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As 'Nemo' Threatens Rockaways With Winter Weather, Some Families Still Lack Heat

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Residents pick up items at a church that has been turned into a relief supply center following Hurricane Sandy in the Rockaways on Jan. 25, 2013 in New York City. Three months after Sandy devastated parts of New York and New Jersey, hundreds of residents are still without electricity and heat and depend on churches and charities to meet their basic needs. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) | Getty Images

For Donald Lawrence, the news that a winter storm is barrelling down on his New York beachfront community means that the immediate task ahead of him just got twice as hard.

For more than three months, since Hurricane Sandy flooded the Rockaways with as much as five feet of seawater, destroying the boiler in the basement of his rented two-family home, Lawrence and his family have depended on a small kerosene stove for heat. A five-gallon drum, which lasts for about a day depending on the outside temperature, costs about $50 to fill. With a storm coming -- and with it the prospect of several days trapped inside -- Lawrence said he must scrounge up $100 to fill two such containers.

"This is the last thing we need right now," he said by phone Friday morning.

A massive winter storm is set to dump up to 14 inches of snow on New York City on Friday night and Saturday morning, the National Weather Service projected midday on Friday. Coastal flooding is also expected along the New York coastline, with "moderate beach erosion" expected in the Rockaways, meteorologists said.

While there is no indication that the storm will come close to matching the fury of Sandy, which flooded approximately 80,000 homes in New York, it still poses a threat, especially to people who, like Lawrence, are living in homes without a traditional source of heat.

"We serve people who are heating homes with generators or opening up a stove," said Joseph McKellar, the executive director of Queens Congregations United for Action, a church group that runs relief programs in the area. "The danger is obvious. If something was to happen, emergency responders might not be able to get there. It's the same problem we had with Sandy."

In October, Sandy's flooding triggered two major fires in the Rockaways, which devastated hundreds of homes and gutted businesses. At least 11 people died on the narrow peninsula, including a disabled man trapped in his basement apartment by rising flood water. Though repair crews have made tremendous progress in removing wreckage and restoring power, an estimated 2,000 residents are still living in a home or apartment with a flooded-out boiler that doesn't work, McKellar said. Thousands more residents have moved in with friends or relatives, or are living in a hotel.

There is no easy explanation for why some residents have received assistance and others have not. Rockaways residents and community activists typically blame New York's Rapid Repairs program, which collaborates with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to make emergency fixes to homes, or individual insurance providers, which
have been slow to cut checks.

Yvonne Rankine, a minister at the World Harvest Deliverance Center in Far Rockaway, a church that operates a school and other community services, has tussled with both. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Rankine said she and her husband, the pastor at the church, had their hands full trying to help others. They were too slow, she said, to address the damage caused by nearly five feet of floodwater in their own Rockaways home. The damage includes a busted boiler, mold growth on basement walls and a sinkhole in the front yard.

By the time they filed a claim with Rapid Repairs, the program had stopped accepting new applicants, she said.

Meanwhile, Rankine said her insurance company offered $15,000 for repair work that a general contractor estimated would cost nearly $30,000. (Reached at work, Rankine said she did not have the name of the insurance provider at hand, so this account could not be independently confirmed).

A spokesman for the mayor's office did not immediately return a request for comment. Contractors working for Rapid Repairs have helped 16,000 homeowners, the city has said. In addition, on Jan. 31, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $15 million program in partnership with several nonprofits to remove mold in about 2,000 homes in the hardest hit areas.

Federal aid is also on the way. Of $50 billion in relief aid recently approved by Congress, the city has pledged to distribute $350 million to help up to 9,300 low- to middle-income homeowners fix damage.

At the neighborhood level, however, nothing seems to change.

"Everything is moving so slowly," Rankine said. "It's very frustrating. People out here want to get on with their lives."

Rankine and her husband have lived for most of the past three months in a hotel near LaGuardia Airport using housing aid provided by FEMA and other programs. While a huge step up from living in a cold and moldy home, the hotel is a long commute by car to the church where they work, she said.

Renters -- like Lawrence, who lives with his wife, his daughter and a 5-year-old grandson -- have the fewest options. In arrears on their monthly rent payments before Sandy, the storm made catching up all but impossible.

Lawrence works as a distributor of goods imported from Jamaica, mostly servicing area restaurants. Before the storm, his wife worked part time as an aide at Park Nursing Home, one of more than a dozen adult care facilities in the Rockaways. Unlike most other nursing homes in the area, Park survived the storm with minimal flood damage and had emergency power right away. But when a second storm threatened the area, local authorities evacuated the residents to a distant facility outside the city. Lawrence said his wife was unable to travel that far, and she lost her job.

In addition, the kerosene heater eats up about $350 a week in fuel, he said.

So, for now, the family is living day by day. An eviction is scheduled for the end of the month. After that, Lawrence said he doesn't know what to do.

"If there are people out there willing to take in families, please let them know about us," he said at the end of a phone call. "We are in distress."

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