The Washington Post

Long waits for aid for Sandy victims in New York and New Jersey

As a second New Year since Hurricane Sandy approaches, many coastal residents are still waiting for New York, New Jersey and New York City to distribute billions of federal dollars that were intended to go directly to people struggling to rebuild their homes.

Only a fraction of that money has been spent, leaving storm victims at the mercy of a frustrating maze of bureaucracy. Depending on where they live, the checks could be days to many more months away.

“It’s enough to drive you crazy,” said Katie Fazekas, a teacher’s aide who has become so distraught over still being out of her damaged Freeport, N.Y., bungalow that she sometimes can’t get through the day without crying.

Checks could be in the mail by New Year’s Day for many storm victims, but major disparities are emerging in terms of how quickly people can expect to get help.

New York state officials say that in the past few weeks, they have sent out $88 million to 2,500 Long Island homeowners to reimburse them for repair work that wasn’t covered by insurance. The state has also asked federal officials for permission to immediately advance an additional $250 million to at least 3,000 more Long Islanders by Jan. 1. Those homeowners would also receive commitments for an additional $250 million, to be distributed once contractors have begun the work.

It isn’t clear whether that approval will come, but if it does, it would mean help for nearly all of the 6,000 Long Islanders who had applied for one of the state’s New York Rising grants by Nov. 6.

But in New York City, which is running its grant program independently of the state, officials say they are still plowing through 20,000 active aid applications and have distributed little of the $521 million they initially set aside for rebuilding grants to single-family homeowners and multifamily properties. The city has yet to conduct even an initial inspection of 89 percent of the homes in the “Built it Back” program. Only a handful of applicants have been able to start construction.

Deputy Mayor of Operations Cas Holloway said the program will ramp up considerably in January and February, but he said it would likely be June before the city finishes meeting with homeowners to tell them how much they will receive.

“We are doing it as fast we can do it,” Holloway said. He cited the huge number of applications — more than triple the number that came in on Long Island — and a laborious set of federal documentation and inspection requirements as the primary reasons for the delay.

New Jersey is occupying a middle ground. Of the 12,700 homeowners who were told they qualified for rebuilding grants, 900 had finalized grants worth a combined $95 million as of last week, state officials said. An additional 150 homeowners may get $15 million more by New Year’s Day. That represents a payout rate of roughly 18 percent of the $600 million initially budgeted for the rebuilding grant program.

Thousands more New Jersey residents have been notified that an award is in the works soon, but the majority of 8,200 qualified applicants have been placed on a waiting list.

Richard Constable, New Jersey’s community affairs commissioner, says the process is not moving as quickly as the state would like, but he said it has picked up steam.

“For us, this is a success now,” he said.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) defended the city’s performance at an event last week, saying it has gotten help to storm victims faster than any other U.S. city hit by a major hurricane.

Even before the rebuilding grant program was created, the city used Federal Emergency Management Agency money to restore electricity, heat and running water to 12,000 damaged homes.

“We cleaned up and got people back in their homes and back on their feet faster than anybody else,” Bloomberg said. “Now, if you were hurt, you’re going to say it wasn’t fast enough, I understand that. But, we’ve done a very good job.”

Congress approved about $60 billion in Sandy aid last January, setting aside a large chunk of that money for housing rehabilitation programs.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development took several months to develop rules for implementing those programs. The states then had to build a system for awarding them. Each region’s program is slightly different. New Jersey did an initial round of $10,000 grants to residents with damaged properties who agreed to remain in the same county after the storm. That aid totaled $180 million and was distributed more quickly.

Officials in both states and the city said many of the delays in getting rebuilding grants are related to HUD requirements. All homeowners participating in the federal program have to undergo a series of inspections, environmental reviews, insurance reviews and other evaluations intended to confirm eligibility and prevent fraud or overpayments.

Jeremy Creelan, special counsel to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), likened the process to running a gantlet. “From our perspective, these requirements are overly burdensome,” he said.

That’s something most homeowners would agree with.

Barbara vanAsselt said that she had been hoping for a New York Rising grant to repair her flooded home in Baldwin, N.Y., but was told that once the program deducted payments she had received from her insurance company and from FEMA, she didn’t qualify for additional help.

“They awarded me zero. Zero,” she said. “Somebody else will end up living in my house and I’ll be out on the street.”

— Associated Press

Geoff Mulvihill in New Jersey contributed to this report.

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