FEMA De-Values Home! 3-17-13

word devaluation on the display of a calculator with euro bills

A house is not a home. A house is a structure, a definable space, an estimate-able property, a piece of real estate that can be transferred, knocked down, flooded. A home is history, sensation, comfort. recollection, security, sanctuary. The survivors of Hurricane Sandy each had a home: lost a home, treasures, a lifestyle. Some had a house.

FEMA validates a house but not home. However, FEMA has formulated its own definition of a house. A house is a shell: walls, floors, heat, electric. It is stripped-down, patched-together, barely safe or sanitary, space: basic function. And as Hurricane Sandy destroyed everything that many survivors owned, FEMA forces them back into barely safe, barely functional, empty shells. These are the people who have not been forced back into houses without walls, floors, electric, heat or mold removal, because FEMA abandoned them without explanation. These are the people whose houses did not float away, were not condemned. The people forced back into functional empty shells are the lucky ones. FEMA has down-graded the American dream: it is the American nightmare.

Tens of thousands have been forced to live outside of their homes, with no place to belong, under constant threat of eviction, unwanted, uncomforted, unclothed, because their home is standing, but totaled: and FEMA gave them a laughable grant, without explanation, without mercy. They cannot repair their houses, because there is not enough money to repair even one room: there are no walls, floors, bathroom, kitchen, electric, heat, not even a toilet bowl. There are no contents, furniture, belongings, left. Their home is nothing, only fertile soil where mold and bacteria breed. Every day their house moves closer to being condemned. These people wander about, bewildered, frustrated, disillusioned, terrified, ignored by the systems, denied by the general public: a class alone, living in an alternate universe, created by the SuperStorm, not living at all, pacing putrid time.

I first experienced FEMA when Hurricane Sandy destroyed my house, terminated
my home: wiped out my past, present and future. Before that, I only knew of FEMA through media reports. I believed the promise: I believed it helped people. Hurricane Sandy left 200,000 Americans along the East Coast homeless and destitute. All of the survivors experienced FEMA or chose not to.

My house was insured for $300,000. It was totally paid off, except for $3,700. The contents were insured for $100,000. I lost all of my furniture, belongings, most of my clothes, $50,000 in medical equipment and $10,000 in office equipment. FEMA, all Insurance, County, and Fire Inspectors said my house was totaled, with great sympathy. In November, the County declared my house too dangerous to enter without a respirator, because of sewage and mold contamination, and inspected it from the front yard. Some inspectors called friends to help me, and even offered to come back and put up walls. The houses in my neighborhood sell extremely fast, because it is close to bus, train, highways and parkways, stores, the bike path to the beach, and Ocean Parkway to Jones Beach. The school district is excellent. Houses in my neighborhood are a great investment.

I didn’t live on the water. I didn’t live near the water. My neighborhood never flooded before. I lived there for 48 years. But, I lived right above the Cedar Creek Sewage Treatment Plant. The houses on the west side of the street are four-floor splits, plus a basement. Most, lost the basement: some, lost the family room also. The houses on my side of the street are one-floor ranches: we all lost everything. Salt water was not the worst! Sewage damage was throughout the house: it seems that it came up the toilet and also in the front door. Sewage was on top of my hospital bed in the living room. There is a storm sewer directly in front of my house. Many people in my neighborhood believe that the Sewage Treatment Plant malfunctioned. Everything was lost to sewage contamination: a horrific way to let go of your lifetime keepsakes and tiny treasures.

I was told by eyewitnesses: from 7 p.m. until 12 a.m. water rose rapidly up from the ground; a river rushed up the center of the street toward Merrick Road; 6 feet of water entered my house. Those who stayed, report it was terrifying: the violence, the power of the water. I had water and sewage damage up to 48″ above the floor. It was like a tornado hit inside of my house: furniture, equipment, appliances, belongings, objects great and small, were thrown around with alarming violence, smashed and encrusted with sewage. I cannot get the putrid, acrid stench of devastation out of my nostrils. My hospital bed went on fire. My front door was torn off. A cinder-block wall outside the side door was thrown against the house.

That is the reality of the event and the loss. The reality of the response and the help, are a life apart. The survivors must deal with both. Inadequate response for restoration by governmental agencies has turned this Natural Disaster into a National Tragedy in America, and it has become our national shame.

While everyone realized, at the end, that the storm was huge, damage was devastating, and the victims included hundreds of thousands of survivors, the government did not react in a timely or effective manner for the magnitude of the event: management, personnel, funding, housing, emergency survival and support services, were inadequate. Response of FEMA, the agency designated to manage the event and aid survivors, was so slow, that it was extremely detrimental to the victims.

There was no housing, no food, no gasoline, no electric. We were told that FEMA could not bring in trailers to house the homeless, because the area was so congested. They did not bring in gasoline. Without gasoline and operating gas stations you had to remain close to your property or wherever you were going to bed, because if you used up the gas in your car it would remain where it stalled. And, they were dragging abandoned cars away to remote dumping grounds. There was no food. Fast food stands and restaurants alike, were closed down. They had nothing to sell, and no way to cook it. There was no way for the public to cook food, because most people, even if they had homes, had no electricity and no heat for weeks. There was little food, and less water, in the few supermarkets that were open.

The Red Cross handed out sandwiches and hot dinners, blankets, and cleaning supplies, after a few days, in devastated neighborhoods and parks, if you could get to them. They had boxes of donated used clothes, because most of us lost our clothes and shoes. For months, the Red Cross and churches were the only source of nutrition for many. It turned out that the local churches would become the most solid source of support for housing, food, cleaning and sanitary products, counseling services, and, ripping out, building and renovation assistance.

Six weeks after the event, houses were stripped of contaminated furniture, belongings, walls, floors, and insulation: FEMA finally put in an appearance – inspection. The reality, the inspector’s report, and what FEMA translated into money, would not agree! The FEMA inspector spent 1 1/2 hours inside my house, measuring and taking pictures. She was sympathetic, said she put in a strong report, and reported the case to the Special Needs Hotline. Nevertheless, FEMA ignored my case for six more weeks, denied I was disabled for three months, claiming they never got paperwork from my insurance companies, paperwork that I submitted three times.

But it turns out the waiting was the easy part. Then came the rape of the survivors, the stripping-down and dehumanizing of Hurricane Sandy victims, the abandonment by America of those in need of help. After 2 1/2 to 3 months of waiting and believing in the system promising support, the grant letters started arriving. The grants were outlandish, ridiculous, pitiful. After all of the time, phone calls, paperwork and documentation that FEMA demanded, they were insulting, to our efforts to cooperate. Decisions would have been ridiculous, except that they were not decisions at all, because there were no explanations: only one or two words prefacing the dollar amount. Grant letters are generic: one form letter for all purposes, written so that it says absolutely nothing. There is absolutely no transparency. Dollar amounts are so outlandish as to be irrational. Not just for me, but for most! Grant amounts translate into no help, and leave a survivor with the inability to renovate his house and reclaim his life.

Over and over this sad story resonates, while the media reports that FEMA is awarding each home owner $30,900, and that if people apply for the SBA Loan, they can receive up to $40,000 more for their possessions. I was not allowed by FEMA to apply for the SBA loan, because I am disabled and make so little. I was not allowed to apply for the $10,000 Empire State Grant, because in order to apply you must first receive the maximum FEMA Grant. Not even close! The public thinks SuperStorm Sandy victims are being taken care of. Sadly, nothing could be further from the truth!

My house was totaled. All repair estimates came in at $105,000. The estimates are for house repairs/renovation only. I also lost all of my furniture, belongings and appliances; $50,000 in medical equipment; $10,000 in office equipment. Nothing was covered, because it was a flood. When I get back into my house, it will be empty: they will all be empty. On 1-11-2013 FEMA sent me a Grant letter designating $5,035 for “Home Repair” and $7,989.51 for “Personal Property” (which of course must go toward house repairs), for a total of $13,483.86. When I opened the letter and read it, I could not breathe. My house is totaled and FEMA allotted $5,035 for home repairs! My eyes clouded over and the words went away. I shuddered, as Obama walked across my grave. I could not believe what I was reading. It was a mistake! Reality could not be this horrific. Was I dead and I just didn’t know it yet? But, it was true: the second half of our nightmare was upon us, those of us in the alternate universe.

I appealed the Grant Decision and requested Re-inspection of my house. FEMA made a farcical pretense at re-inspection, sending an Inspector and a “Disability Expert”, who stood by the car and talked to me. They prefaced this meeting by explaining that they were going to evaluate the access, adaptive equipment and medical equipment loss. I asked how they could do that, when the house was stripped and gutted: totally empty, except for a hole in the floor where the toilet used to be.. Nothing was left! Being an access expert myself, I knew that FEMA officials were making no sense at all with this explanation. But an Inspector went into the house alone, and refused to accept my pictures of the losses. The Disability Expert stood by the car trying to convince me to sign a blanket authorization that they could share all of my information with whoever they chose. When I refused, he called their Legal Department and tried to get me to talk to them on his cell. When I refused, they sent a short middle-aged pit bull who threatened that they would do nothing to help me if I did not sign the paper. I refused. FEMA shared my confidential information anyway: ever since I submitted financial papers to them, I have been getting “we know you are destitute” letters and emails.

The FEMA re-inspection awarded me an additional Repair Grant for my totaled house of $645.45. I was incredulous, but half expected it. I never thought it was a legitimate attempt to reevaluate, given the fuzzy rationale they verbalized for re-inspection. I tried to get an explanation. I was told the amount was “appropriate” and we could manage, with “free help” available. I am hearing this story over and over.

We, the survivors excused the waiting, the redundancy, inefficiency, ineptness, nasty people, unanswered telephones, constant threats, because of the magnitude of the event. We believed that FEMA was trying to help us: we trusted the system. We tolerated dysfunction within the system, lack of comprehension of the implications and impact of the event on real people. But we learned that to FEMA, people are numbers: houses are numbers: nothing more! FEMA workers are apathetic caricatures, propagating unremitting loss, hopelessness, helplessness: highly paid, transient, serial, disaster trainees, who depersonalize and dehumanize pathetic, tattered people in need. The survivors of Hurricane Sandy have learned that, in response to natural disaster, systems break their promises and fail. There is no help!

Presently, FEMA lacks transparency, logic, rational process and procedure, organization, focus, humanity: it is so out of touch with reality, human suffering, recovery, restoration, and hope, as to make it non-functional and irrelevant. It operates with personnel so transient, they lack continuity, it lacks consistency. It is an out-dated and irrelevant system that has lost sight of people, human suffering, and home.

FEMA must be investigated, re-organized, up-dated, monitored and made accountable. It leaves battered, bewildered, broken people in its wake, not from the event, but from the lack of assistance after maximum effort and cooperation by the survivor: lack of empathy, humanity and because of the apathy of the program.

Since Hurricane Sandy the meaning of home has changed forever for hundreds of thousands of Americans, made refugees by the destruction, and by what FEMA has forced them to return to: “functional space.”. Many are not structures, or are structures that are not safe, are toxic, hazardous, barely habitable: houses without walls and floors, kitchens, furnaces, bathrooms. Agencies will not even pay for mold removal. Houses are being patched together by laymen, and quickly fail in functional use. FEMA strives to get people out of the system as quickly as possible. There is no follow-up. Homeowners of lost or totaled homes are forced to move on to rented apartments, rooms, couches, houseboats, trailers, mobile homes, RVs, basements, garages, yards: inappropriate accommodations, not long-term solutions.

Grants for restoration are pitiful. The condition of houses is demoralizing and horrific. Many of us have been without a home for five months because FEMA gave us an unrealistic, outlandish, repair grant. Many people just abandoned their homes and moved off Long Island, because they have no money to restore their houses, and no options for help.

The program does not return survivors to some normalcy after disaster. FEMA actually prevents people from getting real help, by delays, false and misleading promises of aid, and untimely, inadequate to the point of absurdity, final grants. When they are finished giving us nothing for our homes and property, all the ‘free help” is gone, used up, worn out. It prevents resolution, by overwhelming survivors with paperwork, documentation and denials; repeatedly losing, misplacing paperwork: by using vague, private, covert codes and processes to maintain limitless proprietary power and generate unclear, inadequate, ambiguous, cryptic decisions. There is no help: there is no transparency.

I do not claim there are not professional people at FEMA who try to do the right thing. But they are high-ranking, inaccessible, bound by out-dated processes and procedures, and their commitment to the survivor moves on with their next assignment location. The system is designed to thwart contact and communication, recovery and resolution.

In the end, FEMA gives survivors laughable assistance and tells them to go find a way to help themselves. It tells people they can restore their homes with the pittance that FEMA allotted, plus free help. Realistically, Hurricane Sandy free help is scarce, unskilled, empty promises, filled-up answer machines, hotlines manned in other states by people who disclaim knowledge of aid programs: unresponsive programs, services, and agencies: non-help. Meanwhile, our homes sit vacant, growing mold and bacteria, being looted and stripped, and receiving exploitive offers of buy-outs of the land by house flippers. The system is designed to benefit everyone except the survivor of disaster. Materials that were donated for rebuilding were withheld from homeowners, and are now being sold to contractors at huge profits. Benefit monies that were raised by famous people and concerts were not passed on to survivors. Everyone is profiting from Hurricane Sandy, while the homeowners are victimized and abandoned by systems breaking promise.. FEMA fails.

FEMA devalues houses, allotting cryptic, unrealistic, pitiful grants for legitimate house repair and restoration necessary due to natural disaster: using out-dated processes and procedures to evaluate and decide. Therefore, FEMA devalues home, the bedrock of society: disrespects people, the strength of our country; destroys hope, neighborhoods, chunks of America; and the next generation, the children who lost their nest, their toys, their rock.

The system does not work. FEMA needs to be re-evaluated, reorganized, up-dated, re-designed, monitored and made accountable. Americans devastated by disaster, people, our neighbors, our neighborhoods, are broken, bewildered and expiring, because FEMA does not help them: does not validate home, promote restoration or recovery. Through FEMA, America is abandoning, failing her own people miserably. We are survivors of Hurricane Sandy: we are victims of FEMA.

The survivors cannot rebuild their homes, because, without money, for years the survivors are going to be trying to patch their houses, their lives, their lifestyles together, with spit and sea grass. And, everyone knows what happens to houses made of grass.

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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.

Give Me a Place to Stand and I will Move Mountains! – Hope on Hold. 2-24-13

Man pushing a boulder on a mountain

I become aware of a new day emerging, as sunshine bores through crevices in room-darkening hotel curtains, searing the stiff cloth with truth. My eyes reluctantly open to face the light, as I struggle to keep them shut, and reality at bay. I am weeping, spontaneously, uncontrollably, from imprints that won’t fade, clutching scattered slivers of my life with bleeding fingers, stroking sweet memories turned rancid and grim. I am exhausted with the weight of it. Tears are the only constant now. I awake each morning to ghosts, screaming uninhabitable addresses, unthinkable truth, shadows of tormented homeless people. I am awake.

I grow sicker each day, without the benefit of my medical equipment: for I am disabled, and every day is one more crisis to bear, until the last: and then we have to deal with FEMA too. When you are weak, terminal or old, time is a vulture poised to gash and gobble your flesh: you must stand stronger than the others, focus on the horizon, and keep walking.

My weary heart screams, “I want to go home. I want to belong. I want to do relevant things again. I want to do relevant things again! I want my treasures. I want people to remember me before I fell. I want to remember me before my world went black.” I want to slay the nightmares, but my weapons were mangled and swept away.

And reality screams back at me, “You have no home! Your house is an empty shell: without walls, without floors, heat, electric, a toilet bowl, a kitchen, without furniture and belongings. Your house is without comfort and security, growing black mold, foul smells and unknown strains of bacteria. Your house is a wasteland, devoid of history. You never existed. Apocalypse! You are chewing rancid morsels of sweet yesterdays, and gathering scraps of sewage soaked memory. It is disease. It will take you down. You will perish, unless you let it float away. It cannot be saved.”

I look into the mirror and I see a woman wrinkled beyond recognition by one fleeting blow. I see a crowd of faces, lost and wandering, dreading the dawning of each new day. I see a child without toys, hysterical, because there is no place left to play. I see pets squirming, in boxes, cars and blankets, hidden away. I see a walled-off class of people, the Hurricane Sandy homeless, survivors not victims, traumatized: keepers of scattered slivers of lives shattered forever by grim reality, disillusioned, hope on hold, slipping away, looking for tools to rebuild, cast off, ignored.

I waiver unbelieving through a bleak mine-field between reality and hopefulness. Every opportunity for aid, every promise, explodes and disintegrates: there is no help. There is only disorder and apathy.

I see cash as the great equalizer, money for repairs, for hope, for tomorrow: great mounds of money lie between obliterated lives and home. People who worked their lives away are unexpectedly destitute, in the hands of others, with no control of their own fate, living in their garages, houses without walls, and their yards: desperate to retain some autonomy. I see the survivors creating their own positive outcomes, and reaching out to help each other: the human spirit rising above the failures of the system.

People require hope. Without hope, there is no reason to get up in the morning and choose to go on. America is nation-building in countries far away, and forgot its own, the people of the SuperStorm: who wander streets alone, hungry, disbelieving, contemplating suicide. Hurricane Sandy Recovery has become a National Tragedy: our national shame; a sad chronicle of governmental failure.

But we are a nation of mongrels: immigrants all mixed together in one pot, enhanced by the qualities of each, forged by centuries of pioneers, mellowed by history. If you give us a place to stand, we will move mountains!

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.

FEMA Shock! 2-25-13

Emergency Preparedness Checklist

A hotel room is traditionally a small space with cheesy furniture, stiff white towels, and multi-colored indoor-outdoor carpet that looks spotless but harbors microscopic critters. It is a facade, an appearance, a caricature of home. However, for a person who has lost everything, a hotel room is comfort, warmth, security, a link to independence, sanctuary. It is the only stability left. FEMA calculates hotel room space in time of disaster by price points and enforceable codes, and people as movable pieces on a game board that expires every two weeks.

It was almost four months to the day since I became a vagrant: roaming through the bowels of hell, searching through sewage for my treasures, a pawn in FEMA’s game of unrecoverable life. I was holding it together. But I was hardly all right. I entered the covered walkway to my hotel room, at the hour when waning winter sunshine brings a subtle chill to the day, returning from a day in the yard of my mold infested home. My clothes were shabby and stained, hair unruly, and my hands were vile. I was exhausted from crying. It was a typical post-Sandy day. I just wanted to go inside and scrub the day off.

A man in blue jeans approached me in the distance. I was unable to see his face, but he had grey hair and glasses. We met at the bottom of the black stone staircase, just outside my door. He had a tattered, desperate look. I immediately recognized him. He was one of us, the survivors – those who had lost everything in the SuperStorm of 2012, Hurricane Sandy.

He rounded the last post of the iron fence to the parking lot, looked me straight in the eye with compelling urgency, and said, “You’re FEMA aren’t you?”

I was startled by his recognition of me, and flattered. He had looked at me, not through me. I responded quietly, “Yes.”

We, each of us, understood the bond.

He was was obviously frightened. “FEMA’s paying for your room?” he said without introduction.

I understood his urgency immediately. I said, “Yes.”

“I have to leave. I got a call from FEMA.”

Everything that he was feeling, I had felt: the desperation, the fear, the vulnerability, the sheer terror of being told that you don’t belong, that you can’t stay, but you have nothing to go back to and no place to go forward; that empty, gut-wrenching reality that you did everything right, and now everything is so wrong. His fear triggered the advocate in me. It was 1970, when I saw a man in a wheelchair locked out of the public library on a cold rainy day.

“Was your house damaged?” I said.

“I lost everything.”

“I am so sorry,” I said. “Well, you are covered. They will pay for your hotel room.”

He repeated that FEMA had called to tell him he had to leave the hotel. “I have no place to go.”

“On Friday they extended the Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) Program, the
Hotel Assistance Program, until March 10.” I said. “It is o.k. You lost your house. You can’t go home. You are covered.” I was so sure. It was the right thing.

His face was blank, unbelieving. Insecurity was so much a part of our lives now.
“Where did you live?” I inquired.

” Lindenhurst. Cuomo was standing right in front of my house.” he replied.

“I’m sorry.” I said sadly. I knew Lindnhurst was really bad. But we all had really bad stories and really sad hearts. Oddly, none of us felt sorry for ourselves, just sorry.

“Listen to me,” I said, being pushy, “You don’t have to leave!” I was now an authority, giving out permissions.

He moved nervously about, looking for something solid to hold onto. “An insurance inspector who used to be a FEMA inspector told me early on, FEMA is going to deny you and deny you, and you have to keep appealing. Just keep appealing. And you will eventually get what you should.”. I told him. I had learned by dealing with FEMA that this was the truest advice anyone gave me.

But, he wasn’t convinced. He wasn’t ready. He was too much in the moment. We stood there together, him and I, trying to find some measure of security in fragments of information, success and failure, each of us had.

I told him to call FEMA, go to the FEMA website.

“Go to the American Red Cross.” I was running out of viable suggestions. They were sparse.

“The Red Cross told me they would help me, except, I am not working. If I was working, they would help me,” he explained. He told me he was a utility worker who did not work for two months each winter because of the weather. He said he was going back to work on March 11. He only needed the hotel room until March first.

“I don’t work,.” I insisted, like it would help. “I am disabled.”

“That’s different,” he explained.

I asked him what the FEMA caller said, because I knew they are all over the place, in professionalism, accuracy, and purpose. I knew that their communications were haphazard, confusing: lacking transparency and clarity.

He said he wasn’t sure. She wasn’t clear. He couldn’t understand her. That sounded right! Even the messages FEMA left were difficult to decipher. The letters were ludicrously unclear. They were an unfocused, transient bunch of people from all over: jabbing facts at you, impossible to locate afterward, moving on to another location before clarity or resolution, never following through. FEMA was an odd collage of documents and disorder: frustrating, accomplishing little. I suspected that he was a victim of FEMA shock, the trauma caused by the actions FEMA takes against the Hurricane Sandy victims, and its inaction.

I told him that it was announced on television on Friday that the Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program, the Hotel Assistance Program, was extended. That was the way it had worked. Every two weeks everybody covered by the Hotel Program was under threat of being thrown out into the street with no place to go. So far, at each two-week deadline it was announced that the Program was extended. Rumor is that this will continue until it is warm enough for people to live in their yards. Hearsay is that people in Breezy Point are living outside in tents in the winter cold. We each know people who were forced to go back into their homes without walls, without floors,without heat or kitchens. We each lost confidence in the system because of the way it treated us and those around us. We have watched FEMA consistently ignore, abandon, and devalue the survivors of Hurricane Sandy, and convert Recovery into a National Tragedy and the survivors into disbelieving, wandering refugees.

I told him the television said they were supposed to call each person to notify him that he was extended. I said maybe that was the call he received that was unclear. I never got a call.

I suggested that he call FEMA to clarify what it was about. He said he would go into the FEMA Headquarters in Lindenhurst tomorrow to get an answer.. That seemed like a good plan. I suspected that the call he got was really to inform him he was covered for another two weeks.

Sadly, I heard little that FEMA did that was positive, helpful or kind. I heard only terrible experiences of people being rejected, denied, devalued, depersonalized, threatened, dismissed, and thrown out. There was a current of frustration and hostility toward FEMA circulating among survivors. And there was misunderstanding by the public of the reality of the Recovery process. There was a strong bond among survivors for each other: for we were a new class of people, middle-class homeless people by natural event, looking for a way back, for stability, security, help, support, equity, justice; receiving nothing but indifference and callousness; supporting, maintaining and helping each other.

“Nobody is helping us.” he said. “Nobody cares!”

“I know,” I said.

Because that is the way it feels: everywhere you turn, a door slams in your face. You are told the money is gone, you can’t stay, you don’t belong. That is the experience of the survivors I meet! It doesn’t matter if they have no place to go, or small children, are sick, cold, or broke. I know that there are caring people out there. I just can’t see them..

There is little help, aid or support within the Recovery System: the systems are disorganized, unfocused, illogical, and uncaring. The media reports that each Sandy homeowner victim is receiving $30,900 in aid. I have met not one person who received such a grant. And, if you had Flood Insurance and paid premiums for that insurance, FEMA deducts that amount from any repair grant they allow to fix your home. People who had no Flood Insurance, received immediate pay-outs that far exceed those of insured survivors. So, instead of benefitting from being responsible, homeowners wait months longer than the uninsured, and receive a laughable pay-out.

But the most disheartening, is the public’s indifference to the plight of Hurricane Sandy survivors. This was a “massive event.” And, agencies and ordinary people are hiding behind that catch-phrase to go on with their lives and not be inconvenienced by those who are hurting and abandoned. There is so much gut-wrenching suffering among survivors, so much sadness, loss, and longing. And, the world went on without us. Nobody cares!

Locally, I see a divide at Merrick Road. The people below Merrick Road on the south shore of Long Island sustained loss and devastation in varying degrees, depending on how high their house sat on land. Some, lost basements and furnaces; some lost playrooms and garages; first floors; living rooms, kitchens and bathrooms. People who lived directly on the water, some of their houses were totally spared and some actually floated away. Many people, either because they lived on the water, or, like me, lived nowhere near the water but lived by a Sewage Treatment Plant and had a massive sewage surge throughout the house, lost everything. The survivors have an unspoken bond, and watch out for each other.

But sadly, the people north of Merrick Road never looked back. They prepared for the storm like the rest of us, but when their homes were spared, they watched the news, and then went on with their lives. A few took in friends or family who lost their homes, and they are heroes. But most went on, preparing for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and left the churches to feed and house the refugees, with no thought of what the holidays must be like for us. Christmas was the same as it always was for them, because a geographic quirk spared their homes from the “post-hurricane cyclone” that gobbled up our lives. I can only observe what I see.

So here we sit: the utility worker from Lindenhurst: the couple next door from Point Lookout with three screaming children; the 30-something couple on the other side of me, hiding their Yorkie under the covers when there is a knock on the door; the woman upstairs from Long Beach who fell in the shower and broke her wrist and ribs; the elderly church worker from Nassau Shores with an old car filled with carefully-wrapped antiques; and me from a Seaford sewer surge, who listens to their stories. We are each here, living in a hotel room begrudged to us, clutching a bag of our tiny treasures, in FEMA shock.

The utility worker walked past my room this afternoon and told me that FEMA did indeed throw him out: unemployed, with no place to go, refusing to give him any explanation. Everyone who leaves like this, takes a little piece of my heart with them. And I know that there, but for spinal cord injury, goes me. And I wonder if I am next!

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