After the flood: Family still struggling post-Sandy

  @Money December 16, 2013: 5:27 PM ET
sandy recovery

A growing family makes moving out of their cramped rental and back home all the more urgent for Michael Motherway and Jennifer Schanker.

(Money Magazine)

On Oct. 29 of last year, as Hurricane Sandy was bearing down on the East Coast, Michael Motherway and Jennifer Schanker debated evacuating. Their nearly 90-year-old 1,200-square-foot house on New York City's Staten Island was eight blocks from the water, and city officials were warning residents to leave the block or, better yet, to leave the island.

In the end, Motherway, a heating and air conditioning technician, and Schanker, an assistant in the trust department of a Manhattan bank, remained. The evacuation wasn't mandatory, they reasoned, and the couple had heard similar warnings in anticipation of Hurricane Irene a year earlier, only to suffer no more damage than a few broken tree branches.

The bottom line
Top priorities: Motherway and Schanker need to negotiate lower mortgage payments, boost income, pay off debt, and modestly cut spending.
MONTHLY INCOME Current Proposed
Combined net pay $8,113 $8,113
Bump up exemptions 0 400
Temporary cut in 401(k) contributions (13% to 6%) 0 150
TOTAL $8,113 $8,663
MONTHLY EXPENSES
Mortgage (including homeowners insurance, property taxes) $2,148 $1,200
Child care $1,970 $1,970
Credit cards $1,730 0
Rent $950 $950
Loan payments (SBA, auto) $937 $728
Utilities, phone, cable, Internet $690 $690
Miscellaneous (including storage) $680 $680
Meals, clothes, entertainment $600 $500
Groceries $600 $600
Gas, commuting $450 $450
Insurance (flood, auto) $391 $391
Life, disability insurance 0 $249
Emergency fund 0 $100
TOTAL $11,146 $8,508
MONTHLY NET INFLOW/OUTFLOW -$3,033 $155
Notes: Numbers in italics indicate proposed changes. Net pay is after taxes and child support.

Motherway and Schanker, his partner of six years, figured they were far enough away from the beach to withstand this storm relatively unscathed too. The couple had plenty of company: Most of their neighbors decided to stay put as well.

As the day turned into evening, and the winds picked up, Motherway walked to the beach for a firsthand look. He came back around 7:30, reporting that the surf was impressive but that everything else seemed normal. Tired of the drumbeat of TV news, the couple switched channels, hoping to distract their 1-year-old daughter, Adriana. She fell asleep watching a movie about Alvin and the Chipmunks stranded at sea.

Around 8:15 p.m., Schanker heard a neighbor scream. Looking through the window, Schanker saw a woman jump out of a red hatchback that had been driving the wrong way down their one-way street, leaving the car door open as she ran toward the neighbor. Then the woman appeared to panic and reverse course, heading back to the car, just as two waves of seawater rushed down the avenue, one from either side.

Schanker watched, horrified, as water filled the car's interior through the open door, forcing the driver to once again abandon it. Schanker never learned what happened to the woman but recalls, at that moment, "I knew we were trapped."

Related: Sandy victims still trying to rebuild

Within minutes the water outside their house was several feet high. Frantically, Motherway and Schanker began moving their belongings to the second floor. By 9 p.m., the water level had reached eight feet. "The sea filled the world outside like a bathtub filled with water," Schanker says. "We were literally in the ocean. Waves crashed against our house."

As Schanker held her daughter, now awake and crying, the electricity went out, leaving the three of them huddled together on the second floor, the wind outside howling. Downstairs, they could hear pieces of furniture crashing together, the washer and dryer hitting each other. "We're going to drown here, aren't we?" Schanker asked Motherway.

Instead, around midnight, just before the rising water hit the second floor, it leveled off, then began slowly receding. The next morning the couple was able to wade through hip-deep water to safety, Adriana in Schanker's arms.

Their home, though, was in ruins -- one of more than 60,000 damaged in New York City that night. "Everything left on the first floor was destroyed -- the couches, the boiler, the electrical panel, washer, refrigerator, tables," says Motherway. There was structural damage too. The water warped the walls and caved in the flooring; part of the fence was swept out to sea.

Before it finally broke apart on land, Sandy would become the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, exacting nearly $70 billion in damages across 24 states. Of that total, $19 billion was in New York City, where the transit system was crippled and more than 1 million people were left without power.

The storm hit Staten Island with particular brutality, causing mass flooding and killing 24 people (286 died in all). Power outages lasted into January. A year later an estimated 27,000 on the island and throughout the New York/New Jersey area are still unable to return to their homes.

Watch: Sandy survivors mark 'year from hell'

Count Motherway, 43, and Schanker, 37, in that group. The couple have spent the past year working with insurers and government agencies trying to come up with the money to rebuild their house. But the roughly $95,000 that insurers have paid out in claims to date is far short of the amount needed to repair the damage and bring the house up to newly stringent post-Sandy building codes -- initial estimates put the price tag at $260,000.

They're also in a serious dispute with their mortgage lender: While their payments had been suspended for the first six months after the storm, the bank is now demanding they resume sending monthly checks, plus make back payments -- or else face foreclosure. Meanwhile, federal assistance to cover the cost of their temporary living quarters a few miles away has run out.

Related: Ravaged by Sandy but back in business

The couple acknowledge they've made some mistakes in dealing with the aftermath of Sandy that have exacerbated their financial troubles. Feeling overwhelmed, they initially ignored notices from the bank about their mortgage. Eager to begin repairs, they moved too quickly to clear out the damage from the storm, which made it difficult for insurance adjusters to accurately assess their claim. And they've borrowed heavily to replace personal belongings that weren't covered by insurance. All told, their expenses exceed their take-home pay by about $3,000 a month.

Returning to their house remains the couple's top priority. Currently the family -- Adriana is now 2 and Michael John was born in September -- is living in an apartment so cramped that Motherway sleeps on a mattress on the living room floor. To get back home, though, the couple will first need to square things with the bank, bridge the gap between what rebuilding will cost and what insurers have been willing to pay, and reverse their budget deficit.

Schanker would rather focus on other goals -- she'd love to get married, maybe talk about having another child -- but says there is no way the couple can even discuss such major moves while they're still in post-storm recovery mode.

"We are in limbo," says Schanker. "We just want to move forward already. I'm tired of being a Hurricane Sandy victim."

Motherway opens the front door to the house at 820 Nugent Ave., cautioning a visitor to watch his step. Inside the entryway, there is no good place to stand. The floor is gone, the pebbled earth visible through the floor joists. Electrical wiring snakes haphazardly across the room. The only interior wall left separates the main space from the laundry room. The place smells faintly of mildew.

Like Schanker, Motherway is frustrated by the slow pace of recovery. "I want to go in and fix this house," he says. "I'm handy. With help, I could put down subflooring, insulation, piping. But I don't want to get killed by the whole insurance thing."

Motherway and Schanker walk out to the backyard, a gravelly area now overgrown with weeds and strewn with debris deposited by Sandy. During the storm everything in the yard was violently tossed about and the couple's barbecue grill ended up on the fence, suspended over their neighbor's property. The battered Weber still rests there. It's symbolic, says Schanker. "Mike is just not ready to let that grill go."

In the first days after the storm, with the nation's attention focused on them and their neighbors, Motherway and Schanker had reason to believe their lives would return to normal faster. Through a co-worker, Schanker quickly found an apartment nearby to live in temporarily. Within two weeks the Federal Emergency Management Agency came through with $2,900 to cover the first few months' rent; the payments continued through fall of this year.

The couple also moved swiftly to replace their vehicles. Sandy totaled Motherway's late-'90s Nissan truck, while Schanker's car, a used BMW 3 Series she had bought just two months before, was nowhere to be found. She searched for days before learning that the floodwaters had carried the car several blocks away, where it jumped a fence and disappeared.

My life is still in shambles after Sandy

Three days later, as basic services were being restored to the neighborhood, sanitation workers couldn't figure out what was clogging a major industrial drain. As they dug through the muck, they found Schanker's car jammed into the drain like a cork. The BMW was battered, coated in sewage. "I loved that car," she says.

Fortunately, their auto insurer processed their claims quickly. Motherway used the $7,000 he received for a down payment on a new Buick Enclave, financing the remaining $24,000. Meanwhile, Geico paid Schanker enough to recoup most of the $13,000 she'd put down on the runaway Beemer, which she used to buy another used BMW, and upgraded to a 5 Series. She relied on 0% financing offered by her employer to Sandy victims for the other $30,000.

"The car is one of the nicest things I've ever owned," she says, but "if I'd known where we'd be a year later, I wouldn't have gotten it."

Sorting out claims for the house proved tougher, in part because the couple had to deal with two insurers: State Farm, their homeowners carrier, for damage caused by wind, and Travelers, their flood-insurance provider, for problems caused by water.

From the beginning, they knew not to expect much from State Farm because most of the destruction was due to water. Still, Motherway and Schanker were able to demonstrate that missing roof shingles and the blown-down fence resulted from the storm's fierce winds. After meeting a $1,000 deductible, their first State Farm check was a mere $855. Motherway asked the insurer to resend the adjuster and ultimately was awarded nearly $11,000 more.

Flood-insurance: It's complicated (cont.)

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