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Six months after Sandy: 'Home sweet home' for some, others still adrift

John Makely / NBC News

Six months after Superstorm Sandy slammed into the Jersey Shore, a heavily damaged home in Mantoloking sits untouched.

BREEZY POINT, N.Y. -- The construction noises are almost constant at daytime in this coastal enclave six months after Hurricane Sandy, but for many residents whose homes were badly damaged, recovery is moving at a slow pace – or not at all.

Many of those displaced by the so-called superstorm say they are stuck in limbo, trying to raise money to pay for repairs or replace their homes while coming to grips with new, federal flood-zone maps that many fear will make it too costly for them to return.

“We're no better off than we were six months ago," said Kieran Burke, a fire marshal who lost his home to a massive fire that erupted at the height of the storm. " ... I'd like to have an idea when I can tell my wife our children can go home.”

Burke’s dilemma is not unique to hard-hit Breezy Point, where more than 75 percent of the homes were either consumed by fire or suffered flood damage.

Some 39,000 people in New Jersey remain displaced by the storm, Gov. Chris Christie said Thursday. The number of New Yorkers still out of their homes is unclear, though federal officials said 350 households in the affected region are still getting money for hotel or motel stays.

“We’ve just got the tip of the iceberg in terms of the amount of work that needs to be done,” said Michael Byrne, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's senior official in New York state for the Sandy response and recovery.

Though people now have some resources to rebuild, he said, they “still have some tough questions to answer ... especially people that are in high-risk areas: 'How do I rebuild?' or 'Do I leave, do I seek a buyout?’ So, there’s still a lot of tough issues to be worked out.” 

While some neighbors are almost ready to move back home, others are still unsure how much of their property can be rebuilt following the storm.

Sandy blasted ashore on Oct. 29 near Brigantine, N.J., leaving more than at least 147 people dead in its wake in the Caribbean and the U.S., according to the National Hurricane Center. Nearly 74,000 homes and apartments in New York and New Jersey, where it made landfall on Oct. 29, sustained damage, according to FEMA.

Some 450 homes in New York were destroyed by the storm, while approximately 46,000 in New Jersey were destroyed or sustained major damage, according to FEMA.

FEMA has given more than $1.3 billion to more than 180,000 Sandy victims in Maryland, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. The National Flood Insurance Program has paid more than $7.1 billion in claims.

                                     View an interactive panorama: Sandy-battered town, then and now

Some survivors whose homes sustained minor damage quickly returned home, as did some others who were able to shelter in place while they repaired and rebuilt.

But in devastated communities like the Irish-American enclave of Breezy Point, many residents had to wait for the gas, power and water to be restored and insurance funds to come through -- if they did -- while still paying mortgages plus rent.

“Some families and some lives have come back together quickly and well and some people are up and running,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said last week. “Some people are still very much in the midst of the recovery. You still have people in hotel rooms. You still have people doubled up. You still have people fighting with insurance companies, and for them it’s been terrible and horrendous.”

That seems a fitting description of Karly and Anthony Carrozza's situation in their neighborhood in Brick Township, N.J., which is dotted with “for sale” signs. Reconstruction work immediately ground to a halt in January, when FEMA released initial drafts of its new flood maps, which placed the community into the highest risk zone, they said.

John Makely / NBC News

Karly Carrozza and her husband, Anthony, can't start the rebuilding in Brick Township, N.J., until FEMA's flood zone map -- and the guidelines that come with it -- are finalized.

If the maps are finalized as drawn, residents’ homes would have to be raised 11 feet and placed on pilings. Some state residents who don’t meet the requirements could face flood insurance premiums of up to $31,000 a year, according to Gov. Christie.

“The cost to put this on pilings would not be worth the value of the house. It wouldn't make any sense,” Anthony Carrozza, 34, an equities trader, said this month of their small home on a lagoon.

But the couple would have to pay off their $300,000 mortgage if they wanted to demolish the house and start anew.

“We're all kind of in the same boat in a sense that until they have the final maps come out we can't make any decisions,” Karly Carrozza, 36, an account executive, said.

She has joined a group of New Jersey citizens facing the same difficult choices -- called Stop FEMA Now -- to advocate for changes to the flood maps. They also have recently ventured to New York City to band forces with homeowners there.

She feels if they don't act, their coastal community will never be the same.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, a bill has been reintroduced in New York that would provide legal protection for architects who volunteer their services during disasters. New York Assemblyman Steve Englebright, the bill's sponsor hopes it will be voted on by June. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown speaks with Englebright and also Lance Brown of the American Institute of Architects about the proposal.

“You could be in the middle class and enjoy a house on the water and I just feel like that's all going to change because a lot of the people around us who are going to walk away -- their homes are worth nothing,” she said. People who could afford to put the houses up to code "are going to come in and just scoop up the property," she added.

In the meantime, the couple is staying nearby with Karly's parents to avoid paying rent in addition to their mortgage. Tarp and plastic cover part of the inside of their home, which took in a few feet of water.

“There's people whose homes look much worse than ours, but it's almost like we're in no different of a predicament because our hands are tied,” Karly said. “We can't make any decisions, we can't move back. ...We're in no different a predicament today than we were the day after the storm.”

Shifting sands have covered nearly all remnants of Kieran Burke’s bungalow in Breezy Point.

The family home, which sat for decades on what were known as the “sand lanes” in this idyllic seaside community, burned to the ground with nearly 130 other residences in the fire – the largest in the city's modern history – that was triggered by the storm.

The Army Corps of Engineers removed the charred remnants earlier this year, leaving just sand across a broad swath of an area known as The Wedge.

John Makely / NBC News

Kieran and Jennifer Burke, with 2-year-old Kieran Jr., visit the lot where their home stood before it burned to the ground the night that Hurricane Sandy hit.

Located in one of the older parts of the private cooperative, Burke's home, like those of his neighbors, wasn't fronted on a city-mapped street. That means he will need approval from the NYC Board of Standards and Appeals on rebuilding plans.

The agency has vowed to expedite the process, and the Breezy Point Cooperative is working with architects to design homes that will meet expected new city building requirements, as well as those from the flood maps – a preliminary version of which should be released in the coming weeks. So Burke is still waiting to break ground.

“It’s devastating. It’s angering,” he said of the shifting planning landscape. “I’m paying a mortgage on an empty plot of land, we’re paying rent in a place that we're displaced in, that I have no conception of when I’m going to have the ability to move out of.”

Burke, a New York City fire marshal, and his wife, Jennifer, both 40, have a two-year-old son, Kieran Junior, and they just welcomed another boy, Matthew, a little more than two weeks ago. They've been living in an office converted into an apartment in Yonkers, north of Manhattan and about an hour's drive from Breezy Point.

“It doesn’t really seem to look any different than when I was here before, and I would have thought at least some of the other parts of it would have progressed a bit,” Jennifer Burke, a pharmaceutical research manager, said this month as she stood on the spot where her kitchen used to stand. “We’re just still waiting and still hoping. … The hardest part is just not knowing.”

A few blocks away, in a corner of the community facing Jamaica Bay, the Fischers have moved back into their two-story home, even though it sits amid empty lots where neighbors once lived and is still being worked on.

Christina and Barry Fischer, parents of five children, broke their lease early from a rental in northern Queens in late March because their FEMA rental aid ran out and they had expenses piling up (the FEMA money later came through).

Some painting, tiling, sanding and cabinet work is among what remains to be done on the first floor, but now their children – ranging in age from 5 to 15 – can ride their bikes on Breezy Point’s quiet streets, go to church or the store by themselves, play on the beach and catch up with friends who have returned.

When asked how it was to be home, one of the children, William, 10, exclaimed “Great!” as he snacked on Mallomars. “I can actually go outside.”

Miranda Leitsinger / NBC News

Georgia Fischer, 5, sifts sand with beach toys. She has Charcot Marie Tooth Disease, a common nerve disorder that can make it hard to walk, and apraxia, a speech disorder. Her parents had to re-arrange therapy and classes for her in the wake of the storm.

Nonetheless, the road has been hard, with Christina Fischer, 35, taking leave from her job as an adjunct professor at St. John's University in Queens to focus on rebuilding, including battling with the insurance over money and fighting for months to get help from the city's “Rapid Repairs” program.

That program, a first-ever federal-local initiative, offered to install free boilers, hot water heaters and do the necessary electrical work to restore power, but many who applied encountered long delays and sloppy workmanship when they did get service.

The family also has two special needs children whose classes and therapy sessions had to be re-arranged in the aftermath as people were displaced and classrooms flooded.

But the Fischers weren’t complaining in early April when a reporter met with them to take stock of how far they'd come. Tim, 7, pushed his bike through the sand, Georgia, 5, watched a movie on a computer tablet and the family dog, Scout, sat atop a pile of laundry as Barry Fischer, a 45-year-old electrician, tested out the new washer and dryer.

“The three greatest words in the English language: home sweet home,” Barry said. “There ... is nothing better.”


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