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Queens Chronicle

Frustrated residents lash out at meeting

Con Edison, FEMA, insurance in hot seat at Howard Beach meeting

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Posted: Thursday, November 29, 2012 10:30 am | Updated: 11:46 am, Thu Dec 6, 2012.

Typically, the auditorium at PS 146 in Howard Beach is packed with loud, energetic children. It often takes several minutes to calm them down for an assembly.

But on Nov. 20, it was not the students of PS 146 who were making noise in the assembly hall, rather their parents and neighbors.

The school — which survived the hurricane relatively unscathed compared to neighboring homes and its fellow school on the other side of the neighborhood, PS 207 — played host to a town hall meeting sponsored by Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder (D-Far Rockaway) and state Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) and featuring representatives from Con Edison, FEMA, Verizon and state Department of Financial Services aiming to dispel rumors and answer general questions related to the neighborhood’s recovery from Hurricane Sandy.

But Goldfeder and Addabbo spent much of the time refereeing a battle between the residents and the agencies, and sometimes residents against each other.

And many of the more than 100 people who came to the meeting had a gripe with another group that was not present — the insurance industry.

“I work for the insurance industry and I’m ashamed of them,” screamed one resident from the back of the hall.

At issue was the “hurricane deductible,” which many homeowner’s insurance policies were told did not apply after Sandy because the storm lost its status as a hurricane as it made landfall in New Jersey.

But while that means most people will not have to pay out of pocket before homeowner’s insurance kicks in, for those in Howard Beach who do not have flood insurance, the ensuing damage from the storm surge is not covered.

Homeowner’s policies typically do not cover flood damage, but residents in Howard Beach argue that the storm surge was not a “flood” but rather a product of wind stemming from when the storm was a hurricane over the Atlantic Ocean.

One resident pointed out that because Howard Beach is in Zone B, which was not evacuated nor expected to sustain heavy storm surge, residents have always been encouraged not to buy flood insurance.

Howard Beach was hit by a storm surge once before — when Hurricane Donna lamded on Sept. 12, 1960 — but in that storm, the waters did not reach as high as they did in Sandy. Since then most of the neighborhood, with the exception of low-lying portions close to Coleman Square and along Shellbank Basin, were thought to be immune to a storm surge from a Category 1 hurricane, as Sandy was.

However, because Sandy had the barometric pressure of a much larger and stronger hurricane and arrived at high tide during a full moon, the storm surge was much higher than what is typically expected. In the days after the storm, many in Howard Beach wondered why Zone B was not also evacuated. One resident of the neighborhood died in the storm: 85-year-old Rose Faggiano, who drowned in her home on 98th Street due to the storm surge.

For those without flood insurance, FEMA stepped in to help, but many were either denied funds or received different amounts than their neighbors.

Con Edison spokeswoman Carol Conslato also took heat from angry residents who were still frustrated at the amount of time it took the utility to get the lights back on in Howard Beach and for the cumbersome process to repair equipment in homes damaged by the storm surge.

New York City law requires residents whose electrical systems were flooded by the surge to get an electrician licensed by the city to make the repairs and certify with Con Edison that their homes are ready to receive power.

But some residents were angry at the law for forcing them to spend up to $1,000 on electricians to check out their homes

“It’s a city law that we need to follow,” Conslato said.

Goldfeder encouraged residents who cannot afford to hire an electrician to take part in Mayor Bloomberg’s NYC Rapid Repair program, set up to help those who cannot find or afford licensed electricians, but residents say the program is plagued with long waits. Goldfeder agreed.

“Believe me, if it was my program, it would be organized a lot differently,” he said.

The lack of licensed electricians is also a problem, causing a backlog that is leading to a sometimes week-long wait for someone to look at the equipment. As a result, some residents still remain without power nearly a month after the storm. That situation exists on a larger scale in the Rockaways, where 16,000 customers remained without power into Thanksgiving weekend.

Verizon representatives said their cables under Cross Bay Boulevard suffered severe damage, as did one of their centers in Belle Harbor. An engineer with the company said they were not rebuilding their old cable lines in the neighborhood and encouraged customers who have cable to switch to FiOS, which runs on fiber optic lines already up and running in most of Howard Beach.

Another issue that remains is when PS 207 will reopen. The school at 159th Avenue and 88th Street was badly damaged in the storm and more than 32,000 gallons of oil leaked in its flooded basement.

“We do not have a definitive answer to that yet,” Addabbo said. “Some say end of the year, others say spring, but we don’t know for sure.”

A number of residents also complained about there being no central staging area in the neighborhood where FEMA and other agencies are present to take questions and walk people through application processes. The closest center to the community is at the American Legion Hall in Broad Channel, which a number of residents say is not convenient for the many Howard Beach residents who lost cars in the hurricane.

Goldfeder said he had suggested the agencies open some sort of center in the neighborhood and that he would ask Gov. Cuomo’s office about that.

Nearby, Addabbo took his phone from his pocket and began typing away.

“You’re not listening to us, you’re texting!” a resident demanded.

Addabbo grabbed the microphone to defend himself, noting that he was sending an email off to the governor’s office with their request.

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