Hurricane Sandy Housing Aid Eludes Storm Victims in Hard-Hit Staten Island Neighborhood

Many homes in the Staten Island neighborhood of New Dorp Beach were shattered by Hurricane Sandy. But even in a New York City community as hard hit by the superstorm as this one, Rudy Mienert's house stops passersby dead in their tracks. Slabs of its clapboard exterior litter the ground, the front fence is mangled and a sedan languishes in the yard where storm waters left it.

But most striking is the home's disfigured facade. One section is missing, another is badly damaged. Mienert, a 54-year-old police sergeant at the 5th Precinct in Manhattan's Chinatown, said that a ship container caused the damage when Sandy's surging waters hurled it at the house.

"I expected the basement [to flood], 12 inches on the ground," he said. But the flood's depth turned out to be closer to 12 feet.

On Thursday, Mienert and a friend sloshed through muck in his front yard, in mud-spattered jeans, clearing debris. Mienert says that he's working as quickly as possible to make his home habitable again, but there's a problem: He doesn't know where the money is going to come from. "That's the big question," he said.

Mienert (pictured above in a plaid sweatshirt, with a friend, at his home) is one of many Hurricane Sandy victims who remain in the dark about how much relief money, if any, they stand to receive for their damaged homes. And like others in his neighborhood, Mienert is largely unaware of an array of other aid available to him -- besides compensation from the government or insurance companies.

Hurricane Sandy Victims: Disaster Relief Programs You May Not Know About

Homeowners and relief workers in New Dorp Beach who spoke to AOL Real Estate on Thursday said that the Federal Emergency Management Agency had not gotten back to many residents since they filed claims for assistance shortly after the storm.

Those homeowners covered by flood and homeowners insurance also said that they have yet to receive settlement offers from their insurance companies.

And many of the hard-hit residents of New Dorp said that they were unaware that they could take advantage of other forms of relief offered by the government, such as special loans, mortgage assistance and temporary housing.


'I Heard They Would Cut a Check Right Away'

Mienert initially expected prompt assistance from FEMA. "I heard that they would cut a check right away," he said.

In fact, FEMA does have the ability to act quickly. But people who have no insurance coverage for damage get relief the quickest. Often, they are storm victims without flood insurance.

If the homeowner has insurance, however, the process is more complicated. FEMA first needs to know how much insurance money a homeowner will receive before it determines how much aid -- if any -- it will grant.

So far, the homeowners that AOL Real Estate spoke to had not had their properties assessed by FEMA. But even if they had, possible relief would still have been out of reach because their insurers had not yet made settlement offers.

As of Thursday, there have been 145,000 requests for aid from New Yorkers, and FEMA has distributed nearly $200 million in response, said FEMA spokesman Bill Rukeyser.

But that doesn't mean much to some of the victims in New Dorp. As far as they're concerned, Uncle Sam is just giving them the cold shoulder.

And even if homeowners like Mienert do receive FEMA grants, the relief money most likely won't be enough to pay for full repairs to their homes. "It's not designed to replace wall-to-wall carpeting," Rukeyser said. "It's not designed to put them back to just the way they were before."

'Extremely Beneficial' Loans Still Out of Reach

A FEMA grant is not the only source of relief money. There is a government loan provided by the Small Business Administration that features "extremely beneficial conditions for a federal loan," and can either stand in for or supplement a FEMA grant, Rukeyser said.

The only problem is that homeowners cannot pursue an SBA loan until they find out whether or not they qualify for a FEMA grant.

"I heard about SBA," said Mienert, leaning on a rake in his front yard, which was covered in slush. "But I have to hear from FEMA first."

Either way, Mienert at least stands a chance of obtaining some relief from FEMA because his home in New Dorp is his primary residence. But for people with second homes impacted by disasters: government relief generally doesn't cover those.

That has dismayed some Sandy victims. Many of the communities that took the brunt of the storm were chock-full of vacation homes.

However, there is an exception for some owners of second homes in hard-hit areas. If someone uses a second home as a rental property -- and can prove it -- the person may be eligible for an SBA loan.

Temporary Housing: Not Just a Rumor

In addition to being hazy on any direct aid that they may be entitled to, storm-hit residents also are struggling to find temporary housing. Sal Conte, a retired military veteran, has been staying with his sister-in-law while he clears out his water-damaged bungalow and waits to hear from FEMA and his insurance providers.

Conte (pictured at his house below) could be eligible for a transitional housing program that was launched by FEMA last week, but he had only heard "a rumor" about such a program and had dismissed it.

Rukeyser said that to apply for the program, a homeowner must call FEMA at 1-800-621-FEMA or register online. He added that providing shelter for Sandy victims has been particularly difficult given the number of people affected by the storm in the New York area.

Mortgage Relief? 'I Need to Find Out About That!'

Some homeowners also appear to be ignorant of housing aid offered separately from FEMA or insurance companies.

Conte's eyes lit up when he heard that Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and the Federal Housing Administration are extending mortgage relief to people affected by Sandy.

"I need to find out about that!" he said.

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have authorized banks that service their loans to grant forbearance, waive late fees and suspend foreclosure proceedings for up to a year. The FHA, meanwhile, has placed a moratorium on foreclosures and has encouraged banks that service its loans to offer borrowers forbearance.

Borrowers are advised to call their lenders or, if applicable, the government-backed entity that owns their mortgage to find out if they qualify for the relief.

The FHA also allows a borrower with an FHA-insured mortgage, whose home was destroyed in a disaster, to obtain a 100-percent financed mortgage (meaning no down payment and, in some cases, no closing costs). Known as a 203(h) loan, it can be used to rebuild a wrecked home or buy another one.

A last option for disaster victims is the FHA-insured 203(k) loan. That loan is often used to fund home renovations. But it can also come in handy for disaster-stricken borrowers. The mortgage's selling point is that it allows a borrower to avoid taking on more than one loan, which is often necessary to repair a home.

"People probably don't know that it exists," said Jeff Onofrio, director of renovation lending at AnnieMac in Mount Laurel, N.J. "It's not immediate. It's not going to answer all of the problems that have happened because of this devastation. But the FEMA thing is tough: The government can only put so much money aside."

For now, Mienert will keep his fingers crossed while he waits for answers. He plans on doing all the necessary cleanup on his home himself. But when it comes time to install new clapboard on his storm-ravaged facade, he'll need to hire some hands. And for now, he doesn't know if he'll have the cash to do it.

AOL staff writer Ross Kenneth Urken contributed to this report.

See also:
Building a More Storm-Resistant Home
Home Insurance for Hurricanes and Floods
Stranded Hurricane Sandy Survivor Leaves Farewell Message in Evacuated Home

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