My Superstorm Sandy Nightmare
by linda Chanda
There are thousands of Sandy stories. This one is mine.
My husband Ed and I have joked that we don’t live near enough to the beach to be chic or trendy, just close enough to pay higher taxes. Our small village of Babylon, Long Island has two streets in what could be called the business district, if you consider a few nail salons and some small shops that regularly change hands to be commerce. There is the shoe repair shop with the aged cobbler with his home-country accent who regularly scolds us about buying cheap shoes. He’s difficult to understand, but always ends with a shake of his head saying “I fix.” There’s also Lenny the butcher, who bought the shop from the O’Shea brothers when they retired and is the source for the latest village news. Very few of the residential neighborhoods have sidewalks or curbs, and it’s not unusual to see mailboxes with the flag up so the letter carrier will know to stop.
We have a mayor and trustees that pass for government, but the real power broker is the woman at the Highway and Sanitation Department office who hands out the free lawn bags to village residents. She is affectionately known as the Bag Lady, not quite a Norman Rockwell or “Mayberry” character, but almost as colorful. Our village is also a great choice for commuting into New York City since it’s the beginning of the Long Island Rail Road’s electric line and a hub for changing to east end diesel trains. All of this has made it “home” since 1979. Everything changed on October 29th when Superstorm Sandy hit.
The Early Hours
Our home never took in water before so along with our neighbors, we ignored the evacuation. Besides, there wasn’t anywhere nearby to go. When Hurricane Gloria hit, the High School was opened, but not this time. With water in the street by afternoon and high tide several hours away, I moved my car to higher ground. Ed thought I was unnecessarily worried, but a few hours later decided to do likewise and waded home in a foot of water. We still had no thoughts of serious danger, although we moved our generator onto a makeshift platform in the garage, just in case, and moved some belongings upstairs.
By early evening, there was water in the garage, but our home has a high step up from there into the breezeway and another step up into the house. As the water rose into the breezeway, we packed towels around the house doors and watched in amazement as our neighbor’s car short-circuited in the rising flood waters with lights flashing and the horn beeping. Days later neighbors would joke about the disco atmosphere, but that evening we tried to follow the news reports, prayed and played cards to keep calm. Shortly after 9:00 p.m. we noticed some water coming in around one door. We both got down on the floor to push more towels against the door. As I looked over Ed’s shoulder, I saw water coming into the living room through the wall from one end of the room to the other. We were struck by the absurdity of our thinking that the water would only come in through the doors! We literally “threw in the towels,” Ed waded out to the garage to turn off the electricity, and we went upstairs to our guest room.
The house is a cape design, so we could hear the wind ripping the shingles off the roof over our heads and our neighbor’s old tree lashing our house, while the water gurgled throughout the house downstairs. As the experience became more surreal, we half expected to see Rod Serling in the doorway, telling us that we had entered the Twilight Zone.
The Morning After
By morning, it was quiet, the water had receded to the street, but the surreal atmosphere only grew. Everything, inside our home and outside, was covered in beige-gray. The flood waters weren’t anything one would swim in, let alone drink, and the pollutants varied along with the smells. We surveyed the damage enough to know that there would be property and flood claims to file. There was no landline phone service, even with the generator, since the cable was out – so much for “Triple Play.” Our insurance broker had already forwarded his business number to his cell phone, so we could keep him informed and get updates. I also called our insurer to officially report the losses and began documenting our efforts. Somehow it seemed to help with the overwhelming magnitude of the disaster to try work on the solution.
Our neighbors slowly ventured out into the street and we began to compare notes and exchange information. As we walked around our neighborhood seeing indescribable destruction and near misses, the one common thread was the vacant look on people’s faces. There was nobody home behind their eyes. On one street, seven of eight waterfront homes had only their fronts intact; the backs were gone. The street resembled a row of billboards or a Hollywood backlot. Our neighbor, Eileen, recounted being in the lower level of their split level home holding a flashlight while her husband, Jim, tried to improvise a berm to keep their furnace dry. She noticed that the concrete block wall behind him was starting to cave in, and in a nanosecond reasoned that if she told Jim to get out of there, he would have argued the point to finish what he was doing, so she started screaming “Help! Help!” Jim jumped up as the wall collapsed inward with sufficient force that a concrete block sailed past his head and landed at Eileen’s feet. As the water rushed into the dark room, it was several seconds that seemed like eternity before they found each other amidst the rubble and knew they were not injured. Not until daybreak would they know that there was a 20-foot hole in the side of their home. Jim wondered if he had not moved, whether he would have been crushed to death or just pinned under the concrete to drown in the dark.
The Best and Worst
What is it about disasters that bring out the best and the worst in people? The hero in our neighborhood would have to be Scotty. He lives two doors up the street from us in the little cottage. Scotty works in our village Highway Department and has his name in script lettering on the side of his pay loader. He is also a chief in our village’s volunteer fire department. The night of October 29th with the storm raging out of control and knowing that the fire department had no appropriate equipment, Scotty used his pay loader to evacuate stranded people from the second stories of their flooded homes. No one balked about climbing into the front hopper. As a fireman, Scotty has seen disasters before, but nothing of this magnitude and he couldn’t forget the looks of terror in folks’ eyes; he said he could smell their fear.
Our acceptable living standards sunk to something less than those of our college dormitory days. We all agreed that we knew we would be doing better emotionally when the women started wearing makeup again and the men returned to shaving. Neighbors with whom we had previously exchanged only pleasantries and admired landscaping now freely entered what was left of each other’s homes. Since we were without electricity for 12 days, Kathleen started each morning by taking a pot of stove-top brewed coffee to Pat and John. There were electrical cords running from a generator at one house to someone else’s home. We discovered that we were the only ones on our end of the street who had hot water, so our home became the Bath House. The downstairs bathroom wasn’t usable, but the new upstairs one (finished October 4th) was fine. Since the floors had buckled and heaved, folks would come in wearing construction boots, leave them at the bottom of the stairs, and go upstairs for a much coveted hot shower. We discovered an interesting factoid: a woman can go three days before she absolutely must wash her hair regardless of the physical surroundings!
We couldn’t bring our cars back into the neighborhood for a few days as security check points were set up to allow for dawn to dusk debris removal. The piles of furniture, appliances and the soggy remains of people’s lives spilled into the streets, making some impassable anyway. The check points were also intended to keep out gawkers – and looters. Armed National Guard troops in Humvees patrolled our village streets and helicopters with search lights hovered low at night, since the looters learned to come through the canals in boats. To our dismay, we learned that some of the looters were from the neighborhood.
Retirement has afforded us opportunities to get involved in local activities, like our church’s social ministries. Within days of the storm, our pastor received a phone call from our Village’s mayor asking if we could assist with emergency relief efforts, since we had the largest available spaces in our town. The biggest room in our Village Hall, which is used for public meetings, court and outside civic group meetings, can only accommodate 75 people. Our church’s various ministries got together to strategize and by the first weekend, we had turned our defunct school’s gym into a receiving/distribution center for food, clothing, cleaning supplies, bedding and other household items. The outpouring of donations and money was beyond anything we could have imagined and within days we had to stop accepting clothing as there was no room left to store them. We also set up a small office area to interview folks (with our newly developed forms) to provide limited financial assistance to help meet immediate needs. Since our buildings had heat and power, the cafeteria was turned into a warming center, and volunteers kept the coffee and light refreshments coming while folks recharged their electronic devices. Ed and I spent a lot of time there. It helped us to help others, and we could only pace through our own rubble for just so long.
Many other local groups came forward to help. Our volunteer fire department travelled the impacted areas offering hot soup and frankfurters, and our county’s police department announced from their patrol cars that they had blankets available. The Red Cross rented extra vans, placed makeshift signs on them and delivered boxes of cleaning supplies, gloves, tools, blankets and other items to those impacted. Neighborhood children collected pet food and, with adult supervision, went door to door to share their thoughtfulness and concern. Within weeks, most of the local houses of worship and civic organizations had formed something of a coalition that met regularly to pool resources and information in an effort to avoid duplication, maximize their efforts and identify any needs not being addressed. While the needs were staggering, the commitment of so many to our community was overwhelming.
Navigating an Insurance Mine Field
While community activism continued to grow, the insurance claim landscape became a mine field. We had immediately filed homeowners and flood claims, and also notified FEMA. Due to the enormity of the disaster, none of the adjusters or representatives worked directly for the insurers or FEMA; they were subcontractors or independent contractors. They requested that we do as little cleanup as possible so they could see the actual damage for themselves, but advised us to secure our property from further damage. So we had tarps put over the roof and stumbled over the buckled and heaved floors while we continued to live like the Collier brothers in our upstairs guestroom. After a few weeks of missed appointments and reschedulings, someone finally showed up.
First to arrive was the sub-contracted adjuster for our homeowners insurer. We shared with him the estimates we had gotten for a new roof and gutters. However, the subsequent settlement check was well below our estimates. I contacted our insurer and was advised that someone would be assigned to look into the matter and get back to me. I got a call back some weeks later from a company adjuster in Ohio who explained to me the algorithms they used, by Zip code, for determining appropriate costs to be charged by tradespeople for their services; these were updated monthly. Although we had two roofing estimates and intended to use the lower one, it was still well above the limit, so I asked for the names of roofers in their database who would charge less. I was informed that “it did not work that way” and that I was to point out to our roofer that his estimate was above the generous allowance of our insurance company.
I did not fare any better with the gutters. Our insurer would cover only the cost of the pieces of mangled gutter that were twisted beyond repair. The replacement pieces were to be worked into the remaining gutters. And although our roofer said that he did not think the remaining gutters (some of them hanging somewhat precariously) would stay in place once he started stripping the roof, our insurer gave me detailed instructions as to how the stripping should be done -- the way they do it in Ohio. I shared these “suggestions” with the roofer, who laughed until he was dewy-eyed. The gutter installer smiled kindly as he said that gutters are seamless and that seamed gutters had gone the way of high button shoes and button hooks!
DFS Steps In
Being at an insurance-claim impasse, I reached out to an old friend: the Consumer Services Bureau of DFS. After speaking with a Department staff member one afternoon, we learned that several insurers had representatives on-site. We received a call from an adjuster the following morning and our claim was immediately settled. The speedy response did much to ease our feelings of hopelessness and lift our spirits. Department staff members were certainly very busy, but their successes had a major positive impact for so many homeowners.
During this time, we were also contacted by a subcontracted FEMA representative, and an independent contractor for the subcontractor of the subcontractor for our flood insurer (no, that is not a typo, although grammar check flagged it!). Both of them advised us that our home was not habitable. However, flood insurance does not provide any additional living expenses. FEMA would not provide this assistance either, since we also had a homeowners claim and our homeowners insurance does provide for this coverage, even though the FEMA adjuster acknowledged that it was the flood damage that rendered our home uninhabitable. While there was clearly a missing piece of logic here, it turned out to be academic since there was no place to go anyway. FEMA tried to find us temporary housing, but the nearest place they first offered was in Connecticut. After completing several inches of forms and paperwork, FEMA did finally agree to reimburse us the princely sum of $195 for a dehumidifier (sarcasm intended!).
The flood insurance claim was by far the worst experience and about as unpleasant as the flood itself. We still question whether we would have done better without flood insurance, relying solely on FEMA. Some homes were obviously repairable, some clearly were not and ours was somewhere in between. Our insurer (or one of the representatives in the chain) wanted to have a structural engineer evaluate the house damage, but could not locate one due to the enormity of the devastation. Nor would they accept the assessment of our engineers.
During this time, we felt it would be unwise to begin the roof repairs, since we did not know whether our house was repairable or would have to be rebuilt. On December 10th, the structural engineer arrived – an independent contractor hired by a subcontracted engineering firm that was retained by our insurer’s subcontractor! We felt like we were living in a three-card-monte game, with everyone pointing to someone else and no one accountable. The engineer informed us that our home was reparable, but we would learn months later that the structural damage − that included the cracked foundation, ceilings and walls as well as the checked doors − was not covered. It seems that flood insurance covers the damage that the water does going into a building, but not the damage it does when it recedes. And you can probably guess that it was determined that the damage was caused as the water receded. How they arrived at that conclusion is anyone’s guess. We were informed that the only appeal would be through the courts, which would cost more in legal fees than the significant damage to our property.
It took several more weeks – and another complaint to the Department – before we received the notice from the flood insurer that our claim was being paid at approximately 40 cents on the dollar. I will not try your patience and endurance further, gentle reader, with all of the details of our claim and counterclaims, but one more example replete with thinly veiled sarcasm should suffice. Having been under salt water, our appliances did not work. We contacted a repair service and were advised that our refrigerator and dishwasher could be repaired, but our clothes washer could not. We purchased a new comparable washer, and gave the sales slip and repair bills to the independent contractor for our insurer during her visit. We also explained to her what we were told by the repair service. She did not ask for any further information. When the settlement arrived, we discovered that she had allowed for the repairs, but disallowed the claim for the new appliance, noting that it too should have been repaired. Not only did she know that it was repairable (although she never looked at it), she knew that the cost of the repair was only $300!
We filed another complaint through the Department and submitted a line-by-line rebuttal to our insurer’s 25-page settlement. Although we knew that the Department does not have jurisdiction over the federal flood insurance program, we were hopeful when a supervisor of the subcontractor for our insurer was quickly assigned to take over our claim. The result was that we received approximately 60% more in settlement. With about eight inches of accumulated paperwork to date, we are moving on.
Although we have made progress in repairing the damage to our home and replacing some of our belongings, we are still a long way from being done. I know that the assistance provided by Department staff was not based upon my being an alumnae, it’s just what they do and who they are, which had a lot to do with why I enjoyed working there for 20 years among people who cared about making a difference in other people’s lives. The calls, e-mails, caring and support from our Department “family,” whether active employee or retiree, has also helped us find humor in the numerous absurdities. Thank you for helping to make a stressful time a little more manageable.