A year after Sandy, a slow recovery for thousands
DAVID B. CARUSO
Oct. 26, 2013
NEW YORK (AP) — A year after Superstorm Sandy catastrophically flooded vast swaths of eastern U.S. coastline, thousands of people still trying to fix their soaked and surf-battered homes are being stymied by bureaucracy, insurance disputes and uncertainty over whether they can even afford to rebuild.
Billions of dollars in federal aid appropriated months ago by Congress have yet to reach homeowners who need that money to move on. Many have found flood insurance checks weren't nearly enough to cover the damage.
And worse, new federal rules mean many in high-risk flood zones may have to either raise their houses up on stilts or pilings — an expensive, sometimes impossible task — or face new insurance rates that hit $10,000 or more per year.
Sandy roared out of the Atlantic and struck the New York and New Jersey coasts on Oct. 29, 2012. The 1,000-mile (1,600-kilometer)-wide mashup of a hurricane and another huge weather system killed at least 182 people in the U.S., according to a count by The Associated Press, and caused an estimated $65 billion in damage.
Floodwaters swept over densely populated barrier islands and pushed deep into bays and harbors from Atlantic City, New Jersey, all the way to Rhode Island. In New York City, the storm surge hit nearly 14 feet (4.3 meters), sending the Hudson and East rivers pouring into the city's subway and commuter tunnels and knocking out power to the southern third of Manhattan. Gas stations ran out of fuel. High-rise residents had to carry water up darkened stairwells. Thousands of fragile patients evacuated crippled hospitals and nursing homes.
Out of that chaos came remarkable stories of recovery. New York City's submerged subways and tunnels sprang back to life with surprising speed. Beach boardwalks were rebuilt. Mountains of debris were removed. Flooded schools, nursing homes and amusement parks have reopened. The whine of power tools hasn't ceased in many neighborhoods since the moment the floodwaters receded.
But for every success story, there are tales of continuing frustration.
On New York City's Staten Island, where 23 people died, vacant lots have been multiplying on spots where homes once stood. Sheetrock and debris still decorate front lawns. Plywood covers bungalows, "Restricted Use" signs hanging on their front doors.
On the Jersey shore, officials said that in the tiny seaside borough of Mantoloking, where the storm washed dozens of homes clean into Barnegat Bay, fewer than half the buildings in town had been repopulated.
While some beach towns quickly rebuilt their seaside promenades and beaches, Toms River, New Jersey, where hundreds of homes were destroyed, managed to rebuild only two blocks of boardwalk and had a small sliver of beach open this summer. Beachgoers had to walk past rubble and still-to-be-torn-down houses to reach the sand.
The federal government has responded by pouring money into the region.
The Small Business Administration authorized $2.4 billion in disaster loans to more than 36,000 households and businesses, though it has paid out only about a quarter of that to date as storm victims have tried to figure out whether they can or should take on more debt. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gave $1.42 billion to help storm victims pay rent, replace lost possessions and make emergency repairs. The agency gave another $2.7 billion to help municipalities clean up debris, repair critical infrastructure and reopen damaged hospitals. The federal flood insurance program paid $7.8 billion to nearly 132,000 policyholders who sustained damage during the storm.
But for some people, is hasn't been enough. Many had no flood insurance. And the process of getting federal aid money into people's hands has been slow.
Seth Diamond, director of storm recovery for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said the delays caused some homeowners to doubt that the program was real. But he said bureaucratic hurdles are getting resolved.
"We've gotten to the point where we can release money," he said.
It is hard to measure exactly where the rebuilding process stands today.
Neither the Federal Emergency Management Agency, nor state and officials in New York and New Jersey, were able to say this month how many people displaced by the storm have still been unable to return.
Building codes throughout the region are being overhauled to let homeowners build higher. There are projects to build protective dunes, elevate electrical infrastructure and erect sea walls.
Yet, despite all that, "We are as vulnerable today as we were a year ago," said Klaus Jacob, a research scientist at Columbia University's Earth Institute.
Much of the rebuilding work is simply putting people back into the path of future floods, he said. It is unclear whether people are really committed to planning for climate change.
If Sandy wasn't enough of the warning, Jacob said, people should consider this: If ocean levels rise the way many climate scientists predict, Sandy's catastrophic flood won't be a once-per-century event. The water may be that high all the time.
"Even," he said, "on a sunny summer day."
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writers Wayne Parry in New Jersey, Frank Eltman on Long Island and Meghan Barr in New York City.