“I’ve lived through hurricanes,” said Willis, who rode out the storm with her husband, an FDNY dispatcher, until a torrent of water drove them out and into a neighbor's house. “I had all the important stuff. I thought I was ready.”
It's been a year since the hurricane and the Willis family has still not moved back in to Bedford Avenue, and so far have no solid plans for their return. And they're not alone.
According to information provided by the Breezy Point Cooperative, which owns and operates the communities of Roxbury, Rockaway Point and Breezy, 350 homes were completely destroyed — both by flood and fire. But none of the homeowners have returned, according to the co-op. Some of the homeowners whose houses were partially destroyed have returned, officials said.
Just 35 homes — 22 of which burned — are currently under construction, and 50 architectural plans are awaiting approval by the city. And only only one of the buildings has been rebuilt up to code.
The Willis family's story is similar to that of many of their neighbors. Their home, which was originally given a "green" sticker from the Department of Buildings — meaning it was livable but needed work — was months later given a "red" sticker during a reinspection. The home was torn down in the spring.
The family has spent the last 12 months in apartments throughout Queens, settling in July in a 2-bedroom apartment in Rockaway Park, with views of the ocean and the bay. Their 16-year-old son, Zack, is even closer to his high school.
They’ve received rental assistance from FEMA and about $50,000 from their insurance company, but are still fighting for more money — and paying fees to the Breezy Point Cooperative, despite not living there.
“We have a sandlot that has a mortgage, home and flood insurance on it — and we’re still paying co-op fees,” Willis said.
The co-op, which was created in 1960, survives on the money provided by shareholders, which pays for garbage collection, security and other common charges to keep the community running.
But under the terms of the co-op’s lease, a homeowner is exempt from paying common charges for up to a year if the home isn't livable.
The co-op granted homeowners whose houses were completely destroyed were given a one year waiver on fees, as explained out in the lease. The deadline for that was Jan. 31, 2013 — but the Willis family did not apply at the time because their home was still deemed to be livable.
They applied for the leniency in March, explaining their situation, but were denied — and then said they had to pay a $100 late fee for the two months they missed.
“While the Board of Directors and I sympathize with your plight and realize this is a time of great hardship, the majority of homes in the community, if not all, suffered losses from the flood waters,” the co-op's general manager, Arthur Lightall, wrote in a letter to the family in April.
He told DNAinfo New York that the success of the co-op relies on the fees — and 200 homeowners were granted a partial waiver, but everyone else still has paid their full dues.
"The only way to continue to function is for the community to continue paying dues," he said.
"At times it has been a difficult decision to make, but the decision at the time had to be made."
For the Willis family, they said the $275 a month in co-op fees is just a small portion of the bills they’ve had to pay since the storm, but it’s significant as they struggle to find the funds to rebuild.
“It’s not $1 million, but $275 a month could help pay another bill,” Jack said, adding that they've spent all of their savings and have taken out another loan since the storm.
But the hardest part, Kathy said, is seeing how it's turned her son's life upside down.
"The hardest part of this whole thing is having to tell my son, 'I do not know' when he asks when we're going home," she said.