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Superstorm Sandy victims' lives snarled in red tape

| Saturday, Feb. 9, 2013, 9:24 p.m.

NEW YORK — The mud and floodwaters that ravaged the East Coast when Superstorm Sandy roared ashore three months ago have been supplanted by a sea of red tape, leaving thousands of residents and businesses in limbo as they await insurance funds or help from the federal government.

Some have used savings or loans to get back into their homes or reopen businesses.

Others remain in temporary housing, hotels or face the winter in frigid, unfinished housing, resulting in a staggered state of recovery that bodes ill for a region trying to make itself whole again.

One late January night on Staten Island, N.Y., as the temperature dropped to 10 degrees, Anthony Gambino slept on the floor of a heated tent in a park. Two miles away, Janet Moore slept in her newly repaired home. Her neighbor, Ellen Krakower, spent another night in a temporary apartment, wondering how long it would be before her own home was repaired.

“It's not one size fits all,” said James Molinaro, the borough president of Staten Island, where swaths of despair sit adjacent to neighborhoods that were barely touched.

Twenty-three of New York City's 43 deaths occurred on Staten Island as the tide tore through the low-slung bungalows and tidy condos in neighborhoods such as New Dorp Beach, where Gambino lives, and Midland Beach, where Moore and Krakower own condos on the same block.

Hundreds of businesses were severely damaged or destroyed. Though a business closing might be an inconvenience elsewhere in the city, on Staten Island, which has no subway, it becomes a hardship for people in neighborhoods lined with broken-down homes, piles of rotting wood, and portable toilets for workers and for residents still without plumbing.

Asked when Staten Island might recover, Molinaro said: “In my opinion it's going to be years, because of the businesses that have to be reopened. The number I get from FEMA is that 37 percent of all businesses shut down by a hurricane never reopen.”

Homeowners and business owners alike are debating whether it is worth it to rebuild as they ponder higher flood insurance premiums and property values that have dropped an estimated 30 percent in flood zones.

Help is there, but it can be a challenge to get. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency — whose grants to cover home repairs, temporary rentals and other needs top out at $31,900 per household — has distributed more than $1.2 billion in such payments to Sandy victims in five states. That includes $89.3 million to Staten Island, where about half of 20,000 applicants have been approved for help.

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