Five weeks have passed since the long night when Superstorm Sandy bludgeoned the Northeast with storm surge flooding and high winds. A few miles inland, where the winds were moderate and the flood waters did not penetrate, life is back to normal for most people. But on the shores, the trouble is just beginning.
Nassau County remodeler Sal Ferro, President of Alure, Inc., says, "You've got two Long Islands. You've got one where the people are fully recovered; they've moved on with their lives. And you've got one Long Island where they're living with devastation. And the first Long Island — the one that is all fixed — the key right now is not to get desensitized to really what's going on out there."
Remodeler Sal Ferro estimates a tree-damage repair job in central Long Island in early November (above). Areas hit by wind only are quickly returning to normal, says Ferro, but the southern shore of the island is still living in a world of hurt.
Remodeler and jlconline.com forum moderator Mike Sloggatt agrees. "Mainland life is pretty much getting back to normal, that's for sure. Just don't go down to the affected areas."
Ferro's own headquarters were in the dark for two weeks after Sandy hit. But the day after the storm, his crews were already at work repairing wind damage. Although he runs one of the nation's largest remodeling companies, with a vice president of operations, four directors of operations, and dozens of project managers and salespeople under him, Ferro himself was out on the street the day after the storm, selling and estimating jobs (see photos, above).
"There were three kinds of damage from Sandy," Ferro says. "In the central part of the island, you've got wind damage — not so much from blow offs, but tree damage where the trees hit the homes. We've been doing a lot of those repairs. The second type is storm surge damage. The surge was 14 feet, 18 feet in some places, and people had four feet or six feet of water in their homes. So that's restoration work: getting to it before mold breeds, going in there and cutting out the sheetrock from that point down, drying the place out, remediating it, and then redoing the electric, sheet rock, spackle, tape, cabinets, whatever's necessary. Then the third type of damage is where it was a combination of the wind and the storm surge, and homes were just destroyed — totaled — and they need to build new homes completely."
Ferro's crews and skilled trade contractors are now participating in the FEMA-funded STEP ("Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power") program. Temporary lodging is critically scarce on Long Island — "hotels are all filled up, and there's not much space on most of these properties to put FEMA trailers," says Ferro. So FEMA is paying carpenters, electricians, and plumbers to accomplish just the few short-term patches that will make homes suitable for shelter while long-term restoration is underway: "A couple circuits, a couple lights, baseboard heat, a small 25-gallon hot water heater — just enough to get these houses livable," says Ferro.
Local governments are administering the program, and Ferro's people are doing a lot of that work. And Ferro himself has been pounding the pavement for STEP. "I knocked on 150 doors the other day," he says. "I want to be part of it. I need to see what's going on out there." But he says many houses are far from ready to be occupied, even on a temporary basis: "Without a doubt there is a lot of demolition still needed, a lot of mold remediation."
Thousands of jobs are hung up in paperwork. "People with flood insurance are still waiting to find out what their settlements are going to be," says Ferro. "The companies that write the flood insurance are regulated by FEMA. So the insurance company determines what they think is needed then they have to go to FEMA and get approval. It's a much slower process."
Severe flood damage has made many homes uninhabitable. Miles inland and 80 feet above sea level, Sloggatt's house was not flooded. But Sloggatt is now sheltering a friend whose home was ruined by water. "He's going to be here for an indefinite period," says Sloggatt.
Sloggatt makes most of his money these days as a technical trainer and educator ? he doesn't depend on remodeling for income. So in Sandy's aftermath, he says, "I've chosen to help those who are less fortunate than the rest. All of my efforts have been volunteer."
Credit: Mike Sloggatt
Volunteers carry ruined drywall torn out of the below-grade living space of a flooded Long Island home. "Personal protection is critical," says Mike Sloggatt. "You do not know what was in that flood water, and you have to protect yourself."
A member of the Jehovah's Witnesses church, Sloggatt has been working with that church's organized disaster response program to address the emergency needs of church members and others. "We've been going in and helping mostly elderly individuals that aren't in a position to respond on their own." In the working class neighborhoods of the south shore, and especially in the Rockaway Peninsula in the New York City borough of Queens, Sloggatt points out, many residents did not have flood insurance. "They can't afford to spend $2,000 or $3,000 a year for flood insurance," he says. "They just don't have the money."
Even if people did carry flood insurance, Sloggatt says, the rules are tricky. Personal property in a basement isn't covered (although furnaces, washers, dryers, and freezers are). Finished basement spaces aren't covered for repairs to materials such as insulation, drywall, trim, paint, or flooring. And on Long Island, homeowners are learning that if your first floor is even a few inches below grade, according to your flood policy, it's a basement. Residents of split-level homes, with part of their living area three or four feet below grade, have taken a bath. And as mold spreads, the clock is ticking.
"Whether they have insurance or not," Sloggatt says, "we go in and immediately stabilize the home, clean, and sanitize. And if necessary, we will winterize. Then when it comes to rebuilding, that's done on a case by case basis, depending on their needs and their own resources."
For Sloggatt, it has been a crash course in the fine points of insurance. "Some people are fully insured. They've got flood insurance, they've got contents, they've got everything they need. They can be handed off to a contractor." Where insurance doesn't seem adequate, says Sloggatt, "we have professionals who can assist, say, an 80-year-old man who doesn't know the cost of rebuilding. Some of these policies are generous, some are stingy. If a guy gets six grand to repair his house and he has a bill for 15 or 30 thousand, how does he do it? So we have a public adjuster who can review the documents, write what the adjustment should be, and say, ?yes you got a fair deal or no, you didn't get a fair deal.'"
Where insurance is inadequate, says Sloggatt, residents may qualify for direct aid from FEMA. "We have a 92-year-old woman who did not have flood insurance," says Sloggatt. "She couldn't afford it — she could barely pay the taxes. And she got a foot of water in her living space. She's not insured for anything. So we advocated that she go to FEMA. FEMA allowed her $17,000. The damage to the house far exceeds that. So we're helping prepare for her a legitimate estimate so that she can go back to FEMA and say, ?Look, I've got $40,000 worth of damage. Can we re-adjust this amount?'"
FEMA's maximum aid amount is only $31,400. Still, that's direct aid — and help is help. "I know a fellow whose basement was flooded, and he got $18,000 from FEMA," says Sloggatt. "I don't know if he can rebuild it for that or not, but at least it's something to work with. And that's a grant. They stick it right in your bank account."
Miles inland from the destructive storm surge, Ferro and Sloggatt escaped the direct onslaught of Sandy. Other contractors weren't so lucky. They aren't ready yet to help their communities — they're still experiencing life in Ferro's "second Long Island." One such is JLC subscriber and custom builder Mark Weinbrecht of Massepequa, N.Y.
"We live on a river directly off the Great South Bay," Weinbrecht told Coastal Connection in an email. "Our home was hit with four feet of water that devastated our entire first floor. We spent two days preparing for the storm (after lessons learned from Irene), but never expected anything remotely like this." Family, pets, and his home's second floor all survived safely, says Weinbrecht. "But I lost one vehicle (my truck, the 'escape' vehicle) — which, even though it took on 4 inches of salt water, still started the next morning and got my family, pets, and a neighbor to high ground (gotta love Chevy's). The truck was later declared a total loss by the insurance company."
Cleanup started immediately, says Weinbrecht. "My own crew was tied up dealing with their families' hurricane-related problems for a few days," he says, "so we enlisted the help of six of my daughter's best friends who volunteered. Nine people cleared out most of the water-damaged appliances, carpeting, furniture, and pumped out the crawlspace that day. By the first weekend my own crew was back and we began to gut the entire first floor. All of this was being accomplished with power provided by one 3500-watt generator (we lost power at 6:00 AM the morning of the storm and would not get it back for 13 days)."
Recovery is a full time job since Sandy, says Weinbrecht: "Our rebuilding efforts continue seven days a week. I have only been to one customer of my own in the past month. My longtime clients all have been extremely understanding and helpful. Between my own home and helping several neighbors, that's about all I will have during the next month and a half."