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Two Years Since Sandy: Emotions Run High for Residents Still Rebuilding

Two years after Superstorm Sandy delivered devastating damage to New York and New Jersey, there are still many residents seeking to return to their homes.

For David Velez of Gerritsen Beach, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, the road to recovery has been a roller coaster of emotions.

On the night of the storm, Velez and his family stayed home, as they were advised to do, even as the first floor of his two-story house was inundated by floodwater.

"That was a big mistake," Velez said.

By the following morning, the water in his home had receded, but the first floor had been "destroyed," he said.

With little assistance from their insurance company, Velez and his wife began the arduous rebuilding process using their own savings. And rebuild they did, as they were living comfortably in their new and improved home the following February. Life was getting closer to normal, or so they thought.

Soon thereafter, however, their rebuilt house was inspected and deemed structurally unsafe by an architect with the city's Build it Back program.

Build it Back assists homeowners who have had their houses significantly damaged or completely destroyed by Sandy by providing the necessary construction funds to help with the rebuild process using a city-selected developer. The program also allows residents to choose their own contractors, but they must adhere to program guidelines and cost restrictions.

Velez said Build it Back has been extremely helpful throughout the rebuilding process, by providing open lines of communication. The problem, he explained, has been inconsistent responses from the contractor and The Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), who manage the building of the houses.

This past September, the family moved out of their home as it was scheduled for demolition on Sept. 8. Yet, nearly two months later, the house still stands and housing officials have told Velez it is scheduled for demolition for the first week of November. Velez, who is retired, said they are currently residing with his mother-in-law.

"Needless to say, it's nothing but delays, delays, delays," he said. "It's all red tape, basically."

Once torn down, Velez said contacts from the HPD have given him a four-month timetable to have the house rebuilt. Still, Velez remains skeptical.

While much remains to be done, the rebuilding efforts in New York City have improved after Mayor Bill de Blasio overhauled Build it Back, amidst numerous other changes to the city's Sandy recovery programs.

Recently, de Blasio announced new goals for the end of the year, and illustrated significant progress for Build it Back.

Currently, there are approximately 14,000 applicants and nearly half (6,472) have been made an offer by the program compared to 451 when de Blasio took office in January. In addition, 727 applicants had moved into the recovery phase and another 878 had received reimbursement checks compared to zero at the start of the year.

By Dec. 31, they are hoping to have the number of construction starts at 1,000 (currently at 759 homes) and 1,500 reimbursement checks issued (currently at $1,000, totaling just over $16 million).

"Once Mayor de Blasio came in, he took the bull by the horns and he's trying to make this program work, and as far as I know, this program works," Velez said.

This past July, as part of the overhaul, de Blasio removed the firm that was overseeing the Sandy-rebuilding program according to a WNYC report.

"Nearly two years after Sandy, there's nothing more important than getting families home - and as a result of our overhaul, that's finally happening," de Blasio said in a news release.

In Toms River, New Jersey, the eighth-largest city in the state with nearly 95,000 residents, progress is being made, but the post-Sandy recovery is still ongoing, according to Mayor Thomas Kelaher.

Along the coast of New Jersey, damage resulted in a $4 billion loss in ratables (the established value of a property) and $2 billion was estimated in Toms River alone, Kelaher explained.

"Around 10,000 homes [were] either totally destroyed, partially destroyed, flooded or a combination of all of those things," he said.

Since then, more than 1,500 demolition permits to begin raising damaged houses have been issued and nearly 1,200 have been completed, Kelaher said. Additionally, he cited the "encouraging" sign that 1,300 new home permits were assigned.

"So far, however, it's a slow process; only 330 of those new homes are occupied," Kelaher said.

Yet, simply by driving around the area and examining the state of some homes, he knows that there will be more requests for demolition permits.

There are 2,000 homes in the community of Ortley Beach and the area still "looks like a war zone," according to Kelaher.

There are many reasons for the lack of rebuilding. Some of the homes are vacation properties, and the owners did not have insurance. Others endured previous rebuilding processes and they simply don't want go through it again. Some residents remain in disputes with their insurance companies to get enough money to begin repairs.

The new homes that have been built are showcasing one of the unintended benefits of the storm's destruction. Many of the houses in town used to be bungalows built on concrete slabs, but now people are building bigger houses on pilings to safeguard against future storms, Kelaher said.

Some residents may be hesitant to rebuild until they know that risk from future coastal storms has diminished, but currently a plan is in the works to do just that.

Beginning in early 2015, the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers will begin a $100 million project designed to increase the beaches to 200 feet in length and build 25-foot sand dunes to protect against storm surge.