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NYC post-Sandy home repair program passes 20K mark

Jennifer Peltz, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) -- New York City's novel approach to make flooded homes habitable after Superstorm Sandy is wrapping up after repairs to 20,000 houses and apartments, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Friday.

In a government experiment as officials faced the challenge of housing thousands of displaced people in a densely built and expensive city, officials decided to spend about $500 million sending workers to install boilers, replace electrical panels and make other basic fixes for free so residents could return. Work began three weeks after the Oct. 29 storm.

While some homeowners and advocates have complained the "Rapid Repairs" program got off to a slow start, Bloomberg and residents of a Sandy-ravaged island heralded it Friday as a first-time initiative that helped about 54,000 get back home.

"There were skeptics. There were a lot of people that said, 'Oh, you're taking too long,'" the mayor said, but he called the results "a remarkable achievement, one that we expect will become a textbook case of innovation, resourceful and effective response to an unprecedented natural disaster."

Usually, the Federal Emergency Management Agency assesses storm damage and insurance and gives homeowners a check, leaving them to arrange the work. But after Sandy, FEMA and city officials reasoned they could get homes fixed faster if the city hired contractors, coordinated repair requests, dispatched the workers and paid for it all directly. The free repairs come on top of the $31,900-per-family cap for FEMA aid.

At the program's peak, some 2,300 tradespeople a day were involved, finishing work on 200 homes a day. They didn't fix everything but did what was needed for homes to get power, heat and hot water.

As the Rapid Repairs program comes to an end, Bloomberg announced a $10 million commitment of private money, raised through the Mayor's Fund to Advance New York City, to do additional, non-structural work on 600 or more homes; specifics will be set out in the coming weeks.

The Rapid Repairs program was ultimately financed with federal money. The work — averaging $25,000 per home — was provided on top of FEMA's customary assistance for Sandy victims, which included hotel stays for some and payments that could be used toward repairs and toward rent on temporary dwellings.

Bloomberg said Rapid Repairs got people back to where they wanted to be — at home, rather than in temporary quarters — faster than they probably would have if thousands of homeowners had to hunt for repair workers on their own. And the government may have saved money by shortening the amount of time people spent in alternative housing, officials say.

Moreover, alternatives were tricky: Trailers, often used after other disasters, weren't workable for New York City, the FEMA official in charge of Sandy response here has said.

"It (the program) will end up being, I think, a good deal," Deputy Mayor Caswell Holloway said.

It was for Terry Horn, whose home in Broad Channel, an island community in Queens, was flooded with 51 inches of water on its first floor as his son scrambled upstairs with the family's dogs at the height of the storm. His oil-burning boiler was destroyed, along with many other possessions.

Horn initially held off signing up for the Rapid Repairs program, figuring it was too good to be true.

"'Who's gonna give me a free boiler?'" he thought, and bought his own. But after realizing the offer was legitimate, he called up and was ultimately provided with a new oil tank.

"I couldn't believe that they could do something like that," he said Friday.


Follow Jennifer Peltz at https://twitter.com/jennptlz