Adelaide and Irving Tucker, a couple in their eighties, hunkered down on the second floor of their small home in Rockaway, Queens, when Hurricane Sandy blasted the neighborhood.
That was two years ago this week. Now the FEMA tents have come and gone, and the streets of Rockaway are swept clean. Even flower beds are returning to life with fresh soil free of saltwater.
From the outside, the Rockaways are back on their feet, but a look inside tells a different story. Behind Irving and Adelaide Tucker's front door is a bare room, stripped to the studs, that was once a family room before Sandy filled it with four feet of water. To the left is a wrecked bathroom with a bucket on the floor and a garden hose snaking out of the bathroom down the bare hallway. Since Sandy, say the Tuckers, they have been using the garden hose to bathe.
Many New Yorkers hit by Sandy, like the Tuckers, are still struggling, living on second floors of hollowed-out homes and trying to figure out how to scrape together the funds to rebuild. Often, these are low-income families, who are typically the last to rebound from natural disasters.
New York’s rebuilding program, Build it Back, was given $1 billion in federal funds, but so far families have seen very little of that. About 20,000 residents applied for aid; of those, only 700 have started construction, and a measly 140 homes have been completed, according to city officials.
But while government aid has stalled, community groups and nonprofits have been quietly stepping in to help their neighbors rebuild their homes. The volunteer sector isn’t held back by the same onerous restrictions that beleaguer the city. Using private donor money and volunteer labor from faith groups, businesses and concerned locals, they employ a kind of vigilante rebuilding that gets a house back in shape within weeks or months.
One such organization, Rebuilding Together NYC, uses private donations and local volunteer manpower to rebuild for low-income families. Since Sandy hit, Rebuilding Together has repaired 330 homes — not a bad number when you consider that the city hadn’t broken 100 until this spring.
The city's failure to deliver aid has incited frustration and controversy and has been blamed on a combination of federal rules imposed after fraud and misspending after Hurricane Katrina, local red tape, and missteps by local leaders. Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to get the program on track, and revamped it in the spring with a new director and a promise to start construction on 500 homes by Labor Day — a start, but barely a dent in the work to be done.
Terry Scott, a construction manager for Rebuilding Together NYC who also worked on volunteer rebuilds in New Orleans after Katrina, believes that volunteer organizations will always be an important part of rebuilding after catastrophes.
“The government is a bureaucratic behemoth,” says Scott, who notes that he’s limited only by funds and the number of volunteers he can get. “That’s an advantage that we have. Once we get the home, there are no layers. I’m the layer. We get in there and away we go.”
Of the 5.8 million people hit hardest by Katrina, more than 1 million were already living in poverty before the storm, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; likewise, Sandy hit low-income neighborhoods hard.
Of families that applied for Sandy FEMA assistance, almost 55 percent were renters, and of these, 42 percent had a median income of $15,000 or less, according to NYU Furman Center research. More than half of homeowners who applied were also relatively low-income, earning $60,000 or less per household.
Completing paperwork for help and staying on top of it can be especially hard for low-income residents, said Kimberly George, executive director of Rebuilding Together NYC.
"If you have a desk job you might have a few minutes in the day to deal with this stuff. If you're working with a name tag and on your feet all day there's no time, and when you get home at night all the offices are closed. It gets pushed to the back burner."
On an overcast Wednesday last week, Scott and his crew for the day — a dozen volunteers from Credit Suisse — gathered on Elizabeth Street at the Tucker's home to hang wallboard. Days before, students from Columbia University had finished the framing.
Scott, a thin, tattooed contractor from Seattle, bristles with pent-up energy. Since coming to New York almost two years ago, he has done nothing but repair Sandy homes.
Scott volunteered for over nine years with Rebuilding Together, a national organization with a 25-year history of rehabilitating homes for low-income families, not just during times of natural disaster. He was called to help with Sandy rebuilding for a few weeks in June of last year, and the organization offered him a full-time job.
Scott feels like he found his calling. "Am I getting rich? Not on your life," said Scott. "But every morning my step is light, and I look forward to work."
Community rebuilding depends on people like Scott and those who volunteer their time to him. Scott shows Credit Suisse volunteers how to use a power drill and gives them a safety talk. One person raises a hand and says they know how to use a saw, and Scott's site coordinator goes to work with him.
By late afternoon, the Tuckers's bare living room has been sheetrocked and primed for paint, and the floor has been tiled.
Stephen Dundon, a director at Credit Suisse, got involved with Rebuilding Together when he was looking for community outreach programs for Credit Suisse, and now he's on the Rebuilding Together board. He feels that working with the organization gives him an opportunity to contribute more than he was able to do through other volunteer projects.
“Here, you get your hands dirty,” said Dundon. “You leave and you can see that you’ve actually done something.”
Although there is no central database for the number of homes volunteer organizations like Scott’s have rebuilt, estimates are in the thousands.
New York Interfaith Disaster Services (NYIDS), for example, has a program called New York City Unmet Needs Roundtable that reviews requests for overlooked Sandy victims. It has distributed $5.8 million in donor money and served 1,553 households since 2013. Last year, the American Red Cross awarded NYIDS another $3 million for its Sandy recovery work.
Rebuilding Together also relies on donations from private donors like Lowe’s and Sears. They choose which families to help by determining who is low-income; applicants must make below a certain percentage of the local median income. Families with small children, elderly and disabled members are prioritized.
Two weeks ago, at a brick duplex in Canarsie, Scott’s crew was at work stripping floor boards and installing insulation. The volunteer crew that day was made up of 20-something volunteers from FEMA Corps, a disaster recovery division of Americorps.
Volunteers were outfitted with goggles, face masks and jumpsuits zipped over their clothes, which came in handy when a pair of them jumped below the floorboards to a crawl space to remove debris.
Rebecca Paolucci, a 24-year-old flight attendant who lives in the home with her mother and twin sister, was living in the ground floor of the home when Sandy hit. At first she could see water trickling in through the door that led to the driveway, so she tried to staunch it with towels. “Then it started coming up through the floorboards,” she said.
Like many people in this neighborhood, the Paoluccis rented out their ground floor in the past to help pay their mortgage. Since the storm, many neighbors have lost critical rental income, she says.
Now Paolucci shares the cramped upstairs with her sister and her mother, where she sleeps on the couch. She says her family has been "strung along" by Build it Back for a year and a half.
"There was a lot of back-and-forth, they would FedEx papers to our house, then there would be something wrong and they would FedEx another set of papers."
Scott's goal is to finish every job within 60 days. A big job like the Paolucci's will require the full length of time; smaller jobs might be done in a matter of weeks.
Skilled labor — plumbers and electricians — will have to come in before the next volunteer team arrives. That’s where a lot of the cost comes in for nonprofits like his, said Scott.
Diego Cortazar is a contractor who owns a construction company in the Rockaways, and he’s seen a lot of post-Sandy construction. Insurance companies shortchange homeowners, he says. “Their estimates are 30 cents on the dollar for actual cost,” he says.
He has also seen other contractors jack up their prices because post-Sandy demand is so high, and sometimes even take advantage of desperate residents, taking their cash and not finishing the job.
Cortazar works for Scott at a reduced rate. Even some families that received insurance money only got enough to get the job half-finished, he said.
Looking to the future
The Paolucci and Tucker homes are slated to be completed Saturday, Oct. 25, when Rebuilding Together NYC is having a rebuilding blitz weekend with 250 local volunteers to complete nine homes and a community center.
Looking to the future, Paolucci has a mixture of hope and optimism. "We worry that something like this could happen again," she said, referring to Sandy, but has felt more secure as she came to see it as a "freak accident."
Experts say that hoping flooding won't happen again is wishful thinking, and disaster recovery and resiliency are top priorities as sea levels rise and storms get stronger.
Scientists from Columbia University estimate that the sea level in New York City will rise five feet by 2100, and the International Panel on Climate Change predicts increasingly intense weather and storms. Klaus Jacob, a Columbia geophysicist, says that means that storms like Sandy will happen much more frequently.
True, Sandy was a one-in-500-year storm, meaning that the chances of such a storm hitting during any given year is one in 500. But if the sea level rises by five feet, the chances of a dangerous surge raises exponentially across the entire Eastern Seaboard.
In New York City, more than 40 percent of those that live in the newly drawn FEMA flood plain, released earlier this month, are low-income residents. East Coast cities have unique challenges because so much of the housing is non-traditional, multi-unit towers, or a connected row house or duplex like the Paolucci's.
“That’s good in one sense, because those homes are sturdy, they don’t wash away,” says Peter Schottenfels of the New York City Planning and Zoning Office. On the other hand, those homes aren’t easily flood-proofed — which is the city's next project. To prepare for the next storm, many homes will have to be elevated, or critical systems moved out of ground floors.
“It’s unclear what people will have to do. We’re getting the ball rolling to find out,” he said, noting that there are concerns that without creative solutions, insurance rates and rents will “skyrocket.”
We won't know when the next storm will be, or how strong, says Schottenfels. “What we do know is that there will be more flooding.”