By Alice Kenny
Evelyn Schwabacher, 51, and her son, Dominic, 23, were left with nothing but the bags of clothes they ran out of their home with the day that Hurricane Sandy struck Staten Island.
Ms. Schwabacher lived almost all her life in a two-story home on Zustan St. in New Dorp Beach, Staten Island. She grew up there. She returned there and raised with help from her parents her son and daughter after her husband died 18 years ago. And she said goodbye to her mother there when the elderly woman died a year before Hurricane Sandy stormed through the island.
But when ocean water filled the house all the way up to its second floor destroying all she owned, multiple disaster relief agencies told her she was ineligible for help.
“We lost everything,” Ms. Schwabacher said. “And when I say everything I mean everything.”
The only belongings that survived were two photos that hung above their fireplace mantle, one of her children and one of her parents taken the day they married. For days following the flood, her father carried that wedding photo with him wherever he went.
FEMA gave Ms. Schwabacher’s eighty-year-old father enough to enable him to leave Staten Island and its memories behind. He bought an inexpensive condo in Florida and began a new life.
But FEMA said that Ms. Schwabacher and her son, who together paid her father a nominal $400/month rent, were ineligible for disaster recovery assistance. So she contacted Catholic Charities Disaster Case Manager Valeriya Osipova for help. Ms. Osipova contacted Red Cross. The agency initially approved, then reversed its approval of rental assistance, citing FEMA’s determination as its reason for denial. Ms. Osipova also spoke with an attorney Staten Island Legal Services.
Meanwhile, things turned ugly in the apartment that Ms. Schwabacher and her son temporarily shared with a friend after the hurricane hit. So she called Ms. Osipova on a Saturday afternoon to ask that she help her move out quickly. Ms. Osipova worked with the social service agency, Project Hospitality, to immediately obtain and pay for a rental room at Cosmopolitan Hotel for Ms. Schwabacher and her son.
They stayed at the hotel for two weeks. But they needed a long-range plan. They could not afford to live on their own with the income Ms. Schwabacher earned as a waitress and he earned working minimum wage jobs. Similar to her father, she wanted, she said, to put behind her the nightmare of Hurricane Sandy and the hard times that followed.
A cousin living in Stone Mountain, Georgia suggested Ms. Schwabacher and her son move there where rents are cheap and jobs are plentiful. Since Ms. Schwabacher had no savings, her disaster case manager made the move possible by drawing on Sandy relief funds to cover Ms. Schwabacher’s rental deposit and first month’s rent.
Ms. Schwabacher phoned Ms. Osipova for help on a Saturday afternoon. Thanks to the support and counseling Ms. Osipova provided, Ms. Schwabacher and her son moved to Georgia, found work and rented an apartment two weeks later. Ms. Schwabacher and her son drove with a cousin to Georgia. She interviewed for a waitressing job at a local International House of Pancakes the following day. She and her son then found an affordable one-bedroom apartment. The $900 deposit and first month’s rent were paid with Catholic Charities Sandy Relief funds. Meanwhile, Ms. Schabacher’s son applied for multiple jobs and expects to land one at Wal-Mart.
“It’s still hard for me to believe that within 20 days of calling Catholic Charities for help I was able to land a job, find an apartment and began my life again,” Ms. Schwabacher said. “Valeriya stood by me; if it weren’t for her, I had no place to go.”