Some Sandy Victims Tied Up With Bureaucracy
President Obama spoke Friday afternoon at a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) command center at Miller Field in Staten Island. The agency has set up centers in areas hit by Hurricane Sandy to help people who need help rebuilding their homes and businesses. We visited with people at Miller Field trying to navigate the ins and outs of FEMA and private insurance — with varying degrees of success.
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President Obama visited New York today, touring sections of Queens and Staten Island that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy. He promised the federal government will help people rebuild and, more immediately, help restore necessities that many have done without for more than two weeks now.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There's still a lot of cleanup to do. People still need emergency help. They still need heat. They still need power. They still need food. They still need shelter.
BLOCK: The president toured a FEMA office at Miller Field, a park on the eastern shore of Staten Island. Since the storm, it's become an important hub for emergency services, including FEMA and private insurance companies. NPR's Joel Rose also visited Miller Field and spoke to storm victims who are navigating the complex bureaucracy with varying degrees of success.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: If there's a government agency or private company that has a hand in disaster relief, it's probably got a tent or trailer at Miller Field. In one camp, volunteers rip open donated boxes of granola bars and bananas. The Fire Department is offering hot showers. There's a rumor that Buddhist monks are here somewhere handing out free gift cards. But through all the chaos, it's easy to spot the home and business owners who've been flooded out by the storm. They're the ones carrying thick binders of paperwork back and forth from tent to tent, looking for answers.
TIMOTHY TOPPETSOFER: You've done everything right. Now, when it comes to the SBA loan package, which - did you get the one for your home yet?
JOANNA LULA: I did, but it's a lot of information.
TOPPETSOFER: You did?
LULA: They want a lot of information, and my old papers are gone right now.
ROSE: Joanna Lula is one of those homeowners. Her house on Staten Island is uninhabitable because of flooding. Lula has private insurance, and FEMA staffer Timothy Toppetsofer(ph) explains the agency can't cut a check until it knows how much her insurance is going to pay.
TOPPETSOFER: We can assist you further once we know you settle. We can't duplicate our assistance efforts for what you're getting paid by the insurance, so...
ROSE: So far, Lula says all she's gotten from FEMA is an emergency check for $2,900 to help with her rent. And while she's grateful, Lula says that's not enough.
LULA: I know there's a lot of people around who wants to help and who are helping. It's just so striking that system is deceitful if you don't know it, and we are first time in the disaster.
ROSE: Lula is not the only Staten Island resident who's frustrated by this process. Evelyn Candelario walked out of the FEMA tent with another binder full of paperwork.
EVELYN CANDELARIO: FEMA is not really telling me if they're going to give us any kind of financial assistance until, I guess, all the adjusters come in. So I'm just basically waiting to see how they're going to help me and if I can keep this house at this point.
ROSE: Candelario was making her second visit here to check on the status of her application for rebuilding assistance. Others have come to this FEMA tent a lot more than that.
ZIADA SINANOVIC: I feel like I've been here every day. I was here yesterday. I was here this morning, and I went back home to get more paperwork, whatever documentation they were asking me. Now, I came back again.
ROSE: Ziada Sinanovic owns a beauty salon not far from here. She just opened the business three years ago with her husband, Fejzo. Now, he says they'll basically have to start over again.
FEJZO SINANOVIC: We've just started now a little bit and stand up on our feet and then Mother Nature destroyed everything: the bathroom, the furnace, heating and cooling system, the water heater, everything.
ROSE: Sinanovic says the people at FEMA are sympathetic, but they're encouraging him and his wife to apply for a low-interest loan from the small business administration.
F. SINANOVIC: Everybody nice, you know, try to be nice and everything, but nothing free. Even if you take a loan, you have to pay, you know? It doesn't matter. Nobody give you free money.
ROSE: During his visit today, President Obama pledged that federal officials will be here until rebuilding is complete, but that rebuilding may not be as fast or thorough as many Staten Islanders would like. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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