Commentary: Houseless After Sandy, Until the Insurance Money Kicks In

By Cynthia Ramnarace | December 5, 2012

(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed are her own.)

It took one day for Superstorm Sandy to destroy my house. So far, it’s taken more than a month for insurance to help me get back in. The last time I slept in my own home was Oct. 27, two days before Superstorm Sandy slammed into my Rockaway Beach, New York, neighborhood and poured four feet of water into my living room, dining room and kitchen.

We’re among the 330,000 people in New York waiting on insurance settlements. Like many others, we’re staying with family. Lucky for us, we have flood insurance.

Not so lucky: While we filed our claim the night after the storm hit, we had to wait until Dec. 1 for our adjuster to come out and do the inspection. So when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo chastises insurance companies for being too slow to process claims I can say this is one smackdown I can fully support.

Right now my floor is a concrete slab. I have no kitchen. Half the drywall is gone. After 20 days in the dark, we finally got power back, and last week the new furnace was hooked up.

My contractor is ready to start hanging drywall, the step necessary for us to move back home. But until the adjuster shows up he can’t. And until that insurance check comes, we have to continue to drain bank accounts and, soon, start leveraging ourselves.

So far we’ve shelled out close to $20,000 – from our own savings, help from family and some Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) housing assistance money.

If the cash runs out before the insurance check arrives, we’ll likely look to zero-percent interest credit cards to get the cash we need to green-light our contractor. It’s a risk worth taking when all you want for Christmas is to have your children sleeping in their own beds.

We first returned to Rockaway on Halloween, two days after the storm. The water – which neighbors told us turned our backyards into raging rapids – was gone but its evidence remained: the squishing sound as I walked across the carpet; the dark brown dirt line about four-feet high up on the walls; the couch that was slightly askew; the toppled wine fridge (bottles intact, a small grace).

We started cleaning up immediately. Everything wet went into the trash heap, except for my wedding dress, which even though it was soaked and stained brown, I couldn’t part with, and the sopping wet photo albums which I was hell-bent on saving.

Carpet was ripped up; walls torn down; diesel-powered heaters brought in to eliminate any chance of mold growth. We chose to hire a contractor to do the work, shelling out $5,000 and entering into contract for the renovation.

We had not yet heard from our insurance adjuster, had no idea how much we’d be paid on our claim. Those worries were second to the reality that you need to snag a good contractor before he gets completely booked. And when you consider that water is no problem at all compared to mold, we wrote the check as a way to protect our property.

Many of my neighbors in Rockaway weren’t able to act as quickly as we did. If you do not have the cash to pay for a contractor, you were doing the work yourself or waiting for troops of volunteers, donning white face masks, to come along and offer to break down your dry wall.

The storm was Monday; thanks to our contractor the house was completely dried out by Sunday. We live in row houses, and luckily my neighbors on both sides had the exact same work done. A friend further down the block wasn’t so lucky. A month after the storm, her neighbor has yet to do the demolition work on his home. She can see the mold growing on her side of the firewall.

Our heating and cooling system was already starting to show signs of salt water-triggered rust so those had to go, too. Since we couldn’t move back without heat, we asked our contractor to prioritize that job. One of his employees drove to North Carolina to get us our furnace, boiler and central air conditioning units for both us and our tenant at a total cost of $12,000. The units were sold out locally.

We have a $250,000 flood insurance policy. We have homeowner’s insurance too, but as soon as you utter the word “water” you hear “we don’t cover that”.

Everything regarding our reconstruction is hanging on getting a fair flood insurance settlement. And quickly. I have a fantasy where the adjuster comes with a check in hand. I start to weep and initiate a group hug. I realize how delusional that thought is, but it is indicative of how desperately I need the insurance part of this to be sorted out.

I wish I could say my story is unique. Most people I know in Rockaway are still not living in their homes and instead are in rented apartments, borrowed basements and, for a time, FEMA-paid hotel rooms. Those who have returned are doing so with the help of space heaters as they wait for their back-ordered furnaces to arrive or the overworked plumbers to show up.

Of those with flood insurance, many have received advance payments and are starting to rebuild. Those without flood insurance are in the worst state, in my opinion. They have to wait on FEMA to approve payment for repairs; wait on New York City’s oxymoronically named “Rapid Repair” program to send a contractor out to shore up supporting walls or fix electrical boxes; or like us, simply wait for adjusters to do their measuring so that we can green-light the drywall and insulation that will ensure the house is warm enough to live in (even if it does mean living there during construction).

We’re a tired bunch. We miss home. I long for the days when I can make a mess and not worry I’m being inconsiderate to my host. I can’t wait to turn this double mattress in for my pillow-top king. And a long, hot bath in my own tub, the one I used to complain about and always hated scrubbing.

Oh, to have walls – and an insurance check in hand.

Topics New York Flood Contractors

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