We knew it was coming.
“They’ve been talking about this for years,” says Levittown, N.Y., remodeler Mike Sloggatt. “They’ve been saying that someday, everything south of Route 27A is going to go under water. Well, it finally happened.”
The day after Superstorm Sandy crashed on shore, REMODELING got through to Sloggatt on a static-filled cell phone connection. His house in Long Island was in the dark, and communication was spotty. “We have a generator to power a few things, but it’s not worth running it full time,” Sloggatt said. “We don’t have any TV. We don’t have Internet. We don’t really have cell service. We’re completely cut off, other than the radio.” Text messaging was working, but only sporadically, he said: “I got a text today at 2:30, it took six hours to get to me. By the time I saw it, the guy that sent it to me had already stopped by my house to see if I was OK.”
About six miles north of the Oyster Bay shore, and a scant 10 miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean, Sloggatt’s home sits 80 feet above sea level, high and dry. But a few miles to the south of his street, all was devastation. “Thousands of cars were floating down the street. Boats were everywhere,” Sloggatt says. Even in Sloggatt’s neighborhood, miles inland, streets were blocked by downed trees and power lines: “To get from one side of the neighborhood to the other took a couple of hours because of all the stuff on the road.”
In the immediate aftermath, people were in reaction mode. “It’s confusion,” Sloggatt said, at the time. “National Guard choppers in the air … it’s not about rebuilding and saving property yet. It’s about getting people out of their homes and into a safe place.” Sloggatt offered his house as temporary shelter to a friend whose first floor was destroyed by flood, his possessions ruined. “He’s going to be here for a while,” Sloggatt said, “because his house is uninhabitable. It got trashed.”
A few miles east of Sloggatt’s house is the East Meadow, N.Y., showroom of Alure Home Improvements, one of the nation’s largest remodeling companies. Sal Ferro, Alure’s president, directs the business. Doug Cornwell, the company’s vice president of operations, oversees Alure’s four operations directors, who in turn supervise dozens of project managers running multiple simultaneous jobs in crowded, busy Nassau County and the adjacent New York City boroughs. As the storm approached, Alure went into response mode.
“We put an emergency team together when we saw that this was coming,” Ferro said in a Nov. 16 phone interview. “But we were hampered at first because there was no gas on Long Island. And we were unable to operate out of our headquarters because there was no electric service. We only got electricity back on Monday [Nov. 11].”
As the wind and rain tapered off, Ferro explored his own neighborhood in an ATV. “You couldn’t get around in a regular vehicle,” he says. “There were trees and wires down everywhere.” Within blocks of his own home, Ferro immediately went to work. Seeing a tree down on a house and residents struggling to clear the roof themselves, Ferro offered his company’s services. “We replaced 30 rafters,” he says. “We changed 80 sheets of plywood, we put on a whole new roof, put in a new chimney, new electrical mast, new service, and we were done within the week.”
By late November, the crisis had passed in Sloggatt’s neighborhood. “Mainland life is pretty much getting back to normal, that’s for sure,” he told REMODELING on Nov. 27. But, he says, in the affected areas, “life is still one big mess.”
A former remodeling contractor, these days Sloggatt makes his living mostly through educational and instructional work, teaching to the trade with technical presentations around the nation (including at Hanley Wood’s Remodeling Show and JLC LIVE conferences). But in Sandy’s aftermath, Sloggatt had the toolbelt on again — working not for money, but as part of a comprehensive relief program run by his church. “We’ve been going in and helping, mostly elderly people who aren’t in a position to recover on their own,” he says.
Sloggatt is working in some of Long Island’s worst-hit areas, such as the Rockaway Peninsula in the New York City borough of Queens. Working with unskilled volunteers, as well as with skilled tradespeople from the church community (including visitors from out of state), Sloggatt has been starting with the immediate pressing necessity: gutting and cleaning the flooded lower levels of houses. It’s nasty and sometimes brutal work.
“We had diesel fuel ... fuel oil in the water,” Sloggatt says. “It was seawater, sewage, gasoline from the cars that were submerged. This was all contaminated water. We’re power-washing to get this stuff out, and then we’re disinfecting.”
People working in those conditions — even volunteers — should have full personal protective gear, Sloggatt notes. “You have volunteers who come in, hit the ground, don’t really care about their safety. But as we learned in 9/11, that doesn’t work. Now we have people saying they have cancer or respiratory illness from the contamination at Ground Zero. Well, same with us. If you say ‘Hey, it’s just a flood’ — if you don’t wear personal protection — you don’t know what you’re exposing yourself to. Some of the houses we walk into, you can smell it. You know there’s something going on. So you need gloves, Tyvek suits, masks, goggles — it’s really critical. You can’t take for granted that these places are safe to go into.”
Two Long Islands
Jobs like Alure’s roof repair — wind damage to insured homes whose owners could afford to pay for immediate work — are the least of Long Island’s tasks, however. In a phone call at the end of November, Ferro told REMODELING: “Now it’s as if there are two Long Islands. You’ve got one where the people are fully recovered and they’ve moved on with their lives. Then you’ve got the other Long Island where they’re living with devastation. And the challenge is for the first Long Island, where everything is fixed, not to get desensitized to what’s going on out there in the second Long Island.”
Sloggatt is fully aware of the second Long Island —“I have been up to my neck in it,” he says. In much of Long Island’s south shore, including the flooded neighborhoods of Queens, many people didn’t carry flood insurance. Says Sloggatt: “In the lower-income areas, people can’t afford to spend two or three thousand dollars a year for flood insurance. They just don’t have the money. They can barely handle the taxes on the house. And if they don’t have a mortgage on it — maybe it’s an old house they inherited from mom and dad, or maybe they are mom or dad — they just didn’t have flood insurance.”
In any case, flood insurance coverage — available only from the FEMA-administered National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) — is limited, particularly for basements, which flood policies define as any room with floors below the exterior grade, even if occupied. After Sandy, many residents of Long Island’s south shore towns were surprised to discover that what they considered to be their home’s ground floor was technically a basement under the terms of their flood policy — even though rooms may have been only a foot or two below grade.
And in the basement, flood insurance will replace boilers, furnaces, washers, dryers, and freezers — but not furniture, clothing, electronics, or elements of finished rooms (furring, framing, wiring, or drywall). Some residents — in many cases, renters living in those lower-level spaces — have lost everything they own to flood. Cars, homes, and possessions — it’s all gone.
Today, Long Island has a critical shortage of, not just housing, but even temporary shelter. “This is different from some other areas that have had a disaster,” Ferro says. “We don’t have a lot of space. Hotels are all filled up. There’s no room on these properties for a FEMA trailer.”
FEMA has responded with its new Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) Program, in cooperation with local governments. Ferro has been helping out. “The idea is for local licensed contractors to go into these homes and make them livable, at the minimum,” Ferro explains. “A couple circuits, a few lights, some baseboard heat, a small 25-gallon hot water heater ... whatever it takes — just enough so the people can shelter there while the restoration is being done.”
Ferro has been walking through neighborhoods assessing homes for STEP to see if they can safely be occupied. “I wanted to get out there and see what is going on,” he says. “I wanted to be part of it.” It’s not a way for his company to make a buck, he knows. But he says, “I believe that there is a calling here that is bigger than business, bigger than profit, and that calling is that we have to try to help each other.”
And as dire as the situation is on the south shore — the Long Island that is still a shambles — Ferro is optimistic. “One day I knocked on 150 doors, just to meet people and find out what’s going on. People are resilient. People are reaching out, supporting each other — neighbors helping neighbors, communities helping communities.”
Just as there are two Long Islands this winter, says Ferro, he is now running two businesses. About half his company’s resources are still devoted to his existing, pre-Sandy backlog of work. But many of those jobs are on hold — if only because his clients suddenly find themselves making room for a houseful of displaced relatives or friends. The other half of Alure’s capacity, Ferro says, is “pivoting to recovery and rebuilding work.”
“This is new,” Ferro adds. “We’ve had storms before where the response took some of our resources, but we’ve never had a disaster like this before. We’re in learn-as-you-go mode.”
—Ted Cushman writes the “Coastal Connection” newsletter. firstname.lastname@example.org, @Ted_Cushman