Displaced by Hurricane Sandy, and Living in Limbo

On December 6, The New York Times published an article titled Displaced by Hurricane Sandy, and Living in Limbo.

Displaced by Hurricane Sandy, and Living in Limbo

LONG BEACH, N.Y. — For Kathryn Fitzgerald and her young daughter, Megan, home was a modest three-bedroom house here, on a tightly packed segment of Delaware Avenue two blocks from the Atlantic Ocean. That was the only home that Megan had ever known, until Hurricane Sandy hit and a rank mixture of floodwater and untreated sewage rose to chest-high in the lower level of the house.

Since then, they have lived in rental apartments and Megan, now 9, attended an unfamiliar school in another town for a while as her mother appealed for enough aid to rebuild the life they had.

When inspectors arrived at Ms. Fitzgerald’s house in November 2012, they pronounced her house “substantially damaged,” meaning that more than half of its value had been destroyed overnight. But her homeowner’s insurance policy did not cover flood damage.

She had a federally subsidized flood insurance policy, but the company that wrote it offered her just $71,000. She appealed, arguing that her three-bedroom house had been worth more than double that, but her appeal was denied. She appealed again, and was again denied.

Lacking the wherewithal to start overhauling her house and believing that it was too vulnerable to another big storm, Ms. Fitzgerald paid $11,500 to have it torn down. Now she owns a sandlot surrounded by a fence bearing a sign that warns against trespassing.

“This has been a horrendously hard year for me,” she said. “If I don’t think of this in a way that is going to relieve the anger and upset, then I’ll just go back to crying every day.”

More than a year after one of the country’s largest-ever disaster recovery efforts began, Ms. Fitzgerald is among the more than 30,000 residents of New York and New Jersey who remain displaced by the storm, mired in a bureaucratic and financial limbo.

Imposing on relatives and draining their savings while pleading for assistance from a dizzying array of government agencies, they say they fear they will never get home.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it had provided $1.4 billion in direct aid to victims of the storm and $7.9 billion in flood insurance payouts, and that the Small Business Administration had made $2.4 billion in low-interest loans to homeowners and businesses. What it did not announce was that less than half of the people who sought emergency money received any, as an analysis by The New York Times of FEMA data shows, or that in many cases flood insurance covered only a fraction of the losses.

According to the analysis by The Times, in the areas in and around New York City that were hit hardest by the storm, almost half of the people who received assistance from FEMA got less than $5,000. Most of that money was intended to cover housing and other emergency costs immediately after the storm.

Hurricane Sandy was a storm like no other in the history of New York. It left more than 100 people dead and caused enormous structural damage that will take years to repair.

FEMA has received claims for nearly 16 million square feet of drywall, 56,000 furnaces and water heaters and enough paint to cover 43 million square feet.

But the most the agency gave in “individual assistance” to any single homeowner was about $36,000. The agency’s representatives instructed homeowners to file claims on their flood insurance policies, if they had one, and to apply for loans from the Small Business Administration, if they qualified. But as those first, small installments ran out, the frustration of negotiating with insurers added to the stress of being displaced.

“I think flood insurance underpayments is the single biggest reason for why the rebuilding hasn’t really taken off,” said Benjamin R. Rajotte, director of the Disaster Relief Clinic at the Touro Law Center in Central Islip, N.Y. “Frequently, people are coming in saying they received half or less of what it would take to rebuild their house, not even to raise them up but just to rebuild.”

Officials at FEMA, which oversees the national flood insurance program, said that adjusters had incentive to cover all eligible losses, but that some policyholders might be disappointed at receiving money for what things were worth, rather than what it would cost to replace them. Those with complaints may appeal the decisions.

Many residents of the region were also surprised to have claims denied for damage to the foundations of their houses because the damage was deemed to have resulted from “earth movement,” not storm flooding.

Some of those displaced, like Rochelle Grubb of Far Rockaway, Queens, had no insurance at all against a flood.

Ms. Grubb, 41, a special-needs teacher at Public School 256 in Queens, had allowed her flood insurance to lapse before her house on Beach 101st Street was inundated by the fast-rising water.

In early December, she said she had been tutoring and her husband, Timothy, had been working overtime to come up with the $270,000 they estimated it would cost them to rebuild.

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About Safeguard 
Safeguard Properties is the largest mortgage field services company in the U.S. Founded in 1990 by Robert Klein and based in Valley View, Ohio, the company inspects and maintains defaulted and foreclosed properties for mortgage servicers, lenders,  and other financial institutions. Safeguard employs approximately 1,700 people, in addition to a network of thousands of contractors nationally. Website: www.safeguardproperties.com.

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