Vladimir Repnin clings to a shovel as he drags himself slowly from a hole he just dug in the ground. He has struggled for several days now trying to erect a perimeter fence around his house, which is also badly in need of repairs.
“The contractors charge a lot of money for everything,” he said. “I don’t have any money left so I have to fix things for myself.”
Repnin, 64, has been out of work for two years after a stroke left him partially paralyzed in his right foot. He is one of an estimated 1500 residents in New Dorp, a beachside neighborhood in Staten Island, whose homes were battered by super storm Sandy almost a year ago.
The entire basement of his 3-bedroom brick house was completely flooded and the water rose almost five feet on the first floor. “It was a miracle I was able to drag myself on top of the wardrobe, considering my health condition,” said Repnin, whose wife, Larisa, 57 was visiting Miami at the time. Despite the damage suffered from the storm the couple never moved out of the house even when it lost electricity, gas and running water. “It took four months before I could restore power and other utilities, but some volunteers helped with the cleaning and basic supplies initially,” he recalled.
Like many other flood victims in his community, Repnin still struggles with the burden of reconstructing not only his property but his life as well.
“I receive $330 as disability benefit and that’s my only monthly income,” he said. Repnin said he received some assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help with reconstruction. “But it was not enough to fix even the interior of the house, considering all the stuff that had been damaged.” He also lost two cars, and his outdoor pool is currently in ruins. But Repnin’s greatest fear now is how he can maintain his home, which didn’t have insurance at the time the storm hit. He had bought the house for close to $500,000 ten years ago, while he worked at a medical facility in Brooklyn. “We invested so much in this house, now we might have to lose it, unless we find a means to finance it, so my wife currently in Miami trying,” he added.
Just over his fence, volunteers from Habitat for Humanity International work to fix a neighbor’s house, which was also badly damaged by Sandy. “The homeowners are still living in hotels,” said Rachel See, Habitat’s volunteer coordinator for Hurricane Sandy Reconstruction in Staten Island.
The relief organization, which focuses on serving residents with lower incomes, has reconstructed two houses in New Dorp and is completing two more. But almost a year since reconstruction commenced, many of the mostly single family houses in this green beachfront neighborhood still look deserted.
“Some people decided to walk away from their homes and not fix it because they don’t have the money,” said See. “A lot of others still don’t know whether they want to come back to live by the beach.” See said many of the storm victims they have interviewed are currently suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and need social help in order to get over their experiences.
“About 170 households were badly affected in this community,” said Rev. Steven Martino, lead pastor of Movement Church in Staten Island. Rev. Martino has lived in New Dorp for eight years. His disaster relief organization helped clean more than 500 homes after the storm hit, and has helped rebuild forty homes, providing skilled labor and assistance in obtaining permits for some homeowners. “It was catastrophic,” he recalls of the aftermath of the super storm. “This area was up to eleven feet under water. Some of the houses left needed to be demolished right away, it was life altering for a lot of people here, some even lost their memories.”
According to Rev. Martino about 30 percent of the homes in the neighborhood are still not inhabited and some are without electricity and other utilities, because the owners do not have the finances to restore them.
“So you are standing in an area that is still in many ways lingering behind, and response from FEMA has been painfully slow,” he charged.
While the federal government provided funds for reconstruction, some homeowners complain of bureaucratic bottlenecks hampering the process of recovery.
The New York City office of Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency had not responded to e-mail and telephone requests for comments as at the time of publication of this report. New York City officials could not respond to direct questions about the recovery in New Dorp.
“People are fed up with the red tape. When you can’t get the building permit or the help that you need or you are being hampered by getting approval for the loan or some insurance companies that should pay out are holding the money, it’s been a very much sore point with the people in this area,” said Rev. Martino. His church is collaborating with civic associations in New Dorp community to organize programs from now on to December, to mark the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. He added: “It is meant to bring the victims together and give them a sense of hope, to let them know that they are not forgotten.”