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.
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.
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.
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.