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Many FEMA Centers Remain Closed as Frustrated Locals Search for Aid

By  Andrea Swalec Tuan Nguyen and Mathew Katz | November 8, 2012 12:41pm | Updated on November 8, 2012 3:58pm

NEW YORK CITY — Residents in the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Sandy came in droves Thursday morning seeking aid from federal authorities — only to find centers they were told would be open inexplicably shuttered, following a nor'easter that slammed the city with snow and arctic winds the night before.

More than a dozen cars arrived at the FEMA center in Roxbury in the Rockaways Thursday morning to discover that the white tent set up to provide aid to locals was empty, despite signs indicating that it would be open. 

Residents said FEMA representatives told them by phone that the center would open at 8:30 a.m. 

One Hillside Avenue resident, whose house was destroyed by floodwaters, said it was "ridiculous" that FEMA had not arrived when she visited about 10:30 a.m. Thursday.

"If they said they'd be here at 8:30, they should be here at 8:30. They should be here at 8:15, actually," said the resident, a 49-year-old homemaker who gave her name as Nancy. 

She said she dreaded having to make the trip from where she and her family had rented an apartment in Bay Ridge back to the storm-ravaged Rockaways.

"The last thing we want to do is come back down here," she said. "It's just so sad."

FEMA spokesman Carter Langston said Thursday afternoon that the Roxbury location, which serves the Breezy Point community destroyed by Sandy, would not reopen until Friday.

"There was a matter of coordination," he said, adding he couldn't speak for the other centers. "Through a matter of coordination, it remains closed."

Roxbury resident Bob Jahrnes, 69, a retired NYPD sergeant, stopped by the closed center to try to get a loan to cover insurance deductibles for his damaged home and car. He was similarly angry that no one was there to help him. 

"Nobody's got any answers," he said. "That's the most frustrating thing."

FEMA’s Disaster Recovery Centers closed around the city on Wednesday in advance of the coming nor’easter, leaving many of the storm’s worst-hit with nowhere to go when they needed housing or help with destroyed possessions.

By Thursday morning, many FEMA centers had yet to reopen.

Residents looking to speak with representatives at a FEMA tent located at Beach 112th Street and Beach Channel Drive in Rockaway Park also found no one who could help them. That location did not open until about 3:30 p.m.

FEMA employees at the tent there said the agency's national office told them they were not allowed to drive on the icy roads Thursday morning to reach the site.

The centers help disaster victims file for reimbursements for storm damage, find temporary housing, and other guidance after a disaster strikes.

With the centers closed, many victims who lack power or Internet access had no way of filing disaster claims.

John, 39, from Breezy Point, said he called FEMA early Thursday morning and was told its office in Roxbury would open this morning.

"I don't want to waste all my gas for nothing," said John, who declined to give his last name. He also drove over from Bay Ridge to the FEMA center, located near Rockaway Point Boulevard and Barret Road.

"She said that they will open today," he said, "and that's why I came over."

A sign posted outside the FEMA center said that the tent would be open on Thursday.

"It's just annoying when many people here need help, and they just didn't do what they're supposed to do," said John, who lived for more than a decade in Breezy Point. "It's emergency, and they should be open by now."

A spokesman for FEMA, William Rukeyser, said that the closed centers were one of several ways to get information about FEMA services and that both a hotline and the organization's web page weathered the Nor'easter.

"When the Nor'easter was approaching, there was obvious safety considerations both for our customers and our staff," he said.

Rukeyser could not immediately say when the closed-down centers around the city would reopen.

On Staten Island, a FEMA recovery center housed in a tent next to New Dorp High School was forced to delay its 10:30 a.m. opening due to snow. The FEMA center, located among distribution centers and food trucks that opened on time at Miller Field, was still closed and empty at 11:30 a.m. Thursday.

Workers there said that they were waiting for tables and equipment before they could serve any victims.

A few miles away, the FEMA center housed inside the Mount Lorretto Catholic Youth Organization was up and running with a full compliment of 10 staff members, though few victims were passing through.

On Wednesday morning, the same center had a printed paper sign taped to the front door reading “FEMA Center Closed Due to Weather.”

The center’s manager, Sandy Ramsey, said it reopened Wednesday about 12:30 p.m. and closed around 8 p.m. The center didn't originally open on time because it took staff four hours to get to Tottenville from their hotel in Times Square, she said.

Ramsey herself tucked into a sleeping bag inside the center during the Nor’easter overnight Wednesday so that she could reopen at 8 a.m. Thursday morning.

She added that FEMA had set up an MTA bus to shuttle waiting disaster victims from the closed Miller Field location to her center in Tottenville.

“We’re doing our best to make sure all applicants are served as quickly as possible and don’t have to wait more than they have to,” Ramsey said. “Frankly, they’ve been through enough.”