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President Obama visited Staten Island today to buck up devastated victims of superstorm Sandy, but even though Tarek Moustafa and MaryLou Wong voted for him, they still took the commander in chief's words with a grain of salt.
The couple lives in the New York City borough's Midland Beach neighborhood, and lost everything when the Oct. 29 storm blew up the Atlantic coast, sending a 15-foot surge of seawater into their working-class neighborhood. In the hours that followed, Moustafa, Wong and their two sons Kareem and Adam, stood in freezing, chest-deep water in Adam's second-floor bedroom, huddling with their three dogs and waving a blanket out the window until they were rescued by a crew in a Zodiac boat.
Since those harrowing hours, they’ve slept on the floors of in-laws' homes, on love seats, even packing seven people into a relative’s tiny apartment as their home three blocks from the shore lies in ruins. On Thursday, Obama toured some of the wreckage and promised Moustafa, Wong and all of Sandy’s other victims in the region that the government is on the case.
“I came up here right after the storm, and was on the Jersey side," said Obama, who landed at Miller Field and toured the New Dorp section of Staten Island. "I promised to everybody that I was speaking on behalf of the country when I said we are going to be here until the rebuilding is complete. And I meant it. So I'm going to come back today. But I'm also going to be coming back in the future to make sure that we have followed through on that commitment.”
But Moustafa and Wong, who made it to the polls on Election Day and cast their votes for Obama, have lost confidence in the federal government’s willingness to help. The final straw came two days ago, when a FEMA inspector came to their home and denied their application for an emergency grant, citing “insufficient damage.” They said she did not even enter their home.
“Our house is completely damaged, destroyed and they say ‘insufficient damage?’” Wong, a postal worker, said incredulously. “I still like Obama, so I'm not going to say he's not doing good for us. He's working on it.”
FEMA offers grants of as much as $30,900 to qualified disaster victims -- even if they have insurance -- to help restore the home to livable condition. To determine eligibility, the agency sends out inspectors to assess damages. If the victim is eligible for the aid, items marked for repair or replacement are priced depending on the geographic region. “Insufficient damage” is commonly cited as grounds for rejection, and applicants can appeal the determination.
Inside the couple's home, ruined furniture is strewn about, lying wherever the receding water left it. Soaked insulation shows through sheetrock saturated by floodwaters, with the smells of mold and the sea permeating the air. Wong tears up thinking about how two brutal storms have erased the memories from raising two boys and 20 years of marriage.
FEMA did cut the couple a check for $2,900 to cover two months' rent in an apartment. They have homeowners and flood insurance, and hope to eventually recoup much of their losses. But they know from experience that no insurance company will make up for all of their losses. Moustafa filed for bankruptcy after the wreckage of Irene. Wong had a date to do the same on Oct. 31, but canceled because she had nothing to wear two days after Sandy.
"Everything is gone," she said.
On Thursday, Moustafa spent the morning standing in the cold looking for a glimpse of Obama. Seeing Marine One land was as close as he could get. Police officers allowed the press to move closer to Obama, but not local residents like Moustafa.
"I don't even care anymore," Moustafa said. "We're not going to see him."