Delays Leave Sandy-Scarred Family Seeking Answers

The post-Superstorm Sandy story of the De Virgilio family reads like a Hollywood-ready screenplay, replete with drama, tragedy and the resolve to rebuild. But according to Sophia Vailakis-De Virgilio, red tape and bureaucratic hurdles are delaying a happy ending.

“The house has been demolished,” she said of her former Broad Channel abode. “[After Sandy], it looked like it had been picked up and dropped back down, only slightly off kilter.”

Vailakis-De Virgilio and her family fled West 12th Road ahead of the storm to her sister-in-law’s place house in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, where they stayed for six weeks. Her husband, a retired public-school teacher, ventured back to Broad Channel a couple of days into the aftermath to survey the damage.

“He said, ‘You’re not going to want to go back…you’re going to literally cry,’” Vailakis-De Virgilio recalled. “He was right.”
These days, any tears are the product of frustration—with city and federal agencies that Vailakis-De Virgilio said “hoodwinked” her family into “crushing debt.”

“Nobody is helping us,” she said.

The De Virgilios had to completely rebuild. According to Sophia, they had both flood and homeowners insurance. But after consulting with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which advised them to apply for a loan from the Small Business Administration; and area elected officials, who said the loan would not count against any additional assistance they would get in the form of grants from the city Build It Back program, the De Virgilios applied and were approved for the SBA loan.

“Lo and behold, it counted against us,” Sophia said, adding that the elected officials later apologized for giving her family the wrong advice.

However, the SBA loan, for which the family was approved in April, 2013, has become “a second mortgage,” according to Sophia.

“We’re on the hook for SBA for more than a quarter of a million dollars,” she said, noting that they have only received roughly $14,000 of the loan.

Now, Sophia said, it has become a waiting game of sorts—while the city and legal representatives look into how the family can reduce what is owed, the De Virgilios wait for Build It Back to approve the family’s contractor, and all permits and documentation, so the rest of the SBA money can be disbursed…and the family can move forward with installing their new modular home.

City representatives told this newspaper that BIB has been actively working with the De Virgilios and were in touch with the family as recent as the beginning of this month. Additionally, the administration pointed out that hundreds of homeowners are now in construction or receiving reimbursement. To date, there are over 762 construction starts and 1,090 reimbursement checks distributed—all compared to none at the beginning of this year. Also, approximately 6,512 homeowners have been made an offer, compared to 451 at the beginning of this year; 4,173 have chosen their path forward, compared to none at the beginning of this year; and over 1,600 have initiated design, compared to none at the beginning of the year.

Asked if she sees a light at the end of the now two-year tunnel, Sophia paused.

“I’m not sure if it’s a light, or the haze from an oncoming train,” she said.


By Michael V. Cusenza


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