As Hurricane Sandy clean-up continues, some communities may be beyond repair


Hurricane Sandy stormed into New York nearly three months ago, but the recovery effort has been uneven and continues to consume neighbourhoods in the worst-affected coastal areas.

“The reality of Sandy is just starting to settle,” says Pat Riley, an Irish-born contractor who emigrated to New York City 20 years ago. “My block has 13 houses. There are only two people living on it now – and one woman really shouldn’t be, but she’s nowhere else to go.”

Island Park village, just across the bridge from the heavily Irish Long Beach community, has been the Rileys’ home for the past seven years.

Since Sandy, they rent an apartment a two-hour drive away, across the Hudson River and northwest of Manhattan.

Riley says he spent years building his now-destroyed family home. “It’s like what the Incredible Hulk left behind in a fit of rage. Every penny I spent, gone in two hours.”

Riley, partnered with a friend who is a private insurance adjuster, recently launched the Compass Restoration group to continue to help his neighbours rebuild.

Although the US Congress, under intense pressure from New York and New Jersey, adopted legislation in early January that would provide $9.7 billion (€7 billion) to cover insurance claims filed by people whose homes were damaged or destroyed, Riley says many people in his neighbourhood were not insured, or had virtually “useless” flood insurance.

“People just aren’t covered,” he said.

For him, the worst part is the thought that his community, like his house, could be damaged beyond repair.

“My biggest fear is people from wherever buying up houses for pennies to the dollar, buying two or three and knocking them down to build summer mansions, with no regard for giving back to the local community,” says Riley.

After the superstorm struck on October 29th, New York City experienced its worst floods for more than a century. Some 300,000 homes were destroyed and more than two million people were left without power.

In Long Beach, about 40 per cent of the population has not returned since Sandy; there is little to come back to. Houses inundated by the storm surge are still waterlogged and mouldering.

“It’s a ghost town,” says Nancy Black, a second-generation Irish-American and firefighter from Long Beach’s West End community.

Black was on duty as a first responder on the night of the hurricane, and she says that, in her 24-year career, it was the worst she has seen.

“By eight o’clock that night, we were relocated to the opposite side of the island – us, the first responders. By midnight, the water was up to the windshield,” Black recalls. “I saw nine houses in a row on fire – everything was destroyed. And as crazy as it sounds, a lot of it looks almost as bad today.”

Black says the effort to rebuild is becoming more organised as people recover from the shock of losing their homes, having their cars dragged away by floodwater and grasping the often crippling financial burden from the fallout. “It’s all the community effort. You know, the government – it’s sad. They had the 12/12/12 benefit concert, and that was great, I was there. But a lot of people aren’t seeing any money from it.”

In a series of battles in the House, Democrats and Republicans from the northeast came together to pass two Bills sanctioning $60 billion in federal aid, half of which will go to New York, state governor Andrew Cuomo said during his recent budget presentation.

But, like Black, residents from Long Beach and other devastated communities, such as the Rockaways in Queens, are not holding their breath for effective government aid.

“After Katrina, some insurance companies pulled out of coastal communities, and now they’re disclaiming a lot of people,” says Rockaways resident and Waterford native Brian Heffernan. “My hope is that available funds don’t have too many pit stops to go through to get to those that need it.”

Heffernan, a realtor, and his wife Carmel, who comes from Limerick, have been battling to rebuild their home, which sits two blocks from the bay and wasn’t insured. Heffernan’s brother recently flew over from Ireland with a crew of volunteers from Mountain View Community Church in Bray, Co Wicklow, to help tackle the estimated $150,000 cost of damages.

After a meeting with US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton on her trip to Dublin last month, the Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore, announced the Government had set aside $322,000 in emergency funding to Irish voluntary organisations to assist the Irish and wider communities worst affected by Sandy.

“A lot of people will walk away from their homes,” says Heffernan, who is very appreciative of the offers of help they have received. “The Emerald Isle or Aisling Immigration Centers, groups like the Graybeards and the Rockaways Surf Club . . . Now we’ve scratched the surface, the goal to fix things remains.”