I wasn’t sure what to expect when I walked over to the community center on Wednesday night for the NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer’s Sandy oversight hearing. I thought it would either be empty or filled to capacity. The hearing was held in order to hear residents out on everything they have endured, especially related to the Build it Back program, which the comptroller’s office is now auditing and has held similar hearings in other boroughs. The room was standing room only and the tension was palpable. Yet the resolve and respect for one another was apparent. I am not sure if they were quite prepared for the earful they received for two hours that night. I attended as an observer and as a member of the Midland Beach community who has witnessed the lack of progress first hand. I left drained and exhausted and I hope the comptroller and his staff did too.
As residents offered their stories to panel, there were numerous and random puzzle pieces, but common threads ran through each and every single tale. Residents are frustrated with the dead end phone calls, being pushed off to other agencies, endless paperwork and appeals only to find out the forms have changed, lapses in insurance coverage, having insurances dropped without notice, programs starting and stopping without notice, receiving incorrect estimates for home square footage, and getting different answers from every individual they speak with from one day to the next.
Many of those who spoke that night shared how the Rapid Repairs program had failed miserably. Many homeowners had repairs completed including electrical work, appliances, heating, pipes, and plumbing, only to have to replace all that work and pay out of pocket to fix the issues caused by contractors hired out by Rapid Repairs.
Despite the frustration, the room was able to share a chuckle over the insanity of these stories that are more akin to a movie plot and the irony of having to deal with attorneys who have been assigned by the very program under question–Build it Back–which has failed to come through for almost all who have registered. As quoted from the Staten Island Advance’s article “more than 4,600 single-family households on Staten Island have registered for the Built It Back program since the devastation of Hurricane Sandy.” The comptroller stated Staten Island accounts for about 24% of those registered for the program and that only one of those homes has been built–that also got a sarcastic laugh.
Other issues included residents who were told by Build it Back to go ahead with the repairs in their damaged homes. These repairs, though, are not small items. These repairs were needed to make their homes livable again. One resident said she made the repairs after being told she would be reimbursed, but there yet to be any agreed-upon guidelines for making the home compliant according to the revised flood zones. However, she is now being told that she will not be reimbursed until she raised her the elevation of the structure–which is attached to 12 other houses on Cedar Grove Ct. Another resident said she is concerned about being placed in the Tier 3 category based on income. Even though her home is heavily damaged, she is still considered Tier 3 because her income is too high for Tiers 1 or 2.
Other residents expressed what many have talked about before–their families have been here for decades. One woman who owns three bungalows continues to pay property taxes on all three even though two of them are vacant and current unlivable. Another was told she should either raise her home or sell it–she has lived here for more than 50 years and has experienced only two floods, one in the 1970s and Hurricane Sandy, with Sandy being the worst she had ever seen.
The comptroller admitted that he couldn’t give any concrete solutions that evening, but he had his staff take down names, addresses, and phone numbers, and vowed to follow up with each person. I have to give credit where its due, Stringer stood at the podium and simply listened to what each individual had to say. It was more of an attempt to help than most have seen since the storm. But so many are fed up and have had enough. They want to go home, they want to move on, but this city is making that impossible and these communities that have anchored this island for so long are suffering because of it.
Everyone could agree on one thing. Community organizations, neighbors, and friends are the ones who have provided the most assistance where it is needed most. This put a lump in my throat because it immediately brought me back to a sentiment a New Orleans resident expressed while I was there a few years ago–that organizations like Habitat For Humanity are the ones who truly helped people get back on their feet after Katrina, as government programs barely lifted a finger.
When Stringer asked if anyone had a good story, one man said he had one. He pointed to the audience and said it these fine people sitting in front of you, its the friendships and families who make the community what it is today. He also said we went from being in a flood zone, to being in the middle of a bureaucratic twilight zone. Truer words were never spoken my friend. Whether you understand exactly what has happened or not, whether you are a native or not, one thing that needs to be understood by anyone reading is that the people of this community are not waiting for a handout. Just because they are being pushed through the wringer, just because we live in a flood-prone zone, the men and women of Midland Beach and the surrounding areas are not going to just give up the fight. These are not vacation homes, these are not secondary residences. People have worked their entire lives, one generation after the next, for their homes. They want their house, their beach, their parks, their family’s home, back. They have lost not just their homes, but their retirement funds, college funds, vacation funds, everything they own. They want the answers they have been searching for since October 29, 2012. The roots here run too deep for them to just give up and walk away. This community is at an economical, political, social, and geographical crossroads but this is still home for so many not a maze of bureaucracy, and it needs to stop being treated as such.
Here is a short video, you can get a sense of what it was like listening to residents that evening.