More than 30,000 New Yorkers have registered for $62 million in federal grants to help cover the cost of damage from recent flooding, but the money will be far short of what's needed to restore the homes and businesses of many now weighing their futures.
That amount roughly matches the Federal Emergency Management Agency director's initial estimate on Aug. 31 that the typical grant for an individual would be $2,000 to $3,000. The maximum grant is $30,000 for someone whose home was destroyed. For most victims, insurance won't cover flooding that destroyed or heavily damaged houses, businesses and entire upstate towns. Gov. Andrew Cuomo estimates damage at $1 billion.
"If you've got a mortgage for $80,000 and you get $20,000 back, what do you do?" said John Kelley, owner of Kelley's Grill on Main Street in the Schoharie County town of Middleburgh. "Right now, some people are awful discouraged."
Many of the residents and small business operators damaged by tropical storms Irene and Lee in the Adirondacks and Catskills and the Hudson and Schoharie valleys are starting to get their federal grants. Low-interest loans are next, although many in the lower-income rural areas said they can't take on more debt.
Another federal program allows owners to sell their damaged buildings to the federal government if they are within flood plains. The houses would be razed, helping limit future flood damage.
"For Sale" signs have already popped up in nearby Schoharie, and Kelley said about 60 other homes have been condemned.
"If your house is paid off or whatever, what they give you isn't too bad," he said. "At least it's a start."
Kelley, like some other business owners, said he realized he had little choice but to try to continue with help from his friends and customers continuing to clean up at night, when they return from work. He hopes to open this weekend, three weeks after Irene sent the Schoharie Creek down Main Street.
"I'm 53 years old," he said in an interview, "I've done this my whole life."
FEMA spokesman Chris McKniff said Monday that the agency has so far targeted $50 million for 25,000 registered victims of Tropical Storm Irene.
He said another 8,300 Southern Tier residents have registered for $12.8 million in grants for damage from Lee.
Cuomo is seeking more federal aid, including creating 800 part-time jobs at $15 an hour to clean the communities to provide income to some families that lost their jobs to the storms. The Neighborhood Rebuilding Corps is part of several measures Cuomo plans. Others include:
—Giving school districts in disaster areas the option of allowing school taxes to be paid later.
—Waiving fees for replacement of state records, including motor vehicle registrations, professional licenses, birth certificates and marriage licenses.
—Requesting the federal government provide flood insurance to residents and provide crop insurance to farmers retroactively to collect benefits. He said the rarity of such floods prohibited many from buying the insurance before.
—Asking the federal government to allow families to live in nearby foreclosed properties until they can return to their homes.
—Expediting federal business loans.
Cuomo said the federal government, not the state, provides cash grants to victims and that isn't expected to change.
"People are frustrated, people are scared, people are angry," Cuomo said Monday. "They had their lives literally washed away."
He said he still plans to make the communities better than before the flooding, even as some residents plan to move, leaving empty lots where their houses and businesses once stood.
"Homeowners, or groups of homeowners, may make a decision that they don't want to rebuild," Cuomo said. "That may be a totally intelligent, reasonable, correct decision for those people.
"And I would consider that for the better if they said, 'I'm done. I don't want to go through this. I want to move to higher ground,' so to speak," Cuomo said. "Then, that's their decision."