Nearly Three Months Later, Sandy Victims Still Struggling, Looking For Answers

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    (NEW YORK) MintPress – Sixty-five-year-old Gus Martuscelli sits on a wooden stool in the remains of what used to be the most popular pizza joint in Sheepshead Bay, a Brooklyn neighborhood known for its large population of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

    On Oct. 29, 2012, Delmar Pizzeria, a small family-owned business that has maintained a loyal following since 1957, was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. “It was completely destroyed,” Martuscelli tells MintPress News. “It was like a pool in here. I couldn’t even open the door.“

    Gone is the shabby pizza counter up front, along with its ‘60s style menu board and vintage photos of the neighborhood and the slabs of tables in the back, both of which were regularly packed.Gus Martuscelli sits at his pizza parlor that was devastated in Hurricane Sandy. (Photo by Lisa Barron/MintPress)

    On Jan. 14, the shop was still devastated. Martuscelli tells MintPress that they had to gut the entire space to clear it of mold and are only now starting to rebuild.

    “I had to buy everything again out of my own pocket,” he says. “Insurance is a joke. I have three kinds of insurance for the building and the pizzeria, but so far nothing. And where is FEMA? They give nothing.”

    Martuscelli applied for government subsidized loans, but so far has not received any. “ I got nothing. I still have to pay my mortgage and my taxes.” His six employees are, for now, out of work.

    He points to the computer shop next door and the Express 24 hour bank on the corner and says they had just reopened that day.

    Across the street there are several stores that are still shuttered. “Some small businesses are still not open because they have no money to spend,” explains Martuscelli. “You have to have money to do something.”

    Dozens of small businesses in Sheepshead Bay and nearby communities such as Manhattan Beach and Brighton Beach were also hit hard by Sandy.

    As of late last month, roughly $1 million in loans from the federal Small Business Administration (SBA) and the New York City Small Business Services (SBS) had been provided to just 19 businesses in the area.

    The loan applications are trickling in, said Andre Ledgister, a public affairs specialist at SBA. “Why is that? It can be for a variety of reasons. Some people are still filling out applications because of loss of important documents, fear of loans, inaccessibility to documents, etc.”


    Homeless after all these days

    Across the Hudson River in the Paulus Hook neighborhood of Jersey City, N.J., 33-year-old Terry Smith, her husband Chris and their three black labradors are still camping out at a friend’s home.

    They fled their two floor brownstone apartment on a tree lined street after a huge wave of water burst through the front door and came rushing in. They had managed to place mattresses on waist high cinder blocks.

    The family took shelter that night in the nearby pet store that Smith started last year, which fortunately  was not damaged. When they returned home the next day, the water was still two feet high. With the help of a group of friends, they spent four hours bailing it out.

    “We lost just about everything,” she sighs as she speaks with MintPress in her shop. “Three bedrooms and two bathrooms, dining and living room, all gone.”

    They had to throw out all of  their belongings and rip out the drywall. “We dried and cleaned for two weeks,” says Smith. “Now, it’s down to the studs. There’s just a ceiling, floor and the framework.”

    The electrical system was badly corroded by the salt water, and it is still being repaired. In addition, there is not enough supply of drywall to meet the demand, so it is on backorder.

    Smith says they had three types of insurance for their home but have still not received any compensation.

    “It is a very slow process, and there are no guarantees,”  she says. “We are still paying for everything out of our own pocket.”

    Not all of their neighbors can afford to do so, Smith acknowledges. “Some people are staying on the upper floors and not repairing the lower levels. Others have simply left.

    She worries that down the road, the mold could lead to a health hazard in the entire area.

    In the meantime, Smith says they can’t return home until they have at least a functioning bathroom, and that won’t be until the end of February at the earliest.

    Hundreds of thousands of homes in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were damaged or destroyed by the hurricane. There is still no official data on how many people remain homeless.

    Retreating from the water

    Among them are former residents of Fox Beach on Staten Island’s southeastern shore.

    “Turn it into what it should have been and what it was 100 years ago, natural area for the grounds to take the water,” Joseph Monte told Capital New York

    Until Sandy, Monte, who owned a construction company for two decades, lived in a grey clapboard house, now uninhabitable, near the sea. He said that flooding had increasingly become a problem.

    In the aftermath of Sandy, which at times swept more than 10 feet of water through the neighborhood and killed three residents, it has begun to appear insurmountable.

    Now, roughly 100 homeowners are banding together in an effort to convince the government to offer them a buy-out under the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program run by FEMA. It was used in upstate New York to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

    “If they tell people, ‘You’re on your own, we’re  not helping you, we’re not buying you out,’ you’re going to see more deaths here, I guarantee it,” said Neil Filipowicz, who found the bodies of his brother and nephew in the basement of their home the day after the hurricane.

    Mayor Bloomberg has argued that retreating from the waterfront in the face of rising sea levels is both defeatist and unrealistic. He maintains that the solution is building flood-resistant buildings.

    In order for the Fox Beach residents to get their way, they and their elected officials will have to convince the Bloomberg administration to petition the state for grant money.

    The state, in turn, will have to petition FEMA. If FEMA agrees, its grants will cover only 75 percent of the costs, with the rest covered by the city and state.

    “The city is already losing real estate tax, they’re not going to add more money to that loss,” said Staten Island Borough President James Molinaro.

    “They’re going around talking about people rebuilding. How do you live here?” asked Monte.


    Pleading for public services

    Way up in the Rockaway Peninsula of Long Island, known as the Rockaways, residents of the New York Housing Authority’s (NYCHA) Ocean Bay complex, which houses as many as 17,000 people, are in bad shape.

    Twelve years ago, Aria and Sam Doe, frustrated by the absence of social services in the local school system, founded the Action Center there; it includes programs for pregnant women, GED classes, after-school programs, a night center for teeagers, classes for adults and services for senior citizens.

    A sign in a bank window tells customers that renovations from Hurricane Sandy's damage have been completed. (Photo by Lisa Barron/MintPress)“Even before Sandy, it’s like people were six feet under,” Aria Doe told Truthout recently. “We got them up one foot so then they were five feet under. They’re still below the poverty line.”

    Sandy worsened the problems. During the storm, transformers caught fire, causing massive flames that burned down at least 15 units.

    Other buildings were flooded and rendered uninhabitable. Two months after the storm, Doe said, “It looks like the walls were painted black. It was so moldy.”

    But residents were expected to pay full rent. “Three days after the storm, NYCHA officials were running around telling people where they could pay their rent,” said Pretina Maddox, a nurse living in the complex. “They didn’t ask how people were doing, if they had food or water.”

    Two months later, resident Rudolph McBeam was still without heat, hot water or electricity. “Everything in the basement was damaged by the 7 or 8 feet of water that flooded,” he said. His fourth floor apartment had also become mold-infested.

    Elsewhere on the peninsula, residents are facing other pollutants. “There’s lead, asbestos and fiberglass insulation in the air,” explained Sal Lopizzo, founder of the Rockaways’ YANA (You Are Never Alone) program.

    “In addition, everything’s covered with feces. There’s a lot of pink eye and respiratory infections.”

    The Action Center’s Doe said many are still relying on community medical and distribution centers.

    “This is a long-term problem,” she explained. “Now is the time for a massive focused response on the area. If we, as a country, can help in other countries, we can do it here.”


    Absentee government

    FEMA has spent about $3.1 billion in disaster relief money for shelters, restoring power and other immediate needs after the storm.

    In late December, Congress passed the first part of an aid package for victims of Sandy, allowing the National Flood Insurance Program to continue to pay claims days before it was due to run out of money.

    At the time, people who had lost their homes and businesses blasted the delays. “I think it’s horrible it took this long,” said Susan Van Veen of Randolph, N.J., who was part of a volunteer group that helped clean up strangers’ homes.

    “This area is completely devastated. It’s still probably going to be weeks before people get this money. This should have happened long ago.”

    “It’s just criminal,” said John Condit, of Seaside Heights, N.J., which lost the boardwalk upon which much of the reality show “Jersey Shore” was filmed.

    “You pay taxes, and your government is supposed to be there for you. That’s part of the deal.”

    Fast forward to today and people are furious that Congress didn’t manage to pass the second part of the aid package, which consists of $51 billion for relief and recovery from Sandy, until Jan. 15, nearly 80 days after the storm.

    Gov. (Chris) Christie has tried to be proactive from the start. Congress, on the other hand, has done way too little, way too late,” asserts Jersey City’s Smith.

    The bill was approved by a bipartisan majority in the House three weeks after Republicans in the Northeast chastised the chamber’s GOP leaders for failing to vote on storm aid before the end of the last Congress.

    An amendment to the package introduced by tea party-allied legislators would have required across-the-board cuts to domestic and defense programs to pay for $17 billion of the storm aid.

    It was supported by a majority of Republicans, but was defeated 258-162 with combination of GOP and Democratic votes.

    The full $51 billion bill passed the House 241-160, with 179 Republicans opposed.

    The measure will be taken up by the Democratic-controlled Senate when it returns to Washington next week.

    In the meantime, asks Martuscelli as he walks through the rubble of his pizza parlor, “What are we going to do?”

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