Washed out by Hurricane Sandy, a growing number of New Yorkers are finding themselves facing a second challenge — the FEMA shuffle.
More than 230,000 New York storm victims have applied for housing help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the feds have approved $664 million. But untold numbers haven’t been so lucky, rejected by FEMA for a host of reasons that range from the ridiculous to the confounding.
Jennifer O’Connor and her fiance, Brendan O’Connor, experienced the FEMA shuffle in a mind-boggling series of rejection letters, followed a month later by a $2,486 check.
Jennifer and Brendan, both 35, live in a first floor apartment on Beach 117th St. in the Rockaways. Hurricane Sandy flooded their unit with 3 feet of frigid sea water that ruined pretty much everything they owned.
“Everything below (3 feet) was gone — all my art reference books, all of my clothes, my bed. It was devastating,” she said.
The couple applied for rental assistance separately. Jennifer got the first rejection notice, a form email she received from FEMA’s National Processing Center 270 miles away in Hyattsville, Md.
It started off with the phrase, “Ineligible — Insufficient Damage,” then listed the Total Grant Amount: $0.00.
When Jennifer appealed, she was denied again, but for a different reason. Now she was told she and Brendan couldn’t both apply because FEMA had decided they were related. Both happen to have the same last name — and the same birthday. They haven’t gotten married yet.
“The (FEMA) woman on the phone was trying to convince me that we were brother and sister,” Jennifer said last week. “And they weren’t very polite about it either.”
Last week Brendan finally got a check for $2,486 — nearly a month after the couple found themselves homeless. They’d spent that time moving from friend to family members, and can no longer return to their apartment.
In 2005, FEMA was excoriated for its disorganized response to Hurricane Katrina. This time around it’s received more praise than criticism from officials, though animosity toward the agency seems to swell in waterfront areas most affected by the storm.
By last week a growing number of homeowners in Howard Beach and the Rockaways in Queens had come forward to complain about FEMA denials that left them confused and angry.
FEMA provides grants of up to $31,900 for both homeowners and renters for either repairs or lost contents — but only for damage not covered by insurance.
In the last few weeks, the agency has sent out form rejections even though homeowners and renters still haven’t heard from their insurers about what’s covered and what isn’t.
Public Advocate Bill de Blasio fielded dozens of complaints from Howard Beach homeowners when he held a town hall meeting there last week.
“I’m seeing this kind of problem all over,” said de Blasio, who encourages FEMA applicants to appeal denials. “It’s much more complicated than it needs to be.”
Scott Chamberlain, the FEMA official overseeing New York’s Hurricane Sandy assistance, said it's tough to make a clear determination about total aid when it's not yet clear what is or isn't covered by the homeowner or renter's insurance.
"That's part of the problem right now," he said.
Benjamin Lawsky, superintendent of the state Department of Financial Services, said there weren’t enough available insurance adjusters and homes weren’t getting inspected quickly enough — an essential step before FEMA can dole out grant money.
Homeowners, in particular, were encouraged to file quickly with FEMA. But with no adjuster showing up to sign off, FEMA automatically sent out denials.
The Department of Financial Services, which regulates insurers, fielded dozens of complaints from homeowners who felt trapped between FEMA and insurance companies.
“We have a game of ping pong,” said Lawsky. “The homeowner goes to the insurer, they won’t give him an answer, then he goes to FEMA, they won’t give him an answer.”
George Ebert, 48, knows all about this game.
First FEMA told him he wasn’t eligible for aid because the ground floor of his Rockaways home a block from the ocean was covered by flood insurance. Then his insurer decided otherwise, insisting his ground floor was really a basement and therefore only eligible for minimal coverage.
“This is the slow grind I go through,” Ebert said. “It’s insane.”
Rockaways resident Inita Young lives in a Housing Authority apartment that the city has said is too dangerous for her to stay in.
After knee-deep floodwaters receded from her first-floor apartment, mold began to flourish in nearly every room. For nearly a month, she and her family lived with it, though experts say the spores aggravate asthma and are unhealthy to breathe over prolonged periods.
“That’s why they sent the man with the white suit to get the mold out,” Young said.
Nevertheless, FEMA denied her request for rent assistance, declaring her apartment suffered “insufficient damage.”
Renter Liz Breslin-Smith experienced a different set of dance steps in her tango with FEMA. She was able to get $3,000 in rental assistance. Then she hit a wall seeking coverage for some of what she lost to Sandy.
She and her husband, Kevin, and 5-year-old son, Quinn, rented a home on Beach 132nd St. in the Rockways. During the storm, the basement — which included their living room, dining room and office — flooded to the ceiling with sea water.
Everything was destroyed, and though the family has rental insurance, it doesn’t cover flood damage. So she turned to FEMA for compensation for contents she estimates were worth $150,000.
FEMA told her she couldn’t get coverage until she applied for a Small Business Administration loan and was denied. She filled out the SBA paperwork and now — a month after the storm — awaits her fate.
“It’s discouraging,” she said. “I can see why people just give up. Who has time to be doing all of this?”