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FEMA leaves many Sandy victims languishing

David Friedman / NBC News file

Joe Casale, far right, watches workers remove debris from his flooded home in Breezy Point, N.Y., on Nov. 1.

BREEZY POINT, N.Y. -- A first-of-its-kind home repair program pioneered by the federal government and local agencies has made thousands of New York City homes livable since Hurricane Sandy, but thousands of other homeowners are still waiting for help, and growing more frustrated with each passing day.

“Nobody communicates anything to you,” said Joe Casale, a 52-year-old service engineer who lives in Breezy Point with his wife, Katie, and three sons. “I have to keep on calling up and busting people’s chops to find out what’s going on. It’s ridiculous. … It’s not rapid for one. We started up on Nov. 15 and they’re just getting around to us now. … They held us back a good month I would say.”

Despite assessments like Casale's, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, widely vilified for its response after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, has mostly avoided a similar public relations disaster in the wake of Sandy. FEMA officials say that’s at least partly due to the Rapid Repairs program, aimed at getting victims back home quickly so they can focus on rebuilding.

The program, which provides free utility repairs and replacement equipment like water heaters and boilers to qualified homeowners, has restored services to more than 11,800 residences in New York City, officials say. Work is under way on about 1,900 more dwellings.

Two neighboring New York counties and two New Jersey communities are also running the same program, which they call STEP (Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power).

While the idea of Rapid Repairs initially received positive reviews, critics say the execution has been far from flawless. Nearly three months after the Oct. 29 storm, some 7,000 New York City households have not yet received help through the program.

That assessment is echoed by those still waiting, who tell stories of canceled or missed appointments, improperly installed equipment and a disorganized bureaucracy where their complaints fall on deaf ears. 

Barry Fischer, a 45-year-old electrician who also lives in this coastal New York City enclave with his wife, Christina, and their five children, called the program “nonexistent,” noting they had been waiting since mid-November for electrical work and a hot water heater. 

His wife, a 35-year-old college professor, said she had been going to the Rapid Repairs’ offices every day to find out when the workers would come to her home. She also made dozens of calls, chased contractors’ trucks through her neighborhood on foot and in her car, and one time even tried to cut them off and block them in with her vehicle in order to force a conversation. 

The final straw came last week, when she met a Rapid Repairs’ worker looking for a nearby home that is only occupied in the summer.

“I was really freaking out,” she said. “… And that’s terrible. Why should somebody be really that crazy in order to get assistance?”

David Friedman / NBC News

Christina Fischer plays with her disabled daughter Georgia, 4, and son Timothy, 7, who is severely hearing impaired, after school on Jan. 14 in Rockaway Beach, N.Y.

Officials overseeing the program acknowledge there have been missteps and say they understand the frustration building among those who still don’t have basic utilities. But they defend the premise of Rapid Repairs -- that residents can rebuild their homes much more quickly when they are living in them -- and vow to learn from the mistakes, some of which resulted from their efforts to act decisively.

The program was launched two weeks after the storm struck, leaving about 20,000 residential buildings in the city with some damage or disruption to their utilities.

“We thought that with some basic repair work … that would enable families to basically shelter in place, be in their homes, be safe and then begin the real work of rebuilding and doing it in their communities not away from (them),” Cas Holloway, deputy mayor for operations, told NBC News. “We wanted to move fast.”

For many Sandy victims, that’s what happened.

Nine general contractors hired by the city, who in turn have more than 100 subcontractors working with them, had completed repairs on more than 6,800 buildings, comprising 11,800 residential units, as of Jan. 21, according to the mayor’s Office of Housing Recovery. Crews had started work on about 1,900 others.

Mario Tama / Getty Images

Residents of the Northeast are still picking up the pieces after Superstorm Sandy.

About 3,000 other households opted out of the program for various reasons, including not wanting to wait for repairs, Holloway said, leaving fewer than 7,000 residences still waiting.

Homeowners had from Nov. 13 through Jan. 14 to sign up for the pilot program. The city will eventually submit the bill to FEMA, which preliminarily authorized spending of up to $500 million and is expected to reimburse between 80 percent and 90 percent of the cost.

The cost for each household is supposed to be about $10,000, though it could go higher depending on the work required, said Michael Byrne, the senior FEMA official in New York state for the Sandy response and recovery.

FEMA: What the program covers

FEMA said it no longer uses the ubiquitous travel trailers that were deployed to temporarily house thousands of Katrina victims, and Holloway and Byrne said mobile homes weren’t viable in the densely-populated urban environment of New York City. They also carry a hefty price tag of $250,000, and take months to set up, they said.

Those already helped by the program said they're happy with the results.

Fran McCabe, who responded to an NBC News inquiry about the program on Facebook, wrote: “Waited for weeks but finally got a hot water heater and then a few weeks later got a new furnace. Work crews were WONDERFUL. … We're very grateful to the city for this program. It would have been much faster to do the repairs privately but the cost was a hardship for us at this time.”

But for families like the Fischers, whose children include a 7-year-old son who is severely hearing impaired and a 4-year-old daughter with Charcot Marie Tooth Disease, a common nerve disorder that can make it hard to walk, and apraxia, a speech disorder, the intended jumpstart has proven to be a roadblock.

They still don’t have central heat, hot water or working toilets in their two-story home, which forced them to sign a one-year rental agreement on a house in Jackson Heights in northern Queens. They’ve had to dip into Barry’s 401(k) savings, since the FEMA rental aid doesn’t cover their entire rent, and they have to pay their mortgage and co-op fees on a home they can’t live in. Adding to the financial strain: Their insurance will cover just one-third of the $300,000 cost to rebuild. 

'Why ... all this insanity?'
While the city has an “active high priority list” for residents in the greatest need of shelter, including the elderly and disabled, and Christina had informed the program many times about her disabled children, she found out last week that they weren’t on it.

Finally, a Rapid Repairs’ plumber showed up with a new boiler last Friday, Christina Fischer said. In the days since, electricians have done most of the wiring though there is still no heating system for the first floor.

“I don’t understand why a family with disabled children would have had to go through all this insanity in order to get this done when this was the whole kind of point of the program … to help the people who needed it most from the get-go,” she said. “It came to me going there every day, me becoming very threatening for it to get done, and I think that’s really, really unfortunate.”

It's been two and a half months since Superstorm Sandy barreled through New Jersey and New York, but people are still desperately awaiting aid. NBC's Katy Tur reports.

Holloway, the deputy mayor of operations, and Byrne, of FEMA, acknowledge that there were challenges getting the pilot program up and running, which led to some delays.

Holloway said they switched from a “first-in, first-out” service model to a block-by-block method in order to avoid “wasting half a shift in transport.” They also had to order equipment and set up staging areas for it that were easy for contractors to access.

“There have been a lot of challenges setting this up,” he said, noting it was “unfortunate” some of the people who signed up early “probably have now had to wait longer than really they expected to and more than we would have liked them to.”

Holloway said the work has accelerated as the process has improved, noting that for a recent three-week period crews had worked on 100 homes a day on average. He said the program also is less expensive per household than mobile homes, though he could not say how much money the overall city bill will be.

Despite the problems, Byrne and Holloway both say they believe it could become a model for disaster response.

“I think it will end up being pretty remarkable that families are back in much faster than they might have been under a different model where you might … go rent a place for a year and then come back,” Holloway said. “… That is a terrible option for a homeowner and a family, and it’s terrible for a neighborhood.”

David Abramson, deputy director of Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said he was initially impressed with the Rapid Repairs’ concept because it addressed some key barriers facing communities when they begin the recovery process, such as having credentialed and trusted contractors.

But he said execution of the program has been spotty.

“I certainly don’t want to throw them under the bus so quickly because they’re having a lot of hiccups in the initial phase,” he said, “(but) they’re clearly having major issues.”  

“I think it falls in the category of good plan, poor implementation,” he added.  

Lucas Jackson / Reuters

Cranes work to remove several feet of sand deposited on Ocean Avenue by Hurricane Sandy in Sea Bright, N.J., on Oct. 31.

In the suburban New York City counties of Suffolk and Nassau, where the STEP program was announced in mid-November, more than 540 homes had been repaired by Jan. 15, out of some 2,350 households that signed up, according to FEMA.

The STEP program also is operating in two coastal New Jersey communities: Sea Bright, where 115 property owners have signed up, and in Ocean City, where enrollment data was not available.

Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long told NBC News work there is expected to begin in mid-March. A town meeting last week addressed STEP, and she said people were "grateful (for the program), they want to come home." Very few residents have insurance settlements, or they've come in much lower than their losses, leaving many of them in limbo.

Retired grandparents Jeanne and Burt Metz lost their home when Superstorm Sandy hit Breezy Point, New York. A volunteer organization told the couple that their floors and walls would be rebuilt – but little did the Metz family know that hundreds of people were working to resurrect their entire house. NBC's Rehema Ellis reports.

“Sandy devastated this little town,” she said. “We lost every business, 75 percent of our homes are not habitable. It’s a ghost town. ... Almost three months later, we are not getting very far. And so something like STEP at least gives us a chance to start moving back to the recovery.”

But some of those in New York City who are just beginning to receive help from Rapid Repairs said they wish they had never waited on it.

Casale, the Breezy Point engineer, had to take a loan from his brother-in-law to help cover repairs he and his wife started on their own.

They’ve done most of the electrical work, but with no heat and water, paint wouldn't dry and they couldn’t get someone to work on their kitchen due to the cold. 

They finally received a hot water heater and a boiler on Jan. 11, but after the installation was finished the boiler began leaking and shorted out the electronic controls on Monday. They’re now waiting for a replacement part to arrive. 

“It was one big fiasco after another,” Katie Casale, 49, a personal assistant at an insurance company, said Tuesday. 

On top of that, Joe Casale found out from Rapid Repairs on Monday that the contractor had already submitted a bill saying the work was complete.

“I’m paying rent and I’m paying a mortgage for three months, so how rapid is rapid?” he said. “It’s not a rapid repair. … We wanted to get back in here.”

Like the Casales, Christina Fischer said her family wishes they hadn't had to rely on the program. 

“Very few of us would have waited for Rapid Repairs if we all had the money to do this, but we don’t,” she said. The program is “a great idea … but winter’s upon us and it’s not done.”  


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