At the end of Beach 131st Street in Belle Harbor, there is a plot of empty land by the ocean.
A block of dirt and sand, there’s very little to suggest the kind of life that once happened there – the birthday parties and family dinners and the kind of laughter and love that seeps into the everyday.
But the residents of Beach 131st Street know: For years, they knew the family who lived in the walls now gone, taken by Hurricane Sandy. For years, the neighbors would go back and forth between houses – raucous children ate dinner there; adults clinked glasses together there.
They still know the family, how they want to return home – 17 months after the storm swept the area, leaving residents homeless and, now, with ever-growing piles of debt as they try to build back with very little help from the outside world.
But, a neighbor told us the family is being strangled by red tape from the city Department of Buildings – they, like so many others in neighborhoods devastated by Sandy in Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island are facing countless layers of government that seem to be working against them.
Many people reading this know the story all too well. They understand the second mortgages, the dipping into retirement funds or college savings, the constant heaviness that comes with wondering if they’ll make it financially or if today will be the day they actually sink.
They know that after years and years of paying for insurance and paying taxes, neither the insurance companies nor government agencies appear to be doing anything but hinder them.
Build It Back, the city program tasked with using hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding to help Sandy victims rebuild, has not proven itself to be worthwhile at all, in part it seems like because of unbelievable levels of bureaucracy at the federal level.
And so, where do we go from here? Seventeen months after Sandy – to say the kinks still aren’t worked out really isn’t acceptable. And yet, that’s what’s happening.
The first place to start would be for Mayor de Blasio to start building a Sandy team. Kathryn Mallon, the head of Build It Back, unfortunately just left, likely because of the never-ending red tape she faced from Washington D.C. And before her, two other high level Sandy officials left.
When talking to civic leaders and residents in South Queens and Rockaway, those who have been trying for nearly a year and a half to piece their lives back together, they are tired and many have given up altogether on believing their government will ever get it together enough to help them.
It’s time for the mayor to prove them wrong. Time to appoint people who can hit the ground running and find out what people need. And then make it happen.
It’s time to rethink large swaths of the city’s Sandy recovery program – including the fact that one family, living across from the empty plot of land on Beach 131st Street – has essentially been told they are not a priority in the Build It Back program because they make too much money. The mother and father are teachers with two children and care for an elderly uncle.
What’s the message here? You have what has always been known as a middle class job, you have a family, you buy a house and pay your taxes, you pay for insurance – and when you need a lending hand after a hurricane wipes away life as you know it? Forget it. You’ll have to take on what is essentially another full-time job to figure out how to access any government help – and even then you won’t get much.
People are tired of words and promises. It’s time to start building some walls.