A year after Superstorm Sandy catastrophically flooded hundreds of miles 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 jack 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.
In Long Beach, a barrier-island city of 33,000 on the coast of New York’s Long Island, residents in some neighborhoods say half their neighbors have yet to return.
“I don’t think Long Beach is ever going to be what it was,” said resident Ginger Matthews.
Sandy roared out of the Atlantic and struck the NY and NJ coasts on Oct. 29, 2012. The 1,000-mile-wide mashup of a hurricane and another huge weather system killed at least 182 people in the U.S., according to The Associated Press, and caused an estimated $65 billion in damage.
Out of that chaos came remarkable stories of recovery. But for every success story, there are tales of continuing frustration.
On Staten Island, where 23 people died, vacant lots have been multiplying on spots where homes once stood. Plywood covers bungalows, “Restricted Use” signs hanging on their front doors.
The Small Business Administration authorized $2.4 billion in disaster loans to over 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. FEMA 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 Dimond, director of storm recovery for NY 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.
New York state sent letters this month to 4,300 homeowners on Long Island, saying they had qualified for a collective $452 million in federally funded, state-administered rebuilding grants. The average award was $112,000 — a relief to people who had put off reconstructing their homes because they weren’t sure how to pay for the work.
New Jersey’s parallel rebuilding program began notifying 4,100 people of eligibility for similar grants at around the same time.
It is hard to measure exactly where the rebuilding process stands today.
Since the hurricane, “resiliency” has become the buzzword to better prepare the coastline for a day when sea levels are higher and big floods happen more frequently.
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.
Jacob said that 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.”