Nearly five years after Hurricane Sandy, they’re still living in limbo — instead of in their homes.
Their stories stand out amid the backdrop of Hurricane Harvey’s recent devastation, showing how a new breed of nightmare can take hold once a monster storm’s soggy debris gives way to mountains of dry, tedious red tape.
They are the more than 1,000 New York City residents whose homes are still uninhabitable, boarded up, torn down or undergoing some form of reconstruction.
Tom Doyle, 55, stood outside his boarded-up home in Staten Island’s hard-hit South Beach neighborhood on Thursday and shook his head in disbelief.
A warning sign on his once tidy, two-family brick home read “Under Construction.”
“Under construction? That’s a joke. There hasn’t been any construction here since we left,” he said with exasperation. “It’s frustrating.”
The father of four and grandfather of three recalled going to work as a sanitation department borough chief in Brooklyn when Sandy hit.
“My wife called me and told me the water was rising up. There was no way she could get everyone out of the house. They went upstairs,” he said.
He worked a 12-hour shift, spending some of that time rescuing people, then returned to find 6 feet of water in his newly renovated first floor.
“It destroyed everything,” he said. “Everything we had, all our money we saved and borrowed for the renovation, was gone in a day.”
The family had flood insurance, but it only paid about $34,000 — nowhere near enough to cover gutting and restoring, he said. They did what they could and moved back in temporarily.
He breathed a sigh of relief when the city’s Built It Back program said he qualified.
“A lot of people were waiting to get in. We got accepted right away. We thought, ‘Great, we are lucky,'” he recalled.
The process was slow at first. Then he was told things were about to start “moving fast” last year, so the family transferred to a rental on Aug. 15, 2016.
Officials ultimately decided that Doyle’s house had to be torn down because of structural damage, he said. Then for some reason, the first contractor assigned to his project dropped out. The second one did too.
The family handed over the keys during the process and was told not to enter the property.
They were visiting a relative next door when they realized the radiators had frozen and burst, sending new flooding through the ghostly structure.
Doyle said he later got a $2,500 water bill for the incident that still hasn’t been resolved.
“The entire first floor is mold-infested now,” he said. “So even if I wanted to drop out of Build It Back at this point, I couldn’t afford it. The house would have to be gutted to the bone, which costs money I do not have.”
The latest setback came when Build It Back said the family would no longer be getting a new wood structure built on-site. Instead, they would get a modular home largely built in a factory setting.
Doyle said he hasn’t seen any images yet and has a new raft of worries about safety and re-sale value.
He said his family is “very grateful” for the city’s assistance, but the delays and miscommunications have taken a toll.
“I’m not looking for a mansion. I just want to go home,” he told The News.
Doyle said his best advice for Harvey victims displaced from homes during reconstruction is to be relentless. Take more pictures than you ever think you’ll need, save every receipt and try to visit your property as often as possible, he said.
His regular visits uncovered the burst radiators and at least three attempted break-ins, he said.
Hurricane Sandy hit Oct. 29, 2012 and quickly became one of the worst natural disasters in the city’s history. It left tens of thousands of people immediately homeless and drained the life savings of countless New Yorkers.
In June 2013, the state created the Office of Storm Recovery and the city launched Build It Back. Within months, an estimated 20,000 families applied for city aid.
As of last month, 97% of the 8,313 homeowners who qualified for Build It Back received either financial reimbursement or a construction start, officials said.
Of the 5,166 cases involving construction managed by either the city or the private homeowner, 4,056 have been completed, they said.
Brooklyn residents Kathy and Dan Ene said Build It Back initially turned them away, claiming they didn’t qualify. But they didn’t give up.
“They had said that we didn’t have enough damage. The fact that our house was on the water didn’t matter much to them. It was all a numbers game,” Kathy, 60, told The News.
She said the threshold to qualify was 50% damage, and the city decided her home on Gerritsen Beach was only 40% damaged.
“We had to fight. Everything was a fight and a struggle,” Dan, a 49-year-old volunteer firefighter, said.
The couple stood outside their coastal property Thursday, staring at the exposed wood. They hope to return with their three boys in a year’s time.
“We had 4 feet of water on the first floor. Everything was destroyed,” Kathy said.
The family got more than $40,000 from FEMA, the state and friends and relatives, but it still wasn’t enough to hire a contractor.
Dan stripped out the flooring, sheetrock and insulation himself and replaced all the utilities.
The family moved back in temporarily but had to evacuate again in June to make way for Build It Back contractors planning to elevate the structure.
“These last few storms, the water had moved into the yard. (That) used to be rare, but now it’s the norm,” she said. “We need to elevate. If anyone in this neighborhood is going to get flooded, it’s us.”
Brooklyn resident Maura Buckley recalled the dizzying number of times she’s had to relocate since Sandy ripped the deck off her Breezy Point house and filled it with a thigh-high swamp.
“It was just one big muddy black hole,” she said of her childhood home. “You’re in complete shock. You’re trying to figure out, ‘Is this happening to me? Am I in some sort of dream I can’t wake up from?'”
Buckley said she first moved to Long Island. Then some friends in Marine Park took her in until she found a nearby apartment. Then she moved back in with her parents.
She said it was hard to explain all the upheaval to her son Eamonn, who was only 4 years old when Sandy struck.
“I’d kind of pretend I wasn’t even dealing with it. It was almost like robotic. You’d come, you’d gut the house for as long as you can,” she said.
Her home is finally set to be demolished next week. Build It Back will be constructing a new home for her, with completion set for next year.
“It’s been a long five years,” she said Friday. “You’re mad one day, you’re sad one day, you’re positive the next day. You’re on this back and forth.”
All the Sandy survivors said their hearts sank as they saw the startling images of Harvey’s wrath.
“I want them just to know that they are loved,” Buckley said, “that as hard as things are and as dark as these days may seem, that there are so many people out here that want to help.”
Kathy Ene said her heart was breaking because she knew the storm was only the beginning.
“We are lucky, at least our house is still standing. So many of them have lost their homes entirely,” she said.
“It brings me back. It flashes me back to the day of Sandy, right at that moment,” Doyle said of the images pouring out of the Gulf Coast.