Residents Fume Over Long Wait for Hurricane Sandy Aid

While Boehner and Congress dither over a $60 billion aid package, weary residents are growing desperate about rebuilding wrecked homes and communities—and anger is rising as the House prepares to vote Friday on a $9 billion down payment.

When Phillip Goldfeder, an indefatigable 31-year old first-term state lawmaker, is asked which of his constituents is most likely to be waiting on Congress to approve the promised $60 billion in Sandy aid, he responds simply, “almost everyone.”

“The Army Corps engineers are talking about rebuilding the beaches, but they need to know the funding to come up with an immediate plan,” said Goldfeder, a former aide to Sen. Chuck Schumer. “And no one has a clue how it is going to be distributed. People need hope, and if we’re telling them that they may have a boardwalk next year or the year after, that only diminishes the feeling that this community is going to be rebuilt.”

And when Goldfeder says almost everyone, he really means almost everyone. The Far Rockaway split-level home he shares with his wife and two young children had four and a half feet of water on the first floor, taking out his office, den, and his kids’ playroom. And so as Congress prepares to vote on Friday on a long-delayed bill to provide $9 billion—out of a requested $60 billion—for flood insurance claims, he has a particular reason to be nervous.

“Personally I’m waiting on a payout from my insurance company, and it’s been two and a half months,” he said. “It could very well be that this $9 billion is what’s holding up my claim.”

Throughout low-lying areas in New York and New Jersey, this same cry is heard: we need help, Congress, and we need it now. On Wednesday, that cry boiled over into full-blown rage when House Speaker John Boehner tabled the relief package until the next session. Long Island Congressman Peter King, a Republican, urged locals to stop donating to the GOP. Staten Island Congressman Michael Grimm said Boehner should lose his gavel. (Boehner hung on to it.) New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Boehner’s move showed why “the American people hate Congress.”

The $9.7 billion that Congress will take up tomorrow is supposed to replenish the federal flood insurance program that all Americans who live in a flood zone have to pay into. The fund is dry because the amount that residents of low-lying areas pay into it does not equal the amount of damage that floods can cause, never mind for the moment those who live outside of flood zones but still face damage from the storm. Later in the month, Congress is expected to take up a second part of the bill, which would provide another $ 9 billion for future mitigation efforts, as well as $17 billion to flood-stricken communities to begin the process of rebuilding.

In the meantime, residents who found in some cases their whole lives swept away by Sandy are out of luck. The flood-insurance program allows them only to take up to $250,000 out of it, and affected residents can receive another $31,000 from FEMA, money that can go toward temporary housing. In many cases, however, that temporary-housing money is running out too, as motel bills add up as the weeks without a home stretch on.

Rockaway Resident Among Sandy Damage
A Rockaways resident sits among the damage done by Superstorm Sandy along the Belle Harbor section of the Rockaways in New York on January 3, 2012. (Andy Jacobsohn/The Daily Beast)
‘We’ve been screaming to get the funding we need, and so far we haven’t seen it.’

“FEMA and the federal governments have done a marvelous job cleaning up the blocks and getting sand off the streets, but that money dries up,” said Hank Iori, a retired Rockaway resident, as he surveyed the wreckage along the beach—dilapidated homes, uprooted water and gas pipes, and rubble from collapsed seawall barriers. When the storm hit, it dumped four feet of water into his basement, and Iori had to refurbish it himself. He told of a neighbor who had to pay $1,000 to scrape mold off of her walls. But Iori acknowledges that they’re among the lucky ones, because they could afford to fix up their homes themselves.

“Every family I know has burned through whatever money has been provided,” said Matt Doherty, the mayor of Belmar, N.J. “People are staying with family and friends. It is wrecking lives.”

Doherty surveys a Jersey Shore beachfront community that has watched its century-old boardwalk disappear, where the town had to pump 60,000 gallons of water a minute out of its flooded streets in the immediate aftermath of the storm. More than 7,000 tons of debris were removed from the town’s center.

Now, Doherty says, money from the federal government is necessary to begin rebuilding the boardwalk, which will symbolize to vacationers and small-business owners that this tourism-dependent community has come back to life. Plus, the town had to borrow to pay for clean-up, and so the longer it waits without the federal funds, the more borrowing costs get passed along to local taxpayers. The storm wreaked havoc, too, on the city’s sewage system, which now must be rebuilt—but can’t be until the federal funds come in. And every delay only makes the problem worse.

House Damaged by Sandy in the Rockaways
A house stands uninhabited and crippled due to damage done by Superstorm Sandy along the Belle Harbor section of the Rockaways in New York on January 3, 2012. (Andy Jacobsohn/The Daily Beast)

“Parts of our town look like it was hit by a bomb,” said Paul Smith, the mayor of Union Beach, 25 miles up the shore from Belmar. “I don’t understand what is holding them up. We don’t have the money to fix it on our own. We need help.”

That plea for help is one that stretches across the region.

“I think passing this bill will show the community that they’re not forgotten about,” said Goldfeder, the Far Rockaway legislator. “And that’s the biggest fear. we’ve been screaming to get the funding we need, and so far we haven’t seen it. People are in absolute shock that the measure might not be passed.”