Last Thursday was the type of the day that is the reason people live in Roxbury, the small hamlet on the western Rockaway Peninsula between Breezy Point and Riis Park. The warm summer sun illuminated the beige sand that scattered along the narrow walkway “streets” of the gated community.
A crowd of neighbors gathered in front of 402 Seabreeze Ave., where Lorraine and Doris Gresser anxiously waited to climb the steps to her front porch and walk into their home.
They have not lived there since Oct. 29, 2012 when Hurricane Sandy barreled through the community, which sits on the north side of the peninsula on the Rockaway Inlet facing Brooklyn, and brought with it over 6 feet of water. The storm destroyed the first floor of the home Doris, 73, lived in her entire life.
“I’m elated,” Lorraine Gresser, 49, said. “Once I have my cable and TV hooked up, I’ll be even more elated.”
Gresser and her mother have essentially been homeless since Sandy, living first with friends and relatives and later with her brother, who also lives in Roxbury, after he fixed his home.
The core of the Gressers problems stem from their lack of having flood insurance before Sandy. Because there was no mortgage on home, which has been in the family for nearly a century, they did not have flood insurance. But they did receive money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency from minor flood damage in the basement after Hurricane Irene.
FEMA requires residents who have received money for flood damage previously to have flood insurance in order to receive any payments in future disaster. Gresser did not know that.
“We didn’t have flood insurance because we never needed it before,” she said. “We’ve been here decades, we never saw anything like this.”
The lack of flood insurance triggered a bureaucratic nightmare for the Gressers. For a year and a half, little to no progress was made on her home.
Enter Friends of Rockaway and St. Bernard’s Project, two nonprofits that have been on the ground in Sandy-affected areas since the storm.
Friends of Rockaway began as a team assembled by a Rockaway native, Michael, got it’s start several months after Sandy doing mold remeditation work.
“We didn’t have the ability to redo kitchens and that kind of stuff,” said Todd Miner, director of Friends of Rockaway, in the Gressers’ new kitchen last Thursday. “But now that we’ve teamed up with the other organizations, we can do this. We did all the work.”
Those groups include the St. Bernard’s Project, a volunteer organization from Louisiana that got it’s start in the recovery from Hurricane Katrina there and is named for the Louisiana parish that was entirely submerged by the storm’s surge. Using grant money — in the case of the Gresser home, from Zurich Insurance Group, who donated $165,000 to Sandy recovery efforts — they took on the reconstruction of homes of storm victims in the Rockaways, Broad Channel and some in Howard Beach.
They began work on the Gresser home in early May — more than 18 months after Sandy. It took them two months to do what couldn’t be done in a year and a half.
Now the Gressers are finally back in their house, with a new kitchen, new living room, bathroom and porch.
“If we had waited for the government, we wouldn’t have gotten anywhere,” Gresser said.
But for those who are relying on the government, there appears to finally have been some improvement in their response.
Before leaving on his trip to Italy, Mayor de Blasio held a press conference in Brooklyn announcing that the city was on schedule to meet the goal of completing 500 homes by the end of the summer.
“Since we took office, construction has started on 132 rebuilding projects, including 30 that are now complete,” the mayor said. “So, not only are we seeing large numbers, and growing numbers, of construction starts, we finally have something in the year 2014 that we never saw in the year 2013 — completed homes, people whose lives are whole again because the city of New York did the right thing and helped them out.”
Amy Peterson, the head of Build it Back, outlined last Thursday the status of the city program and said the goal of 500 homes finished is within reach.
“We have 2,500 people who’ve said, ‘I want to move forward with a project,’ and we’ve got 653 that are in design,” she said. “Every week, we get more and more agreements signed between designers, contractors, and homeowners, and we move these projects forward. We’re very confident we’re going to get to the 500 goal.”
Problems remain, however. Some residents have complained that Build it Back has informed them it will not help reconstruct finished basements and cellars in flood zones because of regulations put in place by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development — the federal agency overseeing Sandy recovery operations.
But many residents said the issues that plagued the program in the first year to 18 months after Sandy, including lost paperwork and missed appointments, have been cleared up.
Still, the hard work is no where near over.
“There are still so many people, even here [in Rockaway], who are still homeless,” Miner noted, adding that Friends of Rockaway still has more than 100 homes to work on in South Queens and the Rockaways.