Storm-ravaged Staten Islanders angry over stalled Sandy aid

Liz Goodwin
The Lookout

Congress isn't exactly winning popularity contests anywhere in America, but in New York's storm-ravaged borough of Staten Island, its name is mud.

Republican House Speaker John Boehner declined to bring a $60.4 billion aid package for people hit by Superstorm Sandy to a vote on Tuesday night, sparking a backlash from both Republican and Democratic politicians from New York and New Jersey, who called the delay callous and a "betrayal." Boehner quickly announced that on Friday, Congress will vote on one urgent portion of the bill, which sends more than $9 billion to the government's flood insurance program. That program was expected to run out of money early next week as the victims of Sandy have been filing claims in droves.

But the rest of the $51 billion in aid won't be voted on until Jan 15, more than two months after the storm hit, and a longer wait period than survivors of past catastrophes like Hurricanes Ike, Katrina, Gustav, Andrew and others have faced.

In the meantime, some in Staten Island say they're tired of feeling like the government doesn't care.

"What do I think? I think they're lucky we're not armed," yelled Rose Mazz, 68, out of the window of the small storm-damaged home where she's lived for 24 years.

A few minutes later, Mazz emerged from the front door--stamped with a green inspection sticker from the city that labels it inhabitable--in a puffy coat and apologized for not inviting me in. "You wouldn't be able to breathe in there," she explained, gesturing inside to a cloud of dust emanating from the construction. Her home was under four feet of water, and she's still repairing her roof, boiler, furnace and plumbing system at an estimated price tag of $100,000.

"They're so busy spiting each other and playing games," she said of Congress. "It's sad."

Mazz is one of the hundreds of thousands of people whose homes were destroyed or damaged by Sandy, which ripped through the region Oct. 29 and left more than 130 people dead, nearly half of them in New York City. Mazz counts herself as lucky, since she is better off than the three of her neighbors who drowned in the storm, and the many others who lost their homes entirely.

Mazz has only received $5,000 from her insurance company so far.

Mazz's contractor, who declined to be named, said many of his customers are scrambling to get funds from their insurance to help them pay. "I just had one customer crying," he said. "She has $130,000 in damage. The insurance gave her $12,000."

In theory, the $60 billion relief bill could help defray the costs for Mazz and others in her situation.

The bill, which will now have to be redrafted, provides $17 billion for Community Development Block Grants for homeowners and small businesses. It also sets aside billions to repair New York City's mass transit system, and for the Army Corps of Engineers to build up the beaches to help prevent future flooding. Some congressional Republicans criticized the bill for not having enough oversight on how funds are spent, and for including money for extraneous projects such as helping Gulf Coast areas as well as the Northeast prevent storms, and money for new equipment for government agencies.

"We think we're dead in the water," said Thomas Cunsolo, whose house is facing hundreds of thousands in repairs and has no electricity or heat. "We aren't waiting on the government to help us. We're not waiting on them because we can't depend on them."

"It's a disgrace how they turned their back on New York," Cunsolo said.

James Molinaro, the borough president of Staten Island, said Congress "seems to ignore people from the Northeast." He said Staten Island needs the money in the bill to replace its still-broken rail system and that 20,000 homes on the island are damaged or destroyed.

"It's just plain stupid" Molinaro said. "It's tough to understand [why] the United States runs to the aid of countries all over the world when there's a tragedy ... and with their own people, they question it. Should we give them the aid or should we not give them the aid?"