GERRITSEN BEACH — A man in a wheelchair who waited nearly a year for the city to fix his house under the Build It Back program for homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy died earlier this month while waiting to get back home.
William Sheehan, 67, moved out of his bungalow on Eaton Court last Halloween at the city's urging, so that the home could be elevated, his family and neighbors said.
He found a tiny one-and-a-half room apartment in an elevator building in Sheepshead Bay, but still went weekly to check up on his home, his brother James said.
It took months until he’d see any work.
“He’d go back to visit and tell me, ‘really, nothing’s going on, every time',” James Sheehan said.
Officials from the federally funded program said it would only take six months to fix his home, but it took far longer, neighbors said.
“He would come back every week or so just to check,” Samantha Cich, who lives across the street, said.
“He would say how bad he wanted to come home and how he couldn’t believe how long it was taking.”
She’d notice only a few workers come by every couple of weeks, “bang a hammer and leave,” she said.
“They kicked this man out, and the house just stayed there,” she added.
Sheehan — who earned the nickname "Boots" as a kid after he walked out of his family's East Flatbush home wearing a large pair of the shoes — died Sept. 3 of natural causes, his brother said.
He had retired from the Parks Department, where he worked as a plumber. He was in his wheelchair for the last 27 years after a series of illnesses, but it never limited him.
"He had it pretty rough, but it never stopped him from doing anything," James Sheehan said.
He rode the wheelchair with a large American flag on the back — for safety and to show his love for unions and the United States, his brother said.
Sheehan never missed a meeting at the Ancient Order of Hibernians' Gerritsen Avenue headquarters, and also loved to watch Little League games at a field up on Knapp Street, family and neighbors said.
“He had a more active social life than me,” neighbor Christopher Cich joked.
Neighbors like the Cich family looked after Sheehan, checking up to see if he needed any help.
They'd spot him as he rolled his wheelchair down the narrow Gerritsen Beach blocks from his tiny apartment to check up on his house.
“He needed things. He needed neighbors that care about him,” Samantha Cich said.
“Sending him for that long to a place where he knew nobody, I can’t imagine how that was for him.”
After Hurricane Sandy, Sheehan and his wife, Gayle, were displaced by Hurricane Sandy for a year after the storm. He and his wife returned and were rebuilding. His wife died of lung cancer in 2013. He continued to rebuild after her death, and was asked to leave so the home could be raised in 2015.
He took pride in his ground-floor home and in his neighborhood, and was happy for the opportunity to lift his house through the city's program, according to those who knew him.
A spokesman for the Build It Back program said “it saddens us to hear about William’s passing and our thoughts are with [him] and his family.”
City officials said the construction delay was caused by “extensive rot” inside the floor, which required a re-design. And the wheelchair lift also needed to be re-designed “due to site constraints.”
“As always, we will continue to use every resource the city has to offer to ensure homeowners [effected] by Sandy make it back to resilient housing,” a spokesman said. “We also work especially hard for homeowners and families who live under difficult circumstances and will continue to do so.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced last year that the program would be completed by the end of 2016 — a deadline many involved in the program say is impossible, since work hasn't even begun on some projects.
Construction crews couldn't meet the demand, and many homes languished after construction fences were installed, sources and participants said.
Permits for Sheehan’s home were approved in October and December, with the work on the elevation approved in February 2016, records show.
Construction continued on his house Friday morning, a day after his funeral. City officials said the home would be passed on to his estate, but they could not provide a completion date.
James Sheehan said his brother last saw his home a few weeks ago. Every time they spoke he’d tell him, “I can’t wait to get back home.”
“It’s a shame that he never saw the finished product."