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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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!!!”

Beware of Do-Gooders with Axes. 8-12-13

Giving dumbbell to sinking man instead of help. Making worse con

Loss is a hierarchy of values, unique to oneself, impossible to comprehend from the outside. Loss is layers of priority, woven intricately across your life, a tapestry of history, experiences, memories, possessions, ownership, and environment, withdrawn. It is exhaustion of the tiny treasures in your life, tangible and intangible, that soothe you, nurture you, buffer, energize and propel you. The greatest losses are intangible, impossible to grasp without heartstrings.

The survivors of the SuperStorm understand the hierarchy of loss. Loss for them focuses on home, their history hemorrhaging across a painting in progress by an artist concentrating on a date of completion, not the hues: loss upon loss wiped away as a mistake on the canvas, an intrusion in the gestalt, smeared by a cold hand without pulse.

I had a home. It was beautiful to me: pretty, muted pastels, soft fabrics, comfy pillows, cozy workspaces, solid wood furniture, functional, all that I needed. My home was memories: my children scribbling everyday adventures across the walls, carving their dreams into Mimosa they straddled, imaginations soaring, unfettered; rolling in fragrant grasses with abandon, looming green foliage affording security: inspiring me, delighting me, as they grew strong and tall, like the trees in my sweet garden. It was all that I wanted: all that I needed.

The rocks in my garden were collected from the world: fondled, contemplated, transported to this fertile land, their history intact, lovingly placed with deliberation and intention, substantial and validated. My garden reeked of mountains, forests, meadows, beaches, streams, waterfalls, oceans, and Indian preserves, with igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic. Smooth Florida ocean rocks, Nova Scotia conglomerates, river rocks from Maine rested beside Mermaid’s toenails from Noyack, vibrant sunset shells from Sanibel, slipper shells, spotted clams, olives, angel wings, paper figs, murex, whelk, curls, and conchs. I picked each up because it was special, like the people in my secret garden.

I nurtured a sweet garden so many years ago, to shelter my children from the busy street, to give them unspoiled acreage to own: before baseball and two-wheel bicycle rides to Jones Beach expanded their world into tomorrow. Those were years of innocence, when neighborhood children flocked to our verdant sanctuary, for a summer’s day of riding toys, sliding water fun and hours of good climbing trees, imagining and inventing, rehearsing tomorrow, dripping ice pops into the cool dark earth, dirty feet running across blankets of soft grass. Those summer days of noisy children with dirty hands in my garden, needing me, wanting beyond any place to be here with my children and their toys, lived on each morning, in songbirds summoning me to tall hedges with deep strong roots, and soaring climbing trees. Memory whispers timeless messages across the heart. How simple, yesterday.

Then came years when bikes turned into cars. Heavy traffic on the street triggered adapting the yard for greater functionality. A street, that had once been dead-end host of neighborhood softball games, now wrapped around the new Cedar Creek Park and down to Seaford Harbor Elementary School, providing access to marinas and taverns. Cars were being hit in the street regularly by drunks. I placed white rocks where the grass used to be and two toyotas slept peacefully through college.

In those days, Cedar Creek Park was a bone the County threw at homeowners who protested the County’s repurposing of the marshland stretching south from our homes all the way to the Great South Bay: a playground for fishing, bird-watching, romping and exploring, ecosystems wiped out, mutilated, usurped by local government, to create a bedroom for sewage tanks and a chemical plant to spew the oppressive stench of chemical sewage into the salty air at 2 a,m, each night, as infants sleep in their cribs.

On October 29, 2012, SuperStorm Sandy engulfed our neighborhood with raging floodwaters, spewing sewage that tore our lives apart. My house gulped down the putrid slime and puked up everything I owned: my secret garden stood resilient above the onslaught, quiet sentinel. And as spring breezes ruffled lush lacy foliage, I sat each day in my fragrant green sanctuary and believed in restoration and nesting.

FEMA, the government agency for Hurricane Sandy survivor’s assistance, let us all down: providing outlandishly low assistance grants, that made timely return home impossible. FEMA prefaced the assistance with, “You can do it with free help.” In reality, during such an extensive event, free help, any help, was virtually non-existent. The survivors were on their own: destitute, living in substandard, make-shift quarters, due to governmental failure. The Hurricane Sandy Recovery effort is a National Tragedy: America’s shame!

Temporary Housing was doled out by FEMA. People dropped out of Temporary FEMA Housing every day, not to go to HUD apartments or permanent housing, but to substandard private accommodations anywhere, just to get away from the bullying and constant threats of being thrown out by FEMA agents at their door.

So, under threat again of being thrown out of the Hotel by FEMA in three weeks, I accepted an eleventh-hour offer of free help from an international church group seeking a house to restore. They had a house to restore on Monday, but it fell through. Consequently, they had 10 volunteers coming from Alabama on Sunday. I was called on Friday by the Director, who outlined what they would do in my house: check the roof leak, and possibly patch it, empty insulation and toys from the attic, insulate the walls, and sheetrock. I asked if that was all. He said yes.

I trusted this group because they had gutted my house. They had been kind, thoughtful people, who seemed competent enough. They never overstepped their authority, in their past interactions with my house.

I pulled up to the curb, prepared to ease my accessible van between formidable hedges enclosing my ravaged, gutted home, as I did each day since the malevolent event. I was comforted by this precious remnant of my life left looming, strong, surviving, like me, the terrible storm: my yard, filled with shadows of squealing children from yesteryear. I spent hours here every day, nurtured by memories.

My van hesitated, then stopped. Oddly, I pulled up to the wrong house, one that was in the process of being bulldozed, it seemed. My internal navigation had failed. Clearly, the hedges I passed through each day to a restoration project limping along without funding, were not here.

No, my house was standing green and solid in front of me, clearly visible: naked, exposed, vulnerable, on a totally bald lot, sterilized, automobiles speeding past. My yard was obliterated. My garden, was mutilated, demolished, gone! The ground was still steaming. My eyes clouded over and bled profusely a lifetime lost. Loss upon loss pummeled me and I was overcome. Hope threw a lance through my heart and I bled out in the street. I was all gone. There was nothing left of me. Nothing left!

A mob of burly workers, were hacking, chopping, slicing, ripping up roots that were pulling back with 60 years of brute strength and cherished history, unwilling to yield the land of their birth, struggling against insanity. Strangers raked wet dirt over my white pebbles, standing on my rock garden, loading six-foot-long pivots into belching yellow dumpsters, to transport what was left of my life to some stinking landfill, my yard to wither in the hot summer sun, and die, unattended, unloved, the last vestiges of an unjust, uncaring world gone berserk.

I was empty. My world was only devastation and loss. Gasping green vines hung limp from the dumpster screaming my name. My heart shrieked so loud my head exploded and membranes rained down on the fragrant dirt, and soaked into my land. I could not breathe. It was armageddon. Goodness was gone.

A big, rough man with a pleasant face walked toward my car. A grey-haired woman stood on my oozing land, pointing, amid swinging blades: men with axes trashing my land without permission. Strong men struggled with massive roots that would not relinquish their right to survive and howled for me to save them. The violence smothered a field of white pebbles and smooth pink river rocks. They had obliterated every piece of foliage, every living thing, from the street to the windows: privet hedges, Roses of Sharon, Wisteria, Forsythia, mom’s American Beauty rose bushes, pachysandra, and oak trees my sons planted. The ground looked like it was put through a sifter. Insensitivity swallowed my past, sucking songbirds, purple violets and lily of the valley, sweet blooming Privet, through the jagged, closing chasm.

The man walked over and leaned against my van, resting his sweating arm across my mirror, “Wendy?” he said. I wanted to throw his arm off my property.

“What did you do?” I whispered, breathless. I was shocked, devastated, appalled. I did not understand. I felt faint, enraged, hopeless, terrified. “What did you do to my yard?”

He turned away from me, toward my raped land, and declared with callous disregard, “Looks good, doesn’t it!”

I wanted to tear his head off and smash it to the pavement, at his arrogance. His lack of feeling confirmed he was not human.

“Why did you do that!” I said. “You had no right!” I could find no words. It was too horrible. “This is my land.”

“It had to be done.” he said. “It looks better.”

“Better than what? You had no right. This is my property.” I insisted. Everything was spinning. I could not see, for the tears.

He stood there with his back to me admiring his delinquency.

“Is Grace here?” I mumbled.. She was an administrator: he was the foreman.

“She’s over there,” he pointed. He called to her, like nothing was wrong. She walked toward my van. I was slipping away.

“Hi.” she said cheerfully. She was an arrogant woman with a perennial smirk. I wanted to lunge from my van and strangle her, as she did my garden. I was face to face with the Devil.

“What did you do to my yard? “. I said. “How could you do that?”

“Your neighbors like it.” she smiled.

“You talked to my neighbors, but you didn’t call me?” I said. “Why did you do this? This is my property!”

“In this Program,” she said, “we must make the house better. This is better.”

“No! No, this is not better.” I said. “You trim a hedge, you don’t demolish a yard. You had no permission to touch my yard! This is my property! You had no right!”

The two stood against my van, ignoring me, prattling, “It looks good. This is the least of your worries. You should be grateful. People have a lot more to worry about than something like this. You have a lot more to worry about than this.” They were arrogant ego-maniacs, trampling on property rights and choice, in the name of charity. I was revolted by their smug self-righteousness.

There was nothing I could do: it was all gone! My ability to function, in a wheelchair, living alone, on a busy street, was gone! It was no longer safe, secure, or private. The damage was irreversible. As a person with multiple melanomas, there was no longer shelter from the sun. The firm rocky surface for my wheelchair, exists no longer. They didn’t get it!!!

I guess the church trashed my yard because they had 10 volunteers from Alabama with nothing to do. The building materials were not delivered until 3:15 p.m., long after my yard was demolished by men with axes. They obliterated my present and my past, to provide busy work.

I lost my home to a terrifying natural event. I lost my environment to terrifying control freaks feigning charity. Beware of do-gooders with axes! They will tear your heart out!

Morning Most Difficult: Impressions of Loss. 3-3-13

Dry Tree Silhouette

I open my eyes. I am in a box without light. I hear a woman sobbing uncontrollably. She has forgotten I am here. Awareness scratches its filthy claws across my face. The day dawns once more, slashing hope. I exist in a world without tomorrow. Today is too much to bear. Yesterday is a recurring nightmare that will not fade. Mangled memories are soaked in sewage and tears. I follow walls, perimeters, around and around, looking for an exit that is not there.

I am a little girl sitting on the freezing cold curb in front of a forest-green house caressing a rotting teddy bear without eyes. I finger tiny, slivered fragments strewn across the pavement, that are mangled furniture, belongings, my past: bull-dozed into oblivion by the County. Crushed! My hands bleed into the mutilated soil: wasteland of my legal address. Splinters fester. Cars race past, without slowing, without seeing: having someplace to go, a destination. Their dust chokes my bloodshot eyes. I shiver with reality.

We stand long outside the entrance to our homes, afraid to turn the knob. We know! There is nothing inside: nothing we can touch! There is a terrifying landscape of obliteration, mixed with sweet memories. There is a wound in the floor that sucked the life from this place, and will not heal. It festers and grows with each passing day. Time is our enemy: mold flakes and floats from walls that will not dry, without money, There is a divide growing. Apathy brushes past invisible survivors: we become a class apart. It is so difficult to walk amongst the rubble, but impossible to turn away. Others judge us unkindly for seeking restoration.

The coastline is decimated: with cars hanging from telephone poles, and water gushing out of windows of houses. Beaches were sucked out to sea and flung into the streets: creating new channels, destroying transportation networks. Structures turned to tinder. Neighborhoods were devastated: homes burned down and floated away. Sewage washed through bedrooms. Babies were torn from mother’s arms. Young men were crushed. Life is lost! Communication was severed. Essential functions shut down. Food ran out and gas caused panic in the streets. I could not hold back the waters or keep the cyclone from its deadly path: it was too powerful. It was armageddon: apocalypse! Loss is stark reality!

Memory is chewing glass. Tomorrow is running across hot tar.

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

Hotel Room Appeal submitted to FEMA. 12-29-12

FEMA
1-800-621-3362. FAX. 1-800-827-8112
DisasterAssistance.gov

Fema I.D. No. 41-1371304
Subject: URGENT. Long-term Housing
Medical Condition: Spinal Cord Injury with Severe Autonomic Dysfunction, Cervical Myelopathy, Costochondritis, Intercostal Neuritis, Occipital Neuralgia, L-S Radiculopathy, Multiple Disc Lesions, Post Traumatic Neuropathy. Pulmonary Fibrosis.

To Whom it may Concern:

On October 29, 2012, i was a permanently disabled individual, severely limited by symptoms of a spinal cord injury sustained 35 years ago, fully functioning within the closed environment of my home, set up to accommodate my specific physical needs. I was in intractable pain. I used an electric wheelchair, oxygen, a service dog, and was in a hospital bed 80-90 % of the day. I was an ADA/Disability Advocate of 35 years, who has facilitated amazing changes for disabled individuals.

As you can imagine, the sequence of events since the sewage surge hit my home have caused me great physical pain and functional disruption. I slept in my car for 10 days. Then I was able to get into the Best Western at Bar Harbor on Sunrise Highway in Massapequa Park, NY. I have a room with a bathroom and parking outside the door. My oxygen is set up here and my physical therapist visits twice a week for 2 hours each session. I am warm and comfortable. My home was set up like this. I cannot function in an apartment.

I have been told by numerous persons within the system that Fema has the capability to allow me to stay here at their expense, because of my special needs. I provided two medical reports to the Fema Inspector. If these are not in my file I will fax them to you.

I am asking Fema to allow me to stay at this hotel, where I am comfortable and my needs are being met, until my severely damaged home is restored and livable. Please take this request seriously, because there is no way I can fit into the housing standards set up for able-bodied individuals pertinent to Disaster and Recovery. Be assured that I am highly motivated to recover the level of comfort, functioning and productivity I enjoyed prior to October 29, 2012. With your validation of and cooperation with my special needs, I feel that will happen.

Thank you sincerely for your consideration and anticipated help.
Sincerely,
Wendy Wagner

********FEMA consistently refused to answer this Appeal, although I was told repeatedly that it was being considered.