to go on. I was walking around day by day in a fog, isolated, numb, consumed by reality: looking into the eyes of the world, seeing nothing, feeling nothing but grief. Not realizing I was one among thousands, I validated my loss. For during Hurricane Sandy I was cut off, we were all cut off, by massive power outages: from the visuals, from the overwhelming truth, the destruction, the drowning, from the suffering of thousands. So, in those first days before I met the others, the ghosts of the lives of other survivors, I was wandering around searching.

I instinctively knew the survivors as well as I knew my own features. and I needed to touch their flesh. I was searching the faces of men, looking for bleeding, for empty eyes, like mine. I recognized those like me, who lost everything, disbelieving, bewildered people, wandering, with no place left to go: belonging no where, owning nothing. I relived over and over the terrifying moments, as I followed slime and grit, into the devastation of my home, my life. The smell of my home, that rancid, acrid stench of extinction, burned my nasal passages daily, and I wanted to embrace someone who couldn’t get that stench out of his nostrils either. I needed to cradle broken hearts.

Within the context of having lost everything to a natural event that was no fault of my own, of having nothing left, of feeling very sad and panicked, I wandered without purpose, occasionally accomplishing necessary tasks. I entered CVS, looking for antibiotic and bandages for my fingernails, severely infected by contact with the sewage water entombing my treasures. I was neither responding to nor interacting with my environment: I was hardly a part of the world. There was no reason for me to be there.

I navigated my wheelchair up and down aisles overcrowded and blocked by carts of boxes and merchandise being loaded onto shelves stripped by frantic Hurricane Sandy shoppers. I was confused by the disorder, and frustrated, as displays of toilet paper and shampoo came cascading down on me. There was no place for me here, and my equipment. I was in the way, at time of crisis. Store clerks scowled, as I bumped into displays and rolling carts, taking out end caps of water bottles and stacks of baby wipes. Standing, also in the way, at every turn, was a woman with a shock of grey curls, a red wool coat, and gold-trimmed glasses. She moved quietly, without purpose. She never looked at me, but clung to me. I recognized her immediately. She had empty eyes.

Neither one of us spoke to the other: we knew. We went through the store like that, silently meeting: passing. I needed to listen: she had something to say. But we were hurting too much to reach out. I took care of business and exited sliding glass doors that snapped closed behind me. The air outside was crisp and damp. The sidewalk was narrow and hazardous. As I navigated toward my car, there, coming toward me, were empty eyes. It was the woman in the red coat. I looked directly at her and said quietly, “Did you lose your house too?”

Words spilled from her like water from a broken dam. “I live in south Seaford. But, I only sustained minor damage.”

I swallowed deep and choked up a large glob of self pity. “I lost everything: my house, my furniture, belongings, $50,000 in medical equipment.” Every time I said it, it seemed less real. I had expressed my pain.

“I lost my son-in-law,” she said out loud, seemingly matching my pain.

I stopped breathing and tried to process words I did not anticipate. Surely I had heard incorrectly. “What do you mean?” I said with puzzled stupidity.

She seemed anxious to explain. “My son-in-law was crushed by a tree.”

Time stopped. I grabbed the words and rolled them around in my mind. I believed her. “I didn’t know anyone died in the flood.” I responded sincerely.

“Oh yes. Twenty-six people,” she said. “Two children were torn from their mother’s arms by the winds on Staten Island.”

“Oh my goodness! I didn’t know. I am so so sorry.” There were no words . . . She understood. She wasn’t looking for comfort. She was trying to hold on to her son-in-law.

“He was a good man, a good husband and dad: he was a good person.”

Her statement was written in stone: untouchable, unchangeable. I responded with a serene smile of understanding.

I was incredulous. The storm seemed so benign where I was sleeping that night. I felt cheated and stupid, that I didn’t’ know. This monster had destroyed my life and hers, and I had no visuals to process. “I didn’t know,” I said.

“Was the accident in Seaford?” I asked. What did that matter?

“No, they live in Lloyd Harbor. It happened in Lloyd Harbor.” She was in so much pain. She wanted to talk about the man. I wanted to remember him.

“What happened?” I said, almost whispering.

She was not crying. She was remembering what they had told her happened. It was like, if she told the story enough times, she would finally believe it. She needed to remember every detail. She needed to pass them on to someone. I needed to listen.

“They were evacuating. My son-in-law had put their two little girls in the car.” I pictured two little girls safely secured in the dry car by a father taking care of his family: two tiny faces in rain gear, droplets splattered across their foreheads, watching daddy running through the storm with salvaged armloads of clothes and necessities. I was once that tiny child being shuttled safely away from our flooded house by responsible adults. I felt their excitement, their fear and anticipation.

“A tree fell on him!”

“Oh my gosh!” I exclaimed. It was horrifying! It was real. It was what his sweet babies saw! There were no words! There was no comfort! There was only listening. There was a maimed and broken family, compelled to accept reality. My house, my precious lost house and all my belongings, seemed so inconsequential now. People died! A daddy died in front of his two little girls. I was ashamed of grieving for a house!

“He put his daughters in the car. He was helping his wife. The tree fell onto the driveway. It crushed my son-in-law. It killed him! It struck my daughter.”

“Is she all right?” I gasped.

“No.” she said. “One whole side of her body is all black, where the tree hit her. She has broken bones. She is in terrible pain.” I pictured the mayhem: the mortal injuries in the deluge, screaming for help, babies crying, hysteria, flashing lights blasting silence. It was awful! It was too much to bear. A daddy was broken and gone on that monstrous stormy night.

“Is she going to be all right?” I insisted. How could she ever be all right?

“Yes,” was the quiet response.

“Did the little girls see what happened?” I asked, fearing her response.

“They saw everything!” she said solemnly. We were silent together.

I looked into her tortured face, and felt the inconsolable pain of a wife and children. I was overwhelmed: impacted by the loss of one unique person, the agony of a family broken and changed, forever. I was humbled.

I understood that I had lost very little in the scheme of things. My house was not a person. My former life could be reinvented. None of this was what I wanted to accept right now, but it was true. It would be truer tomorrow.

Letter to the Editor (East Hampton Press, The Independent, www.indyeastend.com)

Letter to the Editor:

In 1962 I graduated from Massapequa High School with Wendy McVicker. She was very shy. In October I attended my 50th high school reunion. On the Roster, Wendy McVicker Wagner’s email address was listed as, iwillnotwhisper@hotmail.com. I smiled and thought, “Wendy found her voice.”

Actually, Wendy found her voice 35 years ago after she sustained serious spinal cord injuries that left her permanently totally disabled. Fighting for her own medical care in the Workers Comp System, she began fighting for others, first for medical, then promoting awareness, changing perception, facilitating barrier-free compliance and spreading accessible facilities throughout Long Island and other areas. She worked with malls, universities, libraries, municipalities, hospitals, retail and fast food chains, schools, small business, medical offices, corporate executives and legislators. She had a Variety Show for access, attended by 800 people.

In 1996 she chose to help the Village of Southampton. She wanted disabled individuals in Southampton to enjoy some of the same independence she had given others. For the next 15 years Wendy worked side by side with Douglas Murtha. She designed and implemented the Village of Southampton Access for the Disabled Program and led the Village of Southampton Committee on Access and Disability. She made the Village of Southampton the first accessible Village on the East End. She worked on Village Hall, the Police Department, Rogers Memorial Library, the Veterans Hall, the Cultural Center, Southampton Hospital, Agawam Park, handicapped parking, curb cuts, walkways, traffic lights, ramps, beaches, telephones, and rest rooms.

During Hurricane Sandy, Wendy’s house in Seaford was severely damaged by a sewage surge that destroyed her furniture, belongings and medical equipment. Her Flood coverage was only $14,000. FEMA has only given her $5,494.35 for home repairs that are estimated at $100,000.

Wendy has over the years, unnoticed, made amazing changes that have impacted the lives of thousands of disabled people every year, with no thought of personal gain. As a matter of fact, throughout her advocacy, she has paid for all office and printing supplies, postage, gas, and repairs to her car and wheelchairs, herself. Some people say she is the most selfless person they know, others say she must be crazy. But everyone agrees, she has left a wake of change and good deeds unchallenged.

Please find a way to help Wendy, who has never hesitated for a second to help another, to restore her house and go home! Please contact her at iwillnotwhisper@hotmail.com or 2401 S. Cedar Street, Seaford, NY 11783.

Sincerely,
Robert E. White
East Hampton