After Irene and Lee, New York Families Still Displaced

By MICHAEL HILL | April 23, 2013

Amy and Bill Wetsel’s house near the Schoharie Creek is still empty and stripped down to wall studs. More than 19 months after the deluge of Tropical Storm Irene, their family still pays rent on another house and still tries to figure out how to get back home.

“We’re at the end of our rope – emotionally, financially,” said Amy Wetsel, standing on a dirty patch of floor where the couple and their two teen sons used to eat meals.

Dozens of people in upstate New York have yet to return to a permanent home after the double whammy of tropical storms Irene and Lee in late August and September 2011.

Most people flooded out in the two storms are back where they lived or have moved on. But displaced residents remain scattered in hard-hit areas like the Catskill Mountains, the Southern Tier and the Schoharie Valley west of Albany.

“The houses for the most part from the front just driving through Main Street, they look pretty good,” said Sarah Goodrich, executive director of Schoharie Area Long Term, a not-for-profit organization helping in the recovery in that area. “If you look in the windows, there are a lot of houses that still are down to the studs. Or if you come through at night, you still see a lot of dark houses or houses with lights only upstairs because families are living upstairs.”

There are no exact numbers for people still displaced in New York, though it’s likely more than 100, based on advocate estimates. In neighboring Vermont, state officials estimate there are 40 to 50 people out of their homes.

In Schoharie, Suzanne Robinson-Parisi and her husband are still putting back together their family’s home, where creek waters lapped up to the second floor and floated the barn on to the driveway. Local volunteers helped with the demolition and her husband works on the home in his spare time. But there’s just so much to do.

“There’s never enough time in the day,” she said.

Some people are waiting for buyouts. Work on some other homes started late because homeowners who planned on buyout offers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency reconsidered when they realized the offer would be less than they thought it would be, said Diana Chandler of Tioga Opportunities. The group has worked on more than 250 homes in the Southern Tier county.

The number of people in temporary housing units – commonly called FEMA trailers – in upstate New York was down to 13 this month from a high of 127. Because the 18-month window for the program ended, people living in the trailers have to pay rent starting this month.

Emily Morse and her husband started renting in nearby Windham rather than pay $792 a month for their trailer as they prepare land for a new home. Morse said they have been slowed down by red tape – she said she dealt with at least six contacts at the Small Business Administration regarding a loan – but also the weather and the complexities of clearing land for new space.

“It seems like you go five steps ahead and then back 10,” Morse said.

FEMA has approved $158 million for individuals and households in New York for the two storms. That does not include payments for people with flood insurance.

But even with the flow of payments, money is tight for many rebuilders. In Owego, Tom Shumway, who has had trouble finding work, relied on help from Tioga Opportunities to get back into his house. Work still needs to be done, but he avoided rent on a FEMA trailer by moving back in recently.

The Wetsels paid down their mortgage with their insurance settlement. That allowed them to rent a home with donated furniture 25 miles away in Rotterdam. But the rent is double their old mortgage payment. His earnings repairing cars at a dealership and her earnings at a restaurant barely cover expenses.

Amy Wetsel said rental assistance from FEMA ended after several months and they cannot afford the $46,000 needed for plumbing, heating and electricity repairs. A $45,000 grant might not come through because they make too much money.

Like some others in this rural area, the Wetsels are not only frustrated by their situation, but by the attention the New York City area received from politicians and big-name personalities after getting walloped by Superstorm Sandy last fall. They feel forgotten.

“There are no celebrities on TV for Irene victims,” Amy Wetsel said. “They forgot about us.”

Officials at FEMA, which has approved 33,126 individual assistance grants in New York for the two storms, are emphatic that has not been the case at all, and that they still have staff devoted to Irene and Lee.

“Just because Sandy is going on doesn’t mean we drop everything and stop what we were doing for Tropical Storm Lee or for Hurricane Irene,” FEMA spokesman Donald Caetano said.

As the work continues, many people working to get back homes believe it will be a matter of months now, though the Wetsels still aren’t sure.

“Basically, it’s a wait,” said Bill Wetsel. “It seems like it has been all along.”

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