A Damaging Storm In Every Language

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The storm that swept a surprise tornado through southwest Brooklyn on Aug. 8 and brought floods to Queens and Staten Island blew in and out more than a month ago, but the rebuilding process is hampered by some Chinese immigrants’ anxiety over their illegal status and unlawful housing conversions. As the immigrants hesitate to seek help, others fear that Brooklyn’s Chinese enclaves of Bay Ridge and Sunset Park will remain a wasteland for months.

One Chinese landlord in Whitestone, Queens, said she did not apply for public aid because she illegally rented out the first floor and basement of her house for $1,100. “My tenant wants to sue me for her damaged furniture and personal belongings. I really don’t know what to do,” said Ms. Chen, who refused to supply her first name.

Another immigrant, Yuqing Shi, 60, who speaks no English, took out a loan at a 7 percent interest rate to pay for refurbishment of her house on Kissena Boulevard in Flushing – when she could have applied for cheaper home loans of 3.1 to 6.3 percent offered by the federal Small Business Administration.

Because of language barriers, many tenants and home owners don’t realize they can apply for loans from the SBA. “In the past, more than 90 percent of SBA loans were awarded to individuals,” said SBA spokeswoman Bonny Wright. SBA has issued 1,253 applications to New Yorkers affected by the tornado so far. But because not many applications have been completed and returned, it has approved only two loans – a home loan of $3,900 and a business loan of $40,400.

Some Brooklynites feel they were shortchanged because their borough was declared a federal disaster area on Sept. 7, almost a week after Queens’ Sept. 1 declaration. Brooklyn residents became eligible for the Economic Injury Disaster Loans of up to $1.5 million – one of the three disaster loans offered by the SBA – after their Queens counterparts.

The varying outcomes of the same storm were caused by differing circumstances – Queens homes were damaged by the deluge that clogged drains, but Brooklyn homes were torn apart by the twister. The storm hit 1,359 Queens homes, and FEMA declared 460 of them unlivable. By contrast, 189 Brooklyn houses were impacted, and 76 of them were deemed uninhabitable.

As of Friday, 1,290 households in Queens were registered for disaster assistance offered by FEMA, New York state and New York City; only 171 households were registered in Brooklyn. The disaster assistance center in Flushing, Queens had received 245 visitors, while 130 people sought help at the Brooklyn center. FEMA’s Individuals and Households Program had approved grants of $1.5 million and $56,000 to residents in Queens and Brooklyn respectively. Between both boroughs, 811 home inspections have been completed.

FEMA does not offer cash or unemployment assistance to illegal immigrants, but their American-born children are eligible for aid. Outside charities and volunteer agencies have offered assistance too, helping many undocumented immigrants to make ends meet, such as Tzi Chi Foundation, a Taiwanese Buddhist humanitarian relief group sometimes called the “Asian Red Cross”; the American Red Cross; and New York Disaster Interfaith Services.

Although fewer people are affected in Brooklyn, Katie Wong, an aide to state Sen. Martin Golden, a Republican who represents Bay Ridge, argues that average house damage in Brooklyn far exceeds the toll in Queens. “When a basement is flooded, you can clear it and still live in the house. But if your roof is gone, you have no choice but leaving,” said Wong, as she examined the homes that were wrecked in Bay Ridge and Sunset Park.

It appears that Wong has a point. The city Department of Buildings did not tag any Queens or Staten Island homes for closure. In Brooklyn, on Aug. 15, a week after the storm, 19 buildings were red-tagged for complete closure and 16 buildings were yellow-tagged for partial closure. As of Sept. 11, 17 buildings remained red-tagged and seven buildings were yellow-tagged. A total of 22 Brooklyn homes remain fully or partially vacated.

The seven red-tagged homes in Brooklyn have not filed any permit applications to conduct repair work. Many tenants said their landlords would not give them permission to re-enter their homes and pick up their belongings, since the home owners are worried that they would be persecuted for the illegal rentals.

Golden’s office urged Brooklyn home owners to accurately report their damages – including any unlawful conversions. “As long as you are qualified, you are eligible for aid,” said Wong. “If you lie about the situation, you may be subjected to FEMA’s penalty of up to $5,000.” The city Department of Buildings has not issued any violations so far, but Wong warned that the agency may prosecute the home owners if their inspectors spot any illegal conversion or rental in the newly furnished homes.

Golden is holding a meeting tomorrow (Sept. 18) for those affected by the Brooklyn tornado at 6:30 p.m. at the Bay Ridge Community Center at 6935 4th Avenue. A new, mobile disaster assistance center also is opening today in Williamsburg at 240 Division Avenue.

Many homeless Bay Ridge victims were sent to shelters in the Bronx. They complained that they are housed in unsafe neighborhoods, which are also too far for them to get to work and school. Through the Emergency Housing Services Bureau of the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, 53 families were housed, 34 of whom remain in shelters.

In Queens, Shi recalls that black, stinky water gushed through her garage gate and filled her walk-in basement on Aug. 8 – the second deluge of the summer, after a flood on July 18. The grandmother had just spent more than $10,000 to refurbish her house – and it was soaked again. “I hope the city can dig into the roots of this problem and give us peace of mind,” said Shi, who now suffers insomnia on rainy nights, as do some of her neighbors.

State Assemblywoman Ellen Young, a Democrat representing Flushing, said the city’s Department of Environmental Protection is liable for the Aug. 8 flood in Kissena Park, Fresh Meadow, Woodside, Elmhurst and Middle Village. “Some of the areas didn’t experience flooding in July – only when DEP finished some sewage system expansion projects in the area. We suspect garbage and construction debris left in the underground waterways were not properly cleared.”

However, DEP said the August downpour far exceeds city wastewater capacity, and extensive analysis of the flood is underway. “Sewers in New York City can generally absorb 1.5 to 1.75 inches of rain in one hour,” said DEP spokesperson Mercedes Padilla. “The August 8 rain exceeded two inches an hour and, at one point, reached an intensity of 4.5 inches an hour.” The city’s broad development guide, PlaNYC, identifies more frequent, intense storms as something to deal with, Padilla said.

– I-Ching Ng

For assistance:

Affected residents can call 1-800-659-2955 or register online at
www.sba.gov/services/disasterassistance. The deadlines for disaster loans for physical damage to homes and businesses is Oct. 20, 2007 and the deadline for economic injury is June 2, 2008. The FEMA hotline is 1-800-621-3362.

Borough of Queens Disaster Assistance Service Center is located at Tzu Chi Foundation’s office at 137-77 Northern Boulevard, Flushing, Queens, (718) 888-0866.

Borough of Brooklyn Disaster Assistance Service Center is located at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Basilica at 526 59th Street, Brooklyn, (718) 492-9200.