Delays in Sandy relief bill causes pain for storm victims -, South Georgia News, Weather, Sports

Delays in Sandy relief bill mean more painful recovery for storm victims

Superstorm Sandy left many homes beyond repair. (Source: WCBS/CNN) Superstorm Sandy left many homes beyond repair. (Source: WCBS/CNN)

(RNN) - As the U.S. Congress gets ready to vote on the long-awaited disaster aid bill for those affected by Superstorm Sandy, the political wrangling surrounding the "pork" that has been attached to it has caused confusion and delays for those directly affected by the storm.

Among the many parts of the bill that have caused controversy in the approximately $50 billion bill is a $12.1 billion emergency block grant that critics say could be available to states affected by past disasters that have little to do with Sandy.

However, some of the grant would help local aid groups that have been on the ground in Sandy-hit areas since the first days after the storm hit. The lack of funds so far means people are relying solely on FEMA and local government agencies for help, resulting in delays that can cause further damage.

Terri Bennett, co-founder of Respond and Rebuild, a volunteer aid group in Queens, NY that does mold repair for homes, says the held-up funds are preventing houses with mold damage from being fixed.

"The fact that there hasn't been money released for dealing with mold remediation means it will be a bigger problem in the future," Bennett said, referring to the heavy damage untreated mold can cause.

Many of the people Respond and Rebuild helps are in the lower income brackets, meaning any further damage or delay in funds will cause more financial hardships.

Bennett also points out that much of the money that has gone to help people so far has been in the form of loans - not grants - which has posed problems for retirees and people hoping to retire in the near future.

"Obviously it's good to have relief money," she said. "But debt at this point, when people are staring at completely destroyed homes, seems kind of a blessing and a curse. People can rebuild, but at the expense of completely changing their plans for however long it'll take to pay the loans back."

But even though the loans can have mixed reactions, they're still not easy for everyone to get.

Loopholes in laws for aid cause problems

Ayanna Diego's home suffered approximately $180,000 worth of damage because of Sandy. But she didn't qualify for a FEMA grant because she lives in a co-op, which is considered a business property rather than a residence under the Stafford Act - a loophole that has been heavily criticized by local politicians.

That means Diego had to apply for a loan to fix her house from the Small Business Administration, but she didn't qualify.

"We've gone back to FEMA, but they say go to SBA, then back to FEMA," Diego said. "It's one big, huge, vicious circle and we're still right back to 'what do we do next?' It's not helping us get back home."

Diego's family qualified for $31,000 in emergency assistance from FEMA to cover housing and food. However, she has had to pay $3,000 a month in rent at a hotel, in addition to day-to-day living expenses.

A single mother with two kids and an elderly mother living with her, Diego worries the money will run out fast and she still won't have enough money to move back in her house.

"We're trying to scramble, we're trying to make it, but they're not making things easier at all," she said.

"They tell you about all these programs and different things and when you go through the program, it's a totally different story. They say 'we don't do this,' everything is no, you got to restart. And by the time you get done, you're still at square one."

Lack of funding blamed for slow delivery of services

Cardona, a 75-year-old retired mechanic, said Sandy cost him about $20,000 in uninsured damage, including a collectible sports car and all of his tools, some of which he had for 40 years and had sentimental value.

Insurance covered most of the flood damage, but Cardona still had to pay a lot of money out of pocket for other damages, including an expensive new gas boiler, which would not be easy for the retiree.

So when an acquaintance on the city council told him he could get a free boiler from Rapid Repair - a partially FEMA-funded, city-controlled program designed to help make emergency repairs for residential property owners affected by the storm - he was grateful to save the thousands of dollars the boiler would have cost. He canceled his order and registered in the program.

But what was supposed to take a few days ended up taking several weeks.

"They couldn't find me on the computer, so I had to re-register again and again," he said.

Six weeks after registering in the program, Cardona finally got his boiler.

In the meantime, he and his 79-year-old wife had to bathe at friends' houses, cooked over a coal pit, and use electric heaters to heat their home, which caused a spike in his electric bills.

Confusion over exactly how much of the program FEMA would pay for versus how much the city would pay, as well as a lack of electricians to satisfy the demand, are among the reasons suspected for the delay, but no official explanation has been given by city government.

Cardona doesn't know the exact cause of the delay, but he blames the city.

"FEMA I have no complaints with, I have complaints with [Rapid Repair]," he said.

Nearly three months later, people still waiting

Laura Martinez is grateful to be back in her home, but she remembers how hard it was to be away.

Her husband has ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease, and needed a ventilator. But when Sandy knocked the power out of her home, the safest place to be was the hospital.

"I wasn't going to leave my husband," she said, and she stayed by his side for 20 days in the hospital where she worked and 22 more days in a nursing home until her home was repaired.

Being displaced for 42 days, Martinez experienced what many people across New York and New Jersey are still experiencing, and she wishes politicians would do something to expedite the recovery.

But many of those politicians are holding up the aid bill, either by requesting money for non-Sandy related projects or arguing against those projects.

And to Martinez, it's a sign that too many in Washington do not realize the urgency.

"After a month or two, things die down and people think everything is in order," she said. "But this is when people need the most help - because everybody else forgets about them."

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