Diego, 37, is staring down $180,000 in repairs to her family's home in the Far Rockaway section of Queens. She was laid off from her job at Verizon last summer and is currently living off FEMA money and unemployment checks to feed her family and pay for daily expenses.
The family has been living in a blur of hotel rooms and short-term rentals since the storm. Her 61-year-old mother stopped showing up to work as a roaming public school nurse after the storm because the commute became too difficult.
Diego qualified for the maximum $31,900 lump sum allowed under FEMA's household assistance program, and the money is supposed to be used for home repairs and short-term rentals. Instead, she is using those dollars to pay for gas and tolls to drive her niece to school in their old neighborhood, pay the mortgage on their wrecked home and buy meals for the family of four.
"We're in a hotel. I can't cook," Diego said. "You have breakfast, lunch and dinner. What's happening is you're using that money to survive off of, day to day. We've had to order meals."Agnes Ruggiero, 69, whose Toms River apartment was destroyed, has been told by FEMA that she shouldn't expect to remain in a hotel for much longer. She doesn't understand why she and others are out of housing options when millions of dollars are being spent to rebuild boardwalks in the tourist-heavy region. "How could they start worrying about a boardwalk when all these people have no place to live?" she said. At the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in Toms River, which sits on a state highway leading to a barrier island that suffered some of the state's worst damage, a hotel manager said about 80 percent of the hotel's guests are in the FEMA program.