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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Is FEMA Picking Winners and Losers?

Anecdotal evidence and the results of my ongoing investigation suggest that the Federal Emergency Management Agency ("FEMA") is either inefficient, ineffective or incompetent.  Take your pick.  All three may be right.

FEMA apparently has given out checks rather quickly to some, often on little proof other than blind faith in the fact of real damage, while other homeowners claim to have not gotten a FEMA inspection -- never mind a check -- despite putting in claims the week of the storm.  Even more puzzling are reports that FEMA has overpaid to compensate for car damage -- like paying someone $10,000 for a 2002 Taurus -- while giving the owner of that same car only $6,000 for home repair.  And there are further reports that FEMA checks were written very quickly in the days after the storm -- and before Election Day -- while aid dried up and FEMA representatives became absent after Election Day.

(Question: Where are the state and local authorities?)

The depth of the destruction and impact on residents must be seen, felt and smelled to be truly understood.  Nearly one month after Hurricane Sandy's epic storm surge washed over the Long Island and New Jersey shore, the Rockaway peninsula and Coney Island (which were overrun) and Staten Island, a dusty, dirty film continues to coat the roads and really, all surfaces, in what I will call the "Dead Zone," the area where water rose to such levels to make those areas at least temporarily uninhabitable if not life-threatening.

Save for NY1 and News12 (both Long Island and New Jersey's versions of the Cablevision news channel), the major news outlets are focusing on the "sexy" stories of Manhattan flood damage and the destruction of the Seaside Heights beachfront amusement park. The reality on the ground is far grimier and grittier.

The local buildings departments have condemned a substantial number of homes in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey.  In New York City, a red sticker means it's uninhabitable.  Most Staten Island homes on the South Shore within five blocks of the beach have yellow stickers, meaning they need remediation.  The Coney Island peninsula, including Manhattan Beach, Brighton Beach and Sea Gate, has suffered significant infrastructure damage.  While homes and apartment buildings may have electricity and heat restored, many traffic lights south of Neptune Avenue in Coney Island and Hylan Boulevard in Staten Island remain inoperable. 

The worst damage appears to have been sustained in the Sea Gate neighborhood, lying on the west end of the Coney Island peninsula, appears largely ruined. Many brick homes appear to be virtual teardowns.  This area was very close to the ocean and had previously suffered flooding in nor'easters.  The epic storm surge (over 13 feet), combined with the timing at both a high tide and during the full moon phase, and further combined with waves estimated by one offshore buoy to be 30 feet above sea level apparently packed a force strong enough to level brick, stone and metal structures.

The Staten Island South Shore remains hard hit and appears to be the area where daily life has been the most disrupted. There is the semblance of normalcy; buses are running, and there is a fully-open shopping center in the Oakwood Beach area (Hylan Boulevard and Tysens Lane) that itself appears to have suffered little to no damage.  But a major supermarket was virtually empty on Black Friday, with the number of shoppers which one would expect late at night. And no wonder, for this shopping center lies just three blocks away from a Dead Zone.  Go south those three blocks, cross a road called Mill Road, and one suddenly crosses into a different world. A dirt film covers everything, street lights no longer work, and portable generators power sharp, bright floodlights serving as beacons of a police presence that one finds on seemingly every second street corner.  There are now outdoor relief tents and virtual outdoor supermarkets on the sidewalks of Midland Avenue, the main drag leading from and perpendicular to the beachfront.  This area remains without power (except for generators). 

In the South Beach, Midland Beach and New Dorp Beach neighborhoods of Staten Island, these portable floodlights and a police car are a presence on many streets.  No doubt this is to help guard against looters.  However, the hardy residents insist on staying in their homes (if they haven't been condemned) to keep out looters, even in the face of going without lights or heat on the cusp of winter.  This fortitude, the desire to guard one's home, was actually the cause of several deaths in Staten Island; one family who evacuated their Tottenville home during Hurricane Irene in August 2011 only to find it ransacked after that storm decided to stay this year -- and three people either drowned or were crushed by falling debris.

To the outside world, these people go about their business. They drive around, or walk to the main drag to catch the bus.  No doubt, this is to get some heat, some entertainment, to be with friends.  (Without power, you realize how much you are "cut off" from the world if you depend on the Internet and social media for your social interaction.) But at home, their existence is in a dark, unlit, unheated home.

Unlike the Jersey Shore, where most ruined homes were second homes, the destruction in Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, and much of the Atlantic shore in Nassau County too, was sustained by primary residences. For them, relief and a true return to normalcy will be slow indeed.

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