Freeporters still struggling to return to their homes


Nautical Mile resident Ilona Jagnow stepped into what was once her parents’ backyard on South Long Beach Avenue in Freeport recently. She walked carefully through the overgrown grass full of stray nails, broken glass, fallen tree branches and a stack of bricks. Hurricane Sandy had left the blue home as a shell of its former self.

Jagnow decided to elevate the house 23 feet in the air in an effort to save it and to prevent it from flooding during any future storms in the area. She said she never imagined, however, that nearly five years after Sandy, the project would not be complete. A series of bad contractors have delayed construction, she said.

“This was my parents dream home,” she said, holding back tears. “They built this as their retirement home in the 1990s so they could be close to their business. I bought the house next door so I can be closer to them when I came home. I don’t even know what to say anymore. I’ve already put in $300,000 into building this.”

Jagnow is like so many South Shore residents who are required to elevate their homes because they were substantially damaged during Sandy — meaning that the houses suffered damage in excess of 50 percent of their market value. Jagnow has been working with the Governor’s Office of Storm Recovery, a division of the NY Rising Program, to repair and elevate the house. That process, she said, has been excruciatingly slow, and she is now at her wit’s end.

Over the past five years, NY Rising received 12,000 applications seeking financial assistance from homeowners and business owners who had to repair their properties, and awarded roughly $1.2 billion, $950 million of which has been distributed.

Jagnow now lives with her mother in her house next door. Her father died a year after Sandy struck. Her parents’ unfinished home sits unoccupied. The foundation is complete, but the house has no interior walls.

GOSR spokeswoman Catie Marshall said the state is working to get all homeowners back into their houses, but a number of homeowners went ahead and performed work on their own, without the proper state approvals, in the months and years after Sandy, causing widespread delays.

“We want to help everyone get in their homes safely and as soon as possible,” Marshall said. “We are here to help anyone who is having a problem with their construction or elevation.”

Jagnow is not alone in Freeport. On the Nautical Mile, a handful of homes are up on stilts, in the middle of being elevated

As a contractor for 37 years, Ben Jackson said he has never seen a storm like Hurricane Sandy. Jackson has worked with NY Rising on a number of Sandy reconstruction projects. He said it’s been a long haul, and the effort to return people to their homes continues.

Jackson credited the Village of Freeport with releasing information to the public about building codes and zoning requirements after Sandy. He said the storm changed the way many builders like him work. Elevating homes, he said, is tough. The height of an elevation varies from home to home, depending on how high the flood level was during Sandy.

“It’s a measurement based on the highest flood waters of Sandy,” he said. “There are a lot of factors involved. It depends on the zone, how high you were prior to the storm and how high you are relative to the height of the water during the storm. It’s like an arbitrary line.”

Federal and state grant money was vital to homeowners who needed to elevate their homes, Jackson said. “People would not elevate without the grant money. It was just too costly,” he said. “Since the storm, I don’t think we’ve done a single [elevation] that wasn’t being reimbursed through the NY Rising Program.”

Also a resident of the Nautical Mile, Freeport Deputy Mayor Jorge Martinez wrapped up elevating his home on June 6. He and his wife, Christine, had lived in a rental home for the last seven months after deciding to elevate their home. Practically losing everything but the clothes on their backs after Sandy, the couple was determined to be better prepared for the next storm, Jorge said. Elevating their home was the first step.

“The NY Rising Program is very frustrating,” Martinez said. “The amount of paperwork, time and dedication is very exhausting. I’ll tell you for a lot of people, this has been life-changing. There are a lot empty homes still. A lot of people couldn’t handle it.”

After Sandy and during the elevation process, Martinez said, the expenses and the bills piled up, not in the hundreds, but in the thousands of dollars. “The value of our home declined after Sandy,” Christine said. “So, by making the decision to raise our house, hopefully, fingers crossed, the value of our home will increase again.”

For Jagnow, there is no set date when construction will be complete. In her parents’ back yard, she looked with a sigh at what is to become a patio door. “This house was worth [a lot] of money before Sandy. Now I think it’s worth $300,000,” she said.

If she had known all that she does now about the reconstruction process before she began it, she said, “I would have sold the house or gone somewhere else. But there are memories here. I wanted to fix it and start a new life. I just don’t know what to do anymore. I have a business to run, a mother to take care of.”