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Superstorm Sandy recovery continues as Memorial Day nears

On Memorial Day weekend, NY's Rockaway Beach has still not recovered from Sandy damage
Recovery: New York made $1.45 billion available to Sandy victims
Recovery: Sandy caused $19 billion in damage in New York City

It was finally starting to feel a little bit like summer, and Crystal de Jesus wanted to spend her day off relaxing at the beach. But after a long bus ride to the Rockaways, she was dismayed to find bulldozers noisily pushing sand on the beach, the local food shack closed and a giant brown pipe stretching the length of the shore with "Keep Off" sprayed in orange paint.

"I don't want to be next to that pipe — it looks like Godzilla's going to pop out," De Jesus said as she and her friends began the trek down Rockaway Beach Boulevard to find a quiet stretch of sand.

They were going to have to walk a long way. As Memorial Day weekend marks the traditional beginning of the summer season, much of this section of New York is still under construction, struggling to recover from Superstorm Sandy, the second-costliest storm in the nation's history that struck the mid-Atlantic and Northeast 18 months ago.

The sounds of hammers and drills echo along the streets of this narrow spit of land between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean as homeowners rebuild and renovate. Concrete pilings still lay bare on the beach, remnants of the boardwalk that once welcomed walkers and bikers. Closer to 116th Street, where the subway runs, stores and some homes are boarded up and abandoned.

The slow pace of repairs has angered residents, who didn't expect to spend a second Memorial Day weekend sharing the beach with trucks and bulldozers.

They say the $1.45 billion made available to Sandy victims has been held up by red tape and bureaucracy, and largely blame the Build it Back program, created by former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to help New Yorkers repair, rebuild and elevate homes along the shore. About 20,000 people applied for assistance through the program, but by the time Bill de Blasio took office in January, not a single home had been rebuilt with help from the program.

De Blasio installed a new head of the program, and assistance has increased. Construction is underway on more than 30 homes, said Amy Spitalnick, a De Blasio spokeswoman.

"When this administration came into office, too many homeowners were stuck in the intake process," she said. "Since Day 1, we've prioritized an improved recovery — and, as a result, we've seen a dramatic increase in the number of residents moving through Build It Back."

De Blasio has pledged to continue to accelerate efforts to dole out the funds. His office says that 14,000 people have registered with the city to be involved in the program.

But residents are dismayed that their homes and the community remain in disrepair as they approach the second summer since Superstorm Sandy.

"We're going into Memorial Day weekend, the start of our busy time, and the place is still a mess," said Joseph Palmer Doyle, whose home was flooded by nearly 9 feet of water causing $170,000 in damage.

Doyle applied for help from Build it Back last July after his insurance company refused to make payouts in the aftermath of the storm. He still hasn't gotten a helpful response from the program, he said.

"It's totally gross, disgusting, disgraceful mismanagement," he said.

Few people expected quick repairs because of the extensive coastal damage. There was an estimated $19 billion in damage in New York City, with 50,000 housing units damaged. The storm flooded thousands of basements, ripped out trees and swept sand out to sea, further eroding delicate beaches.

More than 650,000 U.S. homes were damaged or destroyed throughout the Eastern Seaboard, with monetary damages estimated at near $50 billion and a death toll of at least 147, the National Hurricane Center has reported.

Repair efforts in the Northeast have been riddled with problems. In New Jersey, for instance, a contractor hired by Gov. Chris Christie to dispense aid was fired in December after investigators found the company turned away thousands of minority applicants. In New York, applicants for aid complain about bureaucracy and long wait times.

"They kept on planning and planning, but no work was actually happening," said Todd Miner, director of Friends of Rockaway, a nonprofit group that is helping families rebuild.

It's not just homeowners who are dismayed by the pace of recovery.

Mohamad Hakim owns Beach Bagels, located on a busy commercial district in the Neponsit section of the Rockaways. His wall was taken out by the storm, and he spent his own money to repair his store. But he's worried tourists won't be coming to the beach this summer because of all the work being done on and off the sand.

"If it stays like this, I don't know if people will come back," he said.

The city is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to pump in 2.9 million cubic yards of sand from the ocean floor to replenish parts of the beach that were wiped away by the storm — paid for with $26 million from the Sandy relief bill. Equipment problems have meant that the work won't be done by Memorial Day.

The boardwalk won't be finished until 2017. The saltwater that flooded the area killed grass and trees. The city is moving slowly to replace the vegetation, but the landscape remains unsightly, keeping visitors away.

"It's continuing to blight the entirety of the Rockaways; you can see the trees failing and dying," Miner said.

At the biggest public beach in the Rockaways, Jacob Riis Park, part of the National Park Service, workers were hurrying to repair public bathrooms before Memorial Day. Giant barriers blocked off parts of the parking lot and orange cones were scattered everywhere, guiding the few cars of tourists to an area far from the beach. A playground was surrounded by orange plastic fences, and the nearby Riis bathhouse was closed, its windows broken.

"It's a slow process, but it should be done by September," said Joe Bogan, the construction manager for the projects going on in National Park Service land. Ft. Tilden, a onetime Army installation, was scattered with workers repairing the chapel, building a new picnic structure, planting trees and repairing the roof of a day-care center.

It feels like a long time for Bob Panico, 66, who lives in a house by the beach with his wife, Peggy. His two daughters and their families live upstairs. Every time they file paperwork to get reimbursed for the $4,000 they had to spend rebuilding their steps, they are told they need to fill out more paperwork, provide more information and come back another day, he said.

"The storm was almost two years ago, and they're just getting to it now," Panico said. "It's like a tortoise moving backwards."

He was walking on a recent day down to the beach with four of his grandsons, who were captivated by the bulldozers pushing giant piles of sand back and forth and by the enormous repairs occurring outside their door.

Their grandparents might miss the boardwalk, might wonder if they will ever get compensated by the government and might worry whether another storm will once again wipe them out. But the boys had a front-row look at churning machinery working to repair the damage nature had wrought. They, at least, were enthralled.

alana.semuels@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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