It's been a long two years for the New Yorkers affected by superstorm Sandy, but some who were waiting the longest for government help are finally starting to see it.
Superstorm Sandy flooded streets, destroyed hundreds of thousands of properties, blacked out parts of the city and crippled subways. Since then, stories of slow-moving government assistance have been common.
But in recent months, affected New Yorkers have seen progress. Reconstruction on the thousands homes in Coney Island, Staten Island, lower Manhattan and the Rockaways damaged in the Oct. 29, 2012 storm has commenced and the city has removed some of the red tape when it comes to reimbursement.
"It was very confusing in the beginning, but over the last year we could all tell that communication with the city has been better when it comes to recovery," said Chuck Reichenthal, the chair of Brooklyn's Community Board 13, which covers Coney Island.
Below is the status of the city's recovery from Sandy:
The biggest improvement to thousands homeowners affected by Sandy has been the overhaul of the city's Build it Back program, which provides financial assistance through grants, one-on-one guidance for reconstructing Sandy damaged residences and, if needed, acquisition of properties.
The damage varied differently depending on the neighborhood, so some of the 300,000 affected properties just had flooding problems while entire neighborhoods like Breezy Point and Midland Beach were virtually wiped out. Therefore, the city set up a system to address cases based on specific needs.
In the beginning of the year, no checks were distributed and construction hadn't begun on any property, but as of yesterday 158 homes throughout the five boroughs were repaired, and the city sent out 1,090 checks.
Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to have 1,000 construction starts and 1,500 reimbursement checks by the end of the year.
Julie Blake, 39, was one of the 14,000 Build it Back applicants. Her Cross Bay Boulevard house was demolished two weeks ago as part of the program's reconstruction component, and said the application process was arduous last year. The lifelong Broad Channel resident said the biggest gripes she and her husband had were endless meetings that seemed to go nowhere, along with the inability to get straight answers from Build it Back reps.
"It's just difficult to tell your story over and over again to different people," said Blake, whose home was flooded with five feet of water.
State Sen. Diane Savino, who represents Staten Island and Coney Island, said her constituents faced similar problems and since many couldn't afford the work out of their own pockets, they gave up.
"It hurt them more because it put them in a position where they were waiting for relief instead of making a decision about their properties," she said.
Amy Peterson, who was named Build it Back director in March, said her office was well aware of those complaints from frustrated Sandy victims and immediately went to work to streamline the process. The mayor's Office of Housing Recovery eliminated priority levels that were based on applicants income after it received more federal funding for the $648 million project.
"It allowed us ... to commit fully to everyone who applied to the program," she told amNewYork.
One of the most important changes to Build it Back, according to Peterson, was the beefed-up community presence. The city set up centers in the affected neighborhoods where the applicants can talk to professionals from the communities.
"We have really worked with the homeowners with a system that works with them," she said. "We know each home, and homeowner is unique."
The changes seemed to have worked; and the homeowners who are getting the relief said they are grateful they saw results before the storm's second anniversary. Savino said she is happy that the city got its act together but pushed it to meet its goals.
"If people are eligible for Build it Back we have to get it to them as soon possible," she said.
The mom-and-pops in the affected neighborhoods have also seen major progress in their rebuilding efforts.
About 5,453 businesses in the five boroughs applied for federal loan assistance while 258 businesses have submitted completed applications to the city's Hurricane Sandy Business Loan and Grant Program.
The city's Small Business Services has approved 100 grants and loans totaling $15 million as of this week, a major jump from the mere seven they handed out in January.
SBS Commissioner Maria Torres-Springer told amNewYork that her agency was focused on getting the money to those businesses as fast as possible and in a way that didn't add extra burden.
"We heard from a lot of owners that they didn't want to take on more debt, so we made sure we could give out more grants," she said adding that the program gave out $12.8 million in grants.
Marco Pasanella, the president of the old Seaport Alliance and owner of a winery at the South Street Seaport, estimated that 90% of the businesses have returned since the storm. Aside from the financial assistance from the government, Pasanella, who also lives in the Seaport, said the biggest help came from camaraderie shared among business owners and residents.
"The rebuilding of the community has been more than bricks and sticks," he said.
That pride manifested itself with the reopening of Peck Slip over the last few months. Catherine McVay Hughes, the chair of Manhattan Community Board 1, which covers the Seaport, said residents and visitors who came for the free summer events at the slip stayed and checked out the revamped shops.
"I will tell you that the area has been rediscovered," she said.
Business owners who are still picking up the pieces, like Miriam Smith of Coney Island, said that huge progress made by communities is the only thing keeping them going. Although other shops on Mermaid Avenue have reopened, many with updated and bolder storefronts, Smith's 30-year-old salon is still an empty, gutted shell.
She, like so many entrepreneurs in the affected areas, is waiting for engineering reports and other paperwork to clear before she can get funding to get to work on Coney Island Beauty Salon's return.
"Everyone is telling me, sell, sell, sell, but I don't want to. This was my salon and I want it to be here," she said.
A majority of New Yorkers, even those who weren't impacted by Sandy, agreed that the city will be hit by another superstorm in the future, but they are skeptical that it is ready to weather the elements.
Work was completed on pressing projects, like the underwater Montague Tunnel linking the R train from Brooklyn to Manhattan, and headway was made on others, like the Rockaway Boardwalk.
Last week U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer said $17 billion of the $60 billion federal Sandy aid package has been spent on resiliency projects, such as the Bluebelt expansion in Midland Beach and natural barriers at Howard Beach's Spring Creek.
On Wednesday, de Blasio announced more details on longer term projects such as the $400 million to construct new armored levees in Staten Island and flood protection in Red Hook.
But community leaders say the resiliency projects are sluggish.
McVay Hughes said she and her fellow residents have pressed the city to fast track its plans to storm proof their neighborhoods, such a creating a greenway around the perimeter of downtown Manhattan.
"It's been two years. We need to move beyond the planning stage," she said.
Linda Marini, the co-owner of restaurant Barbarini Alimentari, said she and her husband didn't get any help from the city when they decided they couldn't risk waiting for the Seaport to be flood proof. They decided to move their 7-year-old eatery from its Front Street storefront, which was severely damaged, to higher ground at 21 Ann St.
Marini, who will reopen the restaurant in two weeks, thought she could get assistance from the city but ended up using loans and her savings for the move.
"We were that 1% that couldn't be addressed. In a way, I didn't initially think our situation would be that unique," the downtown Manhattan mother of three, said.
Marini said she wished the recovery efforts offered more support for residents who want to relocate.
Overall, the Sandy victims say the city is listening to their troubles and are feeling more optimistic.
"In two years, yeah, I say we're doing better" said Ricky Guttieri, 59, of Broad Channel. "Everyone wishes they moved quicker but I'm not going to because we're seeing the work get done."