Sandy Relief: Still Rebuilding A Year Later

One year ago, Superstorm Sandy battered the northeastern coast causing massive damage to homes and businesses. But how does the recovery look today? Host Michel Martin speaks to WNYC reporter Stephen Nessen and New Jersey relief volunteer Jim Davis to find out.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later, we'll talk more about how the recent government shutdown put a strain on many people's finances, even people with well-paying jobs. We'll talk about what that tells us about the need for a rainy day fund and how to get one going even if you think you can't. That's later in the program.

But first, we want to talk more about a group of people who know all too well about dealing with situations beyond their control. It's been one year today since Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast. It destroyed homes, it devastated neighborhoods and displaced thousands of people across the Northeast. A year later, we wanted to know how the recovery is going, so we've called upon Stephen Nessen. He's a reporter at member station WNYC. He lives in Brooklyn and he's been reporting extensively on the storm, and he continues to cover the recovery story across New York. Stephen, thanks so much for joining with us.

STEPHEN NESSEN: Thank you.

MARTIN: Also with us is Jim Davis. He works in a family-run construction company that's been rebuilding homes in the area. He's also a volunteer at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Middletown, New Jersey. He's part of the Sandy relief team there, and he's joining us via Skype from the church. Jim, thank you so much for joining us also.

JIM DAVIS: Thank you for having me on.

MARTIN: So, Stephen, could you just tell us, a year later, how do things look?

NESSEN: It really depends which neighborhood you're in. Certain areas have really forged ahead and rebuilt certain parts that were re-buildable. So I covered different neighborhoods across the city that have been hit. So in Rockaway Beach, for example, many homes are back to the way they were. You go to the beach, there's been sand replenishment. The Army Corps of Engineers has pumped millions of cubic yards of sand back on the beach, but the boardwalk, that's a different story.

That's going to take much longer to repair. Many more miles of that were destroyed. So it really depends where you go. In Staten Island, many people, their homes were completely leveled, so they're not back in their homes. But then you go to Coney Island...

MARTIN: And those are people's primary residences, right? I mean, that's where people live all year round. It's not, like, just a beach house where they go to vacation.

NESSEN: That's right. That's what I'm talking about.

MARTIN: Jim Davis, Middletown is the northern end of the Jersey shore and it was hit hard by the storm. And as we mentioned, that you've been involved in relief efforts across the board, you know, from the beginning. Take me back to a year ago, what was the major concern then, and what's the major concern now?

DAVIS: Within 48 hours of the storm, Pastor Joe Hein from our church took it upon himself to get down into the neighborhoods and see exactly what the neighbors were going through. There was many people displaced. There was many people that fled before the storm because they were warned.

Others, lifelong residents, did not want to leave - you know, had lived through floods in the past. Subsequently, they realized they'd never experienced anything like this. Within one week of the storm, we organized our first relief event right down in one of the neighborhoods that was affected - handing out water, blankets, hot food, hot chocolate, hot supplies because, as you remember, it was quite cold the week following the storm. So we assessed the neighborhoods, and we immediately thought that we needed to take some action steps and help out our neighbors.

MARTIN: A lot of people still need food. I mean, I think people think of those as kind of immediate response things, and obviously, we thank you for that and all who helped out. But you were telling us that some people still need those things. Why is that?

DAVIS: Yeah, it's so true. You know, we hear some of the mantra on TV that, you know, we're stronger than the storm. But the reality is, there's many people that don't have heat coming into this winter. They don't have meals for their children. We, at this point, are still assessing the needs, obviously with limited funds. Being in a church environment, we're doing what we can financially, but getting our hands dirty, so to speak, and helping out in other ways. But there are a lot of people still without many necessities that we take for granted.

MARTIN: Stephen, what has made the difference between those who've been able to rebuild and those who have not? Have you seen any patterns emerge?

NESSEN: Certainly, a lot of it has to do with funding. I guess the number one thing is, how much damage did the house sustain? Was it just a first floor issue or a basement? Many of those were flooded, but those are easy enough to build back and people could live upstairs. Whereas, in Staten Island, if your entire home was demolished, there's a good chance you're not going to be able to rebuild that. So I'd really say the amount of destruction is the primary driver. But then again, I visited certain neighborhoods in Staten Island - Midwood Beach, for example - and this is a neighborhood where it seems like every other home is either destroyed, unlivable or completely back to normal.

So a lot of that has to do with how much money people had in their savings account at the time, how much flood insurance they had - not everyone had flood insurance. So that was kind of a main driver, I found. And then, certain people do want to elevate their homes and that's a more costly process. They need approval from the Department of Buildings, and then they need to coordinate with FEMA to see how high does their home need to go to meet new floodplain standards. So some people are waiting for that as well.

MARTIN: Jim, what's your perspective on this, particularly from somebody who's in the construction business, also? What's your perspective on - why is it that some people have been able to rebuild and some have not?

DAVIS: I agree with a lot of what Steve just mentioned. There are people that have the resources that said that they're going to take their finances - their personal finances, and go ahead and do the rebuild and go after the funds later. There's other people that don't have the means for those funds up front and are struggling to get through the red tape to get the funds - desperately needed funds from insurance companies and FEMA and other grants that are available.

And some people have just given up. Many people in our neighborhoods have just walked away from their homes and don't plan on coming back. They just had enough, basically - almost a year, a year to today - of just trying to put their lives back together, and feel like that they're taking two steps backwards every time they deal with the system, so to speak. And they just walk away.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Sandy relief volunteer Jim Davis and WNYC reporter Stephen Nessen. We're talking about the first anniversary of Superstorm Sandy. We're talking about how the affected areas are recovering or not, as the case may be. I wanted to ask each of you, sort of, in the time that we have left, about how are people's spirits? I know that's kind of an intangible, and a lot of people's feelings are going to depend on kind of what their own personal situations are - family and things. So that's - can you just give us a sense of - what's the mood, Stephen?

NESSEN: Well, a place where I've spent a lot of time in the last year is Rockaway Beach. This is a neighborhood that was really hard-hit by Sandy. It was a neighborhood that was actually kind of up-and-coming, I suppose. It had really come into its own in the last couple years, and what I found is that people are enthusiastic. They want to stay. They have this motto. They always say, we're Rockaway strong. And there's this feeling throughout the year that's like, we're going to build it back.

We're going to be better. A lot of resilience is what they say. But then again, other neighborhoods, like I spend time in Staten Island, and I found people were a little beaten down and very fearful of future flooding. That's a lot of the concern is just, well, what happens next time. There aren't a lot of differences in the landscapes at this point. There's not too many storm protections in place to protect people from a future storm.

MARTIN: Can I just ask you, for the people whose homes were totally destroyed, where are they?

NESSEN: Well...

MARTIN: Where are they staying?

NESSEN: There are people, believe it or not, who are still staying in FEMA-funded hotels in the city. That program just kept getting extended and extended. Those are for the people who are in most dire situations. Most people I met are staying with family, staying with friends, exhausting couch after couch after couch. And that's pretty much where people have been staying if their home was completely destroyed by the storm and unlivable.

MARTIN: Jim Davis, again, putting your construction hat back on, how viable is it for people to build their homes above flood levels? You were telling us earlier that the government said that homeowners in low-lying areas need to elevate their homes to prepare for rising sea levels and potentially stronger storms. How viable is that? Are people doing that?

DAVIS: Yes, people, Michel, along the shore are definitely rebuilding. Union Beach, for example, is quite proactive. They're within five miles of our church, and we've seen a lot of people rebuilding. A lot of people are hanging strong and going through the system, so to speak, to get their fair share from the government, to get their allowances, to find the grants that are available, to get their houses raised. Some people are in limbo because all floodplains have not been identified as to what height that they need to be at. So homeowners are fearful to build and then to find out two years down the road that they might be a foot too low and have to raise the house again.

So there's a lot of concern on that front. But there's a lot of building going on. But we're here with the church, trying to help all the people that are still stagnant, that are in a holding pattern. If I can just mention that, you know, our church is very strong, and we feel very committed to the cause. We've had six relief events out in the fields. We've hosted three events at the church just to try to give people a sense of community, give them a warm meal, some fellowship, friendship, prayers if necessary - and everybody can use a prayer. That's what we feel is going to get people through this. If we had the money, we would obviously be able to help a lot more people. But with the resources that we have, we're doing the best we can, and we're just trying to keep our community strong.

MARTIN: How are you holding up?

DAVIS: We're all good. We're a little tired, I think, like all of us. We have to slow down once in a while and take care of our own, so to speak. We find there are days and times where we're burning the candle at both ends, and reality sets in and you need to have a down day once in a while. So we're going through that right about now. But we're not giving up because we feel committed to the cause. And we have a lot of people that feel really strongly about the cause. So we're going to continue on, and we're going to help as many people as we can.

MARTIN: Jim Davis is part of the Sandy relief team at Westminster Presbyterian Church. That's in Middletown, New Jersey. He joined us via Skype from the church there. Stephen Nessen is a WNYC reporter. That's our member station in New York. He's been covering Hurricane Sandy from the very beginning, and he joined us from NPR's bureau in New York. Stephen Nessen, thanks so much for joining us.

NESSEN: Thank you for having me.

DAVIS: OK, thank you.

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