NEW YORK—Jack Suben called Sea Gate home for 11 years. His three children grew up there, playfully running in the backyard—the sandy beaches of Brooklyn’s western coast.
Like every shorefront home in Sea Gate, Suben’s home was extensively damaged on Oct. 29, 2012, victim of the powerful storm surge from Hurricane Sandy. An architect by trade, Suben has the knowledge to rebuild his home to withstand another punch from Mother Nature.
Federal aid has been approved, lending hope to the promise of rebuilding. But the option of taking a proposed buyout and moving on is tempting.
“I see both sides of the coin. On one hand, I am adamantly intent on building my home back because I loved living there, I miss living there, and I really want to go back,” Suben said. “But on a practical side, I would be relieved if government would come to me and give me the pre-storm value of my property and say I was free and clear and could walk away.”
It has been nearly four months since Sandy hit New York City. During that time, Suben lost his mother-in-law, as well as a cat, while floating from hotel to hotel for three months. Despite the hardship, he is, just as he was five days after the storm, still in good spirits, and staying positive in the face of adversity.
“You can focus and obsess on the negatives with this kind of stuff, but there is really no point in it,” Suben said. “Figuring out how to cope with the challenge is our only choice.”
Resilience and Recovery
Immediately following the storm, Suben began to deal with the daily hardships of surviving a disaster: Where will I sleep? What will I wear? Where will I get food? The phone calls to sort out his recovery were countless, and he began to wonder what he could do to help ease the burden of someone else going through a disaster. He turned to the skills he had polished during his whole career—architecture.
“Since the storm, I have had a heightened awareness of what it takes to design for resilience from the elements,” Suben said. “Having survived this storm, I somehow had an acute awareness that this is bigger than we are. I felt, as an architect, I need to be a lot more familiar with just how bad it can be.”
He first took a class through the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to become a trained disaster service worker. In any disaster, he can help identify buildings that are safe and tag them with red, yellow, or green stickers to warn workers. He is now on a list the state can call on in the next disaster.
Last week he attended a Hurriplan training, also held by the local AIA chapter. Suben learned what elements he can use to design homes that can sustain the 100-year storms that are appearing with much more frequency.
He learned about designing homes on stilts with materials that can sustain 100–200 mph winds, protective glazing, and even positioning a home not to just resist a storm, but help absorb the elements.
“All of this is designed to preserve life and property. Obviously life is primary, but property is secondary because of the financial impact of property loss,” Suben said.
After an exhaustive search for a three-bedroom home to fit his whole family, Suben finally settled on a two-bedroom apartment in Midwood. It’s tight quarters, even with his 21-year-old twins away during school time. But it is better than hotel hopping.
Life is starting to settle down somewhat for Suben, but his home is never far from his mind.
Suben, who had what he thought was full coverage for his home, was only covered for flood damage. What he owes on the house is greater than what the policy will cover.
The first round of money from the federal aid package will not be available until April, but the qualifications were not released with the proposal, which was released by the city on Feb. 6. Suben has no idea if the aid will cover the difference, or even if he will qualify.
Suben, who sits on his local housing association, says he has not been formally approached regarding a buyout, but figures the conversation is coming, if the plan is approved.
He hopes he can use some of the skills he learned in his new training to rebuild his home, but he estimates the cost to use the new building methods will raise the cost between 10 and 30 percent, depending on what size and options he chooses.
He says he would be willing to pay the higher cost to ensure his family is safe the next time around. “That is the value of design. You get what you pay for,” Suben said.
The thousands of New Yorkers who are having to deal with insurance companies, FEMA applications, and the uncertainty surrounding their homes are in the minority. The experience is not pleasant, and by no means easy. Some grumble through, some fight back, and some—like Suben—stay positive. Much like the road to recovery, everyone has their own paths.
The view out his window may have changed, but his view on life remains optimistic.
“It’s a very humbling experience for anybody. I don’t recommend it for anyone,” Suben said. “But I have to say, I am a better person for it, believe it or not.”
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