Still Not Home Six Months After Sandy

Piles of trash brought on by Hurricane Sandy – pictured in this photo taken on Nov. 6, 2012 – may be gone from Rockaway streets, but life still struggles to go on for many who remain displaced. (Photo from Flickr Creative Commons License)

In the weeks and months after Hurricane Sandy, media coverage began waning but for some publications based in hard-hit areas, like the 120-year-old Rockaway newspaper, The Wave, Sandy has never been far from its pages.

With yesterday marking the half-year anniversary, Wave reporter Katie McFadden takes a look at the progress, or lack thereof, in the Queens neighborhood.

Mountains of trash have disappeared from the streets, and local schools and some offices and stores have resumed operations. But with many residents still displaced, business is down. At Bryan’s Auto Shop, for example, owner Bryan Bernath says he’s seeing only 65 percent of the business he had before Sandy. He describes the one ongoing challenge that continues to plague areas like the Rockaways.

“We need people to get back to the neighborhood. We need people to start shopping again. We need everyone’s lives to get back to normal to get local businesses back to normal,” Bernath said.

On the other hand, one industry flourishes.

One business that has been booming is real estate as more and more properties go up for sale, though many at prices considerably lower than they were pre-Sandy. Real estate agent Robin Shapiro said most of them are being sold by elder residents who decided that they’ve had enough.

As agencies work to restore beaches and trains, officials are eying the warm months as a chance to bring much yearned-for activity to the area.

The City and local politicians hope that summer will boost the activity and the economy on the peninsula. That means bringing the beach back. The Parks Department has promised that the beaches will be open by Memorial Day weekend and they’ve been working around the clock to make boardwalk islands for the concessions and pricey lifeguard stations.

The MTA is also working to restore service to Rockaway’s only train. Without the A train, residents are currently dealing with long, crowded commutes on alternative transportation, but the MTA says it hopes to have the A back up and running sometime in June.

But what officials seem to have placed on the back burner are means of preventing a repeat of Sandy.

One thing that doesn’t seem to be a priority is protection. Officials recently announced that one million cubic yards of sand will be replenished from Beach 89th Street to Beach 149th Street by June and another 2.5 million cubic yards will be added along the entire beach starting sometime in August. Baffle walls with four feet below the sand and four feet above ground are expected to go up from Beach 126th to Beach 149th Street and jersey barriers will be set up along Shore Front Parkway, but a date has not been set for either project. There is no set date for jetties either, which Senator Chuck Schumer said would be coming as well. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must complete a study to evaluate what forms of protection would be most effective.

Officials had set today as the day of termination for the city-funded program that paid for hotels for displaced Sandy victims. The Village Voice reports, however, that last night, “a state supreme court ordered that the city temporarily halt its eviction of Hurricane Sandy victims from hotels.”

But the extra time gives little comfort for the displaced residents. Gotham Gazette’s Chester Soria reports on the state of the hotel programs in an article published prior to the temporary curbing of hotel evictions.

The impending termination of the hotel programs, and the fact that many families displaced by Sandy continue to be in limbo, is one of the legacies of the hurricane. Officials have said about 10,000 homes in the state were damaged or destroyed by the storm.

The federal government said on Friday that it had approved a $1.7 billion state plan for rebuilding. The city is receiving its own pool of funds, $1.8 billion, but its plan has not received approval. Both city and state officials have funds will be directed toward helping homeowners rebuild.

But the hotel program under the city may not be reimbursed by the federal government, and it’s unclear whether more money would be made available to house families in hotels.

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilwoman Annabel Palma – who chairs the Council general welfare committee – sent a letter to Department of Homeless Services Commissioner Seth Diamond in which they questioned whether the April 30 deadline would be realistic for the 196 households who do not qualify for the available housing options. The letter was delivered last Friday after an hour-long hearing on the hotel program, in which Diamond testified.

As of Friday, Diamond said 488 households — about 1,000 people — were still in the hotel program, which has cost the city $40 million and involves some 50 hotels. Some 290 households will remain in hotels until the end of May because they have established clear transition plans, he said, with 43 households waiting for repairs to be completed and 249 going through the city’s public housing application process or Section 8.

Of those households, however, he said 196 don’t qualify for existing programs or rejected apartments that they were qualified to take.

Diamond said case managers continued to work with those remaining households to help identify more sustainable alternatives for them.

But during the hearing, Council members that represent some of the most storm-ravaged neighborhoods expressed skepticism that enough was being done to help those remaining families find more permanent housing solutions.

For Cherrell Manuel – who has been living with her four kids at the Park Central Hotel by Times Square and goes apartment hunting from 6 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. everyday – it’s as if the city ignores the fact she, and others in her position, have been diligently trying to find housing.

“They’re acting like we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do,” she said. “We’re up and about every day and there’s nothing more we can do. We can’t make landlords take us.”

She said she had scoured advertisements for rental apartments in newspapers, Craigslist and from Section 8, and has seen a little more than 40 apartments. But landlords will reject the family for a variety of reasons, including the ages of her children. She said they said the youngest is 7, the eldest 25.

“All we want is for the city to help us. We want them to stop feeling like we’re sitting in a hotel, relaxing like this is a vacation,” Manuel said. “We need help. And we need people that are going to work with us. We don’t need people who don’t understand our situation.”

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