Two Years After Sandy and Still Living at the YMCA

On a cool afternoon in September, Maurice Porter, 62, sat on the low concrete wall in front of the Flushing YMCA greeting his neighbors. The self-proclaimed “Mayor of the Y,” Porter has come to know many of its residents since he arrived here in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. Even as he exchanged hellos and smiles with folks leaving the building, Porter was still weathering the storm.

Porter belongs to a part of the YMCA that few of gym-goers are aware of: the transitional housing that occupies most of the building’s fourth and fifth floors. Unlike many upper-floor residents, who belong to a men’s shelter, Porter lives at the Y with his wife and daughter. They were placed here after their Staten Island house was destroyed in October 2012.

“It’s one little room, and it’s not home,” said Porter. He is just one example of Sandy’s immense destructive power, almost two years later.

During Sandy’s immediate aftermath, more than 23,000 people sought refuge in temporary shelters, according to FEMA, whose Sheltering and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) program allocated funding for Porter and tens of thousands of people who could not return to their homes. According to Bob Ottenhoff at the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, “Sandy was a wakeup call about the power of storm surges.” Ottenhoff said that “There was a tremendous amount of destruction and heartbreak.” In the wake of that destruction, back on April 28, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city would be expanding the federally-funded Temporary Disaster Assistance Program (TDAP) in an effort to provide rental assistance to low-income New Yorkers displaced by the storm, who face high rent burdens of 40 percent or more of their income. The commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, Vicki Been, noted at the time that “Many people whose lives were uprooted by hurricane Sandy are still in need of assistance.” In early September, De Blasio announced that more than 500 homes had begun construction, with $9 million in rebuilding and repair reimbursement going to storm victims.

Sandy certainly came as a blow to Porter, who had been renting another house in Staten Island before he bought this one, six months before the storm. The new place was larger and could accommodate his family better. Ironically, Porter said, “if I stayed where I was before, I wouldn’t have gotten flooded.” Although Porter’s new house was on a hill, his basement filled with water, which also damaged the first floor. Porter made a movement with his hands in describing the damage: “Things, boards broke in half, they just cracked.” Later, an electrical fire started.

A couple of days after Sandy, Porter and his family left to stay with friends. They received relief assistance from the Red Cross. “They gave me $800, but that was it,” said Porter. Meanwhile, FEMA came to assess the damages to their house, which came to more than $200,000, according to Porter.

Porter sought help at 100 Gold Street, in Manhattan, where the HPD has its offices. The department placed him, his wife and daughter at the Atlantic Hotel in Brooklyn. Porter’s 23-year-old son and three-year-old grandson, who had lived with him at his Staten Island home, were forced to make other arrangements.

After “nine or ten days” at the Atlantic, Porter came to the Y, where he has lived since. According to Flushing YMCA program director, Josh Stabenfeldt, the organization works with third-party contractors like HPD and Samaritan Village to place low-income residents. It has been offering transitional housing since before Stabenfeldt arrived six years ago.

HPD pays $55 per night for Porter’s lodging. “I just have to stay up with insurance while they’re fixing the house,” he said.

Porter has met another Sandy victim at the Y, a “young man who came here through HPD.” Porter said the man left when he received a long-term apartment in Flushing’s public housing. While the Flushing Y is not luxurious, Porter said he would rather stay there than go to the projects. 

The house should be finished in six to eight months, according to Porter. But he has long been ready to return to his own home. “Stability,” Porter said, “I miss the stability.”