New York Rising is a Scam

As most people who know me are aware, my house, on Long Island’s south shore, suffered heavy flooding on October 29, 2012 as a result of Hurricane Sandy, when the water level of a nearby bay rose several feet above its historic high and filled my house up like a bucket. My house was not in a flood plain – even today it’s not considered a flood risk according to the latest maps – so we didn’t have flood insurance.

We stayed as long as we could, and planned to ride out the entire storm in our house, but once water started pouring down the driveway and filling up our garage and first level (finished living space) we decided to vacate. We spent the night at a friend’s house, far from the water.

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The driveway, which slopes down from the street to the first level.
The next morning, I drove back to my house to check out the damage. There was about a foot of water still in the house, but the high water mark inside the house showed it had gotten to about 40 inches – level with the street outside. Everything downstairs was ruined. Washer, dryer, fridge, boiler, water heater, couches, TVs, video game systems, computers – the lower level was a living area, bathroom and our home office. Everything had been submerged in brackish water from the bay.

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I went back to the house where we’d spent the night, and as soon as President Obama declared an emergency, I logged onto FEMA’s website and requested aid. The details of the next few days are murky in my mind almost 5 years later, but the inspector came on Halloween. We received some emergency money from FEMA relatively quickly, which let us get heat and hot water back once the power was restored, but it was well below the cap of $31,000, and far short of what we’d need to get everything fixed and replace what we’d lost.

I should add that our homeowner’s insurance explicitly didn’t cover any flood-related damage, and as I said above, the area had never flooded before and is even today not considered a flood risk.

We were without power for 9 days, which we spent hauling waterlogged stuff out of the basement and onto the curb. It was depressing work, but since there was no power at home or at work (in lower Manhattan at the time) it at least gave us something to do. Our lifeline to the rest of the world was our iPhones, which we charged using solar chargers we’d picked up at a county fair the previous year. In hindsight, we were lucky it was a warm few days, since we had no heat.

I had some contractors come by and asked them to give quotes to repair the damage. Since hundreds, maybe thousands of houses in my area had been damaged by the storm it was really difficult to get anyone even to return our call. We finally had three different contractors come by, and they gave verbal quotes ranging from $40,000 to $80,000, but each of them refused to give a written quote unless we agreed to hire them first. This seemed backwards, and frankly shady, but it was their market and they had hundreds of other jobs they could do.

We went back and forth with FEMA about increasing their award but they refused. Ultimately they directed us to the Small Business Administration about getting a loan. We really didn’t want to take out a loan, but on November 22nd I filled out the application beginning the months-long process of securing a disaster relief loan.

At some point, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put together the New York Rising program to handle disbursement of federal funds for storm recovery. Going through my email history, I applied for this program on September 16th, 2013. On October 12, 2013, I received a letter from New York Rising informing me of my award of $193,728.73. We were pretty excited, as this meant we wouldn’t need to move forward with the SBA loan, and could use grant money for the repairs. By this point we had settled on a contractor, one who had been highly recommended by friends and had no problem getting all necessary permits, inspections, and most importantly, doing everything to town code. We were told he was very good, but also expensive, and his quote was over $80,000. We informed SBA we wouldn’t be moving forward with the loan since the NY Rising grant would more than cover the repair cost.

Several months passed and we didn’t hear anything from NY Rising, until February 7, 2014, when I received an email from NY Rising informing me of my award in the amount of $16,633.30. This was confusing, so I called our NY Rising rep to ask if this was in addition to the $193,728. She informed me that the $193,728 was “a mistake” and I should ignore that letter. NY Rising estimated that my total project cost should be $36,362.91. I was shocked. That amount was lower than the lowest quote I had received. I asked repeatedly for further explanation but never got one, and eventually they stopped returning my phone calls. I ended up actually receiving $12,689 from NY Rising – 75% of the $16,633.30 they gave me in their “revised” award.

In the end, I secured the SBA loan and the repair began on March 15, 2015 – two and a half years after the storm. The work was completed that July. The final bill for the repair and replacing furniture and appliances inside was well over $100,000, which I’ll be paying off over the next 27 years. The lower level is nice, and it’s nice to have that half of the house back after having been crammed into the upstairs for two years. But most importantly, as part of the rebuild, we filled in the driveway. Prior to Sandy, the driveway sloped down from the street level to the garage, which was what made the flood so disastrous for us in the first place. With the driveway filled in, another similar flood shouldn’t affect us so badly.

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That’s not the end of the story, however. On Feb 21, 2017, I received a letter from NY Rising informing me that because I had received an SBA loan in the amount of $117,543.20, and their estimated cost for the repair was $36,362.91, the entire amount they had given me was considered “duplication of benefits” and I had to repay the $12,689 I had received.

I called the latest NY Rising representative assigned to my case and asked about this and was told that I was free to appeal the decision. I sent in my appeal on March 30, 2017, explaining that the repair cost well over $100,000 and their original estimate of $36,000 was absurd. I also explained that filling in the driveway alone cost over $10,000, and it would have been foolish to do any repairs at all without filling in the driveway, as it would just leave us open to flooding again in the future.

I received a letter on April 19, 2017, informing me that my appeal was denied:

The Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery’s (GOSR) NY Rising Reconciliation Evaluation Team met on April 18, 2017 to review the appeal received on March 30, 2017. After careful consideration, your appeal is denied.

When you applied to the Program for assistance, an Inspector came to the damaged property address to calculate the extent of the damage to the property from the storm. The total of this amount was the Total Project Cost and is reflected above as $36,030.74. Subsequently, your Total Project Cost increased to add an additional design allowance for work completed prior to inspection. Your Reconciled Total Project Cost is $36,362.91. The documentation submitted with your appeal was reviewed and it was determined that even if all of the repairs in your contractor’s estimate were Program‐eligible, the total DOB funds you received would still exceed your Total Project Cost. Your current Total Project Cost includes a 10% design allowance to cover expenses such as architect’s fees. Additionally, content, such as furniture and personal property, and driveway repairs are not eligible for Program funds.

Since receiving that letter I’ve contacted every elected official I can think of, from federal through county representatives, and received responses from Congresswoman Kathleen Rice’s office and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s office. However, I have little expectation anything will change before NY Rising puts the account into collection, as they’ve threatened to do with each letter.

I hope that by writing and sharing my experience, others who have had similar issues with NY Rising changing their award amounts out from under them repeatedly, and ultimately demanding money back that was used to repair their homes, as it was originally intended, will similarly speak out and convince Governor Cuomo to stop this recapture program.

 

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Mac Drivers for the HooToo USB-Ethernet adaptor

I bought this HooToo USB-Ethernet dongle about a year ago for a vacation and never bothered trying out the wired Ethernet functionality until tonight.  I was dismayed to learn that it didn’t work without a driver, and having long since lost the disc it came with (nevermind that my MacBook Pro has no disc drive) I tried to find drivers online.  HooToo’s website is garbage and they don’t even mention this device at all on the site.  After some more extensive digging, I found a product on Amazon that looks identical to mine but with different branding.  On that page the seller states that the device uses the “ax88179” chipset.  Googling for that led me to this page, which has the Mac driver right on it.  I installed the driver, rebooted, and now have USB-to-Ethernet so I can copy from my laptop to desktop at Gig-ish speeds!  Yay.

I installed a Nest Thermostat and it’s awesome

People who know me well know I have an OCDesque obsession with temperature monitoring.  On my desk at my current and (at my previous 3 jobs) I have a thermometer so whenever I think “gee, is it warm in here?” I don’t have to wonder.  When I first heard about smart thermostats, Nest didn’t even exist.  The EcoBee was the only game in town and it was expensive and I really couldn’t justify the cost, and it seemed… frivolous.

Buying a house, becoming more comfortable with DIY stuff, having more disposable income, the general sexiness of Nest and rave reviews from friends and colleagues who have one finally wore me down and I ordered one from Amazon last month.  Installation was pretty simple, though the wrinkle in my case (and one of the things that kept me from getting one sooner) was the fact that I have a separate thermostat for the central air and the heat.  I have no idea why, the house just came that way.  So part of the project was unifying the wiring for the two thermostats.  They’re about 8 inches apart, but between them is a stud.  I drilled a really hideous hole in the stud, shoved the wires through, and wired the nest up.  It was really easy and they even provide a level and screwdriver.

Hooking it up to wifi was easy, though I was a bit surprised when I created an account it didn’t just use my existing Google account.  Instead I now have a separate Nest account, and my wife had to make one also so she can control the thing from her phone.  This is annoying and dumb, but I guess relatively minor.

So far the things I like best about the Nest are the auto-away feature, which detects when you’re not home (lack of movement coupled with the location data relayed by your phone) and the ability to set as fine-grained a schedule as I want.  My previous thermostat was a programmable weekday/weekend one, but it only allowed 4 settings per day.  This wasn’t really a tragedy but didn’t really let me do what I wanted.  Plus it didn’t account for Daylight Savings Time so I’d have to go reset the time twice a year.  Another thing I really like is the reporting.  I feel like they could do a lot more with this than they are, but it’s still a lot more than I can get otherwise.

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Energy usage report.
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Nest Web UI (desktop)

Overall, I’m pretty pleased with the Nest.  If it was cheaper I’d get additional units for the two other zones in my house, but they’re heat-only so not really worth it.  I debated telling my mom to get one, since she’s still using a mercury-filled Honeywell from the 80s, but … well, what’s the point?  I feel like for me it’s helped me save energy when not home, which is probably the main lasting benefit, aside from simply combining my two thermostats into a single one.

 

 

Building a new computer

After several years of indecision, I finally decided to build a new computer.  The off-the-shelf offerings have gotten so good that I’m not sure it really makes sense to build your own (e.g. this Dell i7-6700K/32GB ram system from Costco), but when I mentioned the idea of building a computer to my son he seemed pretty excited, so that tipped the scales. A friend tipped me off to pcpartpicker.com which really simplifies the building of your parts list, and even has some handy compatibility checkers to ensure everything works with everything else.  It definitely saved me a lot of time building lists in Google Docs and manually checking compatibility.

Since the last time I built a PC, Amazon’s really gotten more competitive with Newegg, and for many items I found Amazon to be a few dollars cheaper than Newegg.  Since I have Prime and the Amazon Rewards credit card (plus have higher regard for Amazon’s customer service), I ended up buying every component from Amazon.  I ordered the pieces yesterday and they should arrive tomorrow.  Hopefully I’ll have a followup post documenting the build.  In the meantime, here’s the parts list for our new Frankenbox:

Probably the components I’m most excited about are the M.2 Samsung SSD and the fully-modular power supply.  Most of the other technology hasn’t really changed over the past 15 years.  Hopefully we’ll get the thing built over the coming week and I’ll take pics and document it for posterity.

 

Fully moved over to WordPress.com

Yesterday I pointed my DNS to WordPress’s, paid the $13 to map my domain, and formally moved evanhoffman.com to WordPress’s hosting.  I ran my own WordPress for several years but at this point the annoyance of getting rooted due to exploits in WordPress or the various plugins got to be too obnoxious.  For a while I tried using Jekyll to host the site with static Markdown/HTML pages and Disqus for comments, but there wasn’t really a good way to export WP to Markdown reliably.

Anyway, hopefully this move makes for faster page loads for anyone who happens onto the site.

A thing I’d like to buy

After another season of TV hunting, I still haven’t found the product I really want.  Essentially, I want a huge TV designed for home theater use.  What would be the difference between this “home theater display” and a standard HDTV?  A HTD would be closer to a computer monitor than a TV, as it wouldn’t have speakers or a TV tuner at all.  Most people watching on a flat screen aren’t using the built-in tuner, they’re using the settop box provided by their cable/satellite provider.

It wouldn’t have any “smart” features – no “apps” or potentially even network connectivity.  The remote would be super simple, like the Roku remote, with just a D-pad, enter key, and power button.  The included remote would use Bluetooth but the TV would also accept infrared for compatibility with existing set-top box remotes.  The remote would be used primarily for calibrating the display itself.

The TV would have a single HDMI 2.0/HDCP 2.2 input and, a USB 3.0 port for firmware updates and maybe a SPDIF out.  Inputs and audio would be handled by the receiver or soundbar.

It would be available in all common sizes – 24, 32, 40, 49, 55, 60, 65, 70, 75, 80 inch – with sensible stand and standard mounting brackets.  All models would support 3D, and maybe there would be some curved models if desired.

By omitting coax, component, extra HDMI inputs, speakers, network, “smart” OS and other unnecessary features, it should be possible to make the TV significantly thinner, cheaper and lighter.  Samsung, Vizio, LG, are you listening? Someone want to start a Kickstarter?

My two-week review of Optimum Online (October 2015)

So, I went back to Optimum.  My FiOS bill from Verizon had been slowly but steadily increasing over the past couple of years, with new fees and random price increases bringing my last bill up to $192.  This was with FiOS Extreme (a single DVR set-top box), 50/50 Mbps internet, and a home landline.

Moving to Optimum, i got their 50/25 internet, Optimum Silver TV (a single set-top box with their cloud DVR), and home phone for ~$140/month, guaranteed for 12 months.  There were some upfront costs associated with porting the home phone number and the install itself but it seemed like it was worth it for a $50/month savings.

After two weeks I can safely say that Optimum in 2015 is still inferior to FiOS and while I don’t regret leaving, I’m definitely ready to go back. What’s wrong?

The set-top box is still slow.

For years, before FiOS, I dealt with Cablevision’s horrifically slow boxes. The most obvious example of this slowness was changing channels: the time between when you pressed the “channel-up” or “channel-down” buttons and when the channel actually changed on screen was nearly 1 second. All menus were slow as well. While the Samsung box I got from Cablevision is definitely faster than that, there’s still a 100ms-200ms lag when changing channels. With the Verizon Motorola box I returned, the latency wasn’t noticeable – maybe 20 milliseconds?

The cloud DVR is terrible

We watch 100% of our TV content over DVR, so I was pretty excited about Cablevision’s cloud DVR and not having to worry about storage or recording conflicts. In practice, the DVR has a terrible UI – the episode name and number aren’t shown. Verizon’s DVR shows lots of info about the recorded episode (original air date, for example)

The real killer problemw ith the DVR though is that the signal just totally craps out when playing it back. Last night we watched this week’s episode of Homeland from DVR and there were lots of visual artifacts (green blobs and such) and a couple of periods where the DVR thought the video was playing but the picture on the screen was stopped. There was also a 10-15 second period during which the entire screen went black with no sound, as if there was just a hole in the stream recorded. When I backed it up it was still there on replay, so we missed a 10-15 second chunk of the show. These things NEVER happened with FiOS.

Home phone has to plug into the cablemodem.

This isn’t a huge problem but it’s annoying. We wanted the cablemodem down in the basement, but since there’s no phone jack down there, there’s no way to get a signal into the phone lines upstairs. We use cordless phones mostly, so it’s not a big deal, but we did have a fax machine (still a necessity sometimes!).

Internet isn’t nearly as fast.

All Verizon’s plans offer the same speeds up and down. Cablevision doesn’t. Even on Cablevision’s best plan, Ultra 101, you get 101 Mbit down but only 35 up. Verizon has speeds up to 150/150 reasonably priced now. The download speed seems to be on par with what we were getting with Verizon’s 50/50.

Phone calls require dialing “1”

This is really just aggravating. We’ve gotten used to dialing area codes, but Cablevision requires also dialing “1” in front of every number. Why?

Regional sports fee

This isn’t really a Cablevision thing since Verizon also added this bullshit $4.99 onto our bill, but as someone who doesn’t watch any sports, having to shell out $60/year for it explicitly is infuriating.

Going back to Verizon?

Yesterday I priced out Verizon and their pricing structure has really changed a lot, but for ~$171 I can now get their Ultimate HD package, 150/150 Internet, home phone and a DVR STB. That’s a big upgrade from what I had previously with them, and certainly better service. I’ll probably give Cablevision some more time to get used to it, but everybody in my house hates that we changed, so probably just a matter of time before we go back. I’m really surprised and disappointed that Cablevision hasn’t gotten very far in the 3+ years since I last tried them.