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.

Do Not Drink the Sand. 11-8-13

Drowning duck in blue water

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I said, “You promised.”

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

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

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

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