Weary Irene, Lee Victims in New York Mired in Red Tape

By MICHAEL GORMLEY | October 14, 2011

Tropical storms Irene and Lee have left its victims tired and frustrated more than a month after the back-to-back disasters swamped homes, washed away roads and upended lives.

Hopes and promises of many for fast bailouts from government and insurance companies are dashed. The critical force of volunteers is dwindling as the storms fade from memory. New problems arise and the looming onset of winter brings new threats to recovery.

Some survivors have spent a month sleeping on friends’ couches, some in cars. Places like Schoharie are still little more than blocks of gutted shells of stores, bars and homes.

The disaster is far from over.

FEMA so far has approved $76 million for statewide relief for damages estimated at more than $1 billion. Although typical homeowners insurance doesn’t cover flood damage, residents are being told they still must get a time-consuming “declination” of coverage before FEMA can provide a final grant, according to the Professional Insurance Agents of New York State.

Many, even the few with flood insurance, say they still are awaiting insurance company checks delayed in part by the volume of claims and that has, in turn, delayed Federal Emergency Management Agency funds.

“This is almost worse,” said Heather Vilegi, co-owner of Middleburgh Hardware in Schoharie County. Like most, she is indebted to scores of neighbors and volunteers who came from afar to help in the recovery effort.

“Now everyone is tired and cranky and finding there isn’t much government help,” Vilegi said. “Flood insurance is taking a long time.”

When checks do arrive, they average $5,000; the maximum is $30,200 for total loss of a house. That’s far less than many expected after a string of press conferences by state and federal officials promising that insurance and government aid would cover most of the $1 billion in damage caused in New York.

Even comparatively wealthy Windham, a Catskill ski resort and the weekend home of many New York City residents, still had 5-foot high piles of soggy dry wall, hardwood planks and debris along a 90-foot stretch of curb last week. Reconstruction continued at some businesses six weeks after they were shut down. Thirty garbage bags lined the curb within sight of the Batavia Kill, still churning reddish brown from the Catskills’ clay.

“Nobody thought we would re-open,” said Nick Malegiannakis, 65, owner of Michael’s Diner in Windham, where he still waives the lunch tab for some young recovery workers. The Greek immigrant left Queens after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for the serenity of his hunting lodge in Windham. He lost a month of business and $67,000 in food, with more losses at home.

“The scary thing now is, will people come back?” he said. He said few rental properties for the ski season were open by mid-October, when a normal season would have 80 percent set to go by now.

“Right now, it’s a ghost town,” said Sharon Okonski, 54, the owner of Urban Country goods and gifts.

In Windham-Ashland-Jewett Central School District, the tropical storms plowed a foot of muck through buildings, deposited three feet of river bottom mud and gravel on the soccer and baseball fields, and forced school officials into the business of redirecting the new course of the Batavia Kill that carried a bus five miles after it surged over its banks. School opened two weeks late. The library and seven classrooms remain closed.

“We’re in chapter one still,” said Superintendent John Wiktorko.

The district is asking its taxpayers, many still trying to fix their own houses, to support borrowing of up to $4 million to cover the lag between contractors’ bills due and the 83 percent federal reimbursement.

“No one could have planned for the river doing what it did,” Wiktorko said. “We persevere here on the mountaintop, but this shouldn’t fall on the local taxpayers.”

Other school districts and municipalities in the Adirondacks, Catskills, Southern Tier and Hudson Valley hit hardest by the storms face bills that could also force borrowing, even as reserves were already drawn down to make up for a cut in state aid. A new statewide 2 percent cap on the growth in local property taxes will make recovery difficult without borrowing.

More than a half-dozen school districts that opened late will also likely seek waivers to the 180-day school year.

In places like Greene County’s mountain pass town of Prattsville, property taxes aren’t so much the concern as the property itself.

“This is far from over,” said Karl Gonalez, 32, at his father’s home in Ashland where a heavily used bridge to Prattsville was just getting its replacement frame. “Budgets are going to be out of whack, and in this economy?”

Here, power lines still hang close to Main Street from snapped poles. Houses crushed by the tide that roared down the street stand at wild angles. Two muddy American flags were nailed to little more than frames. Gutted homes stretch for two blocks.

“Town meetings are getting a little scary,” said Michelle Petricini, 34, outside Beth’s Cafe where she works. The sessions can be heated these days, with slow insurance payments that delay FEMA checks frustrating residents.

“Everybody is still in shock mode,” said Beth Ballard, 55, who just re-opened her cafe a week ago after working 5 a.m. to midnight days since the flood renovating while frying up free meals for neighbors.

A spray-painted message on a home twisted off its foundation in Prattsville captures the sentiment of many: “FEMA: Thanks for Nuttin’.”

“Sure, that happens,” said FEMA spokesman Nate Custer. “People are discouraged. They are sometimes in a state of shock. It’s a huge setback for a lot of them and when they have a little bit of delay, it just exacerbates those feelings.”

“It’s a slow process and it has a lot of red tape,” said Dan Corbin of the insurance agents association.

FEMA offers ways for victims to question and prod action through toll-free numbers and its website as well as counseling and ways to get free legal advice. The state Department of Financial Services is pressuring insurance companies.

The emergency agency approved $76 million for homeowners, renters, businesses and municipalities for Irene and more than $41 million for Lee. The state provided $3.7 million more so far to 252 farms, but the Cuomo administration says recovery is mostly a responsibility of private insurance and the federal government. FEMA and the federal Small Business Administration are offering loans.

Beth Ballard’s daughter, 26-year-old Alanna, is still waiting for a FEMA trailer. Twenty-five of the two-bedroom temporary units arrived a week ago, but hadn’t yet been assigned.

“I expected to be further along,” she said, living with two of her children at a friend’s while another child stays with the child’s father. “Everything is so wet and it won’t dry … it’s going to be a really long time.”

In Windham, as saws buzzed to get business open for last weekend’s Autumn Affair, the biggest festival of the year for merchants, a jack o’ lantern sat outside Zegra’s Pizzeria.

Its message in thick black marker: “Keep smiling.”

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