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Posted 12/3/2012

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By Brandon Beach

QUEENS, N.Y. -- On the morning of Hurricane Sandy, Martha Militano, a Rockaways resident, packed an overnight bag and left for Brooklyn to stay the night with her son. The next day, after the storm had passed, she went back to her home on Beach 130th Street, where she had lived for the past 16 years and discovered everything was gone.

"It's still so surreal," she said, standing in front of her home, Nov. 30, four weeks after Sandy, meeting with representatives from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to sign a right-of-entry form for debris removal. "I go back to this little place we're renting now, I sit on the bed, I look at the pile of clothes that I have and that's it and I say, 'What happened?'"

On the evening of Oct. 29, Sandy barreled into the Rockaways in Queens with a massive 25-foot storm surge that left hundreds of homes flooded. Fires erupted in several areas and gale force winds scattered embers into the sky, some of them landing on Beach 130th Street, where 16 homes, including Militano's, burned to the ground.

"I close my eyes and can still picture everything," she said. "Where do you start when you look at all this?"

After three weeks of around-the-clock curbside debris pickup, the Army Corps has moved an estimated 223,000 cubic yards of debris out of New York City neighborhoods to permanent landfills upstate. Now the next phase of recovery begins -- private property debris removal or PPDR.

On Nov. 30, several teams of Army Corps and FEMA real estate specialists and field assessors fanned out into neighborhoods of Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island to meet homeowners and conduct site assessments. They were handed a list of property addresses either red-tagged (unfit to live) or gray-tagged (fire damage) by the city of New York immediately following Sandy.

"Before we have authority to pick up anything off private property, we have to get a signed [ROE] from the homeowner or landowner," said Josh Jimerfield, a debris engineer for the Army Corps New York Recovery Field Office.

Using hand-held smartphones with field data collection software, designed last year by the Army Corps' Engineer Research and Development Center, field assessors document properties using photos, videos and notes, all of which can be transmitted directly to a command center.

What assessors are looking for are items such as debris volumes, household hazardous waste, white goods like refrigerators and washing machines, exposed basements, downed trees, even personal valuables that may need to be retrieved at the request of the homeowner. They also annotate access points onto a property so contractors can avoid utilities with their equipment.

According to Jimerfield, real estate specialists help homeowners understand their rights and how federal assistance works. Field assessors sketch out a plan with homeowners that contractors are to follow when they arrive onsite to remove debris.

"We had a home yesterday for instance. We met with the homeowner. He's got a swimming pool and a deck, both of which are largely undamaged. He doesn't want them touched," he said. "So we have to label that out very clearly for the contractor."

The majority of work would be performed with skid-loaders with debris sorted and moved to the right-of-way for removal. Any demolition work would be done by the city with the Army Corps assisting with the removal of debris at the curb.

Just how many homes are in need of PPDR assistance is largely unknown. Based on the city's model following Sandy, 82,000 homes could have been impacted in some way by the 1,000-mile-wide storm.

"That's the number of homes in the storm surge," said Jay Hershey, a debris engineer from the Army Corps' Baltimore District. "Realistically, that number will be much smaller."

Many of the residents from the 16 burned homes on Beach 130st Street walked up and down the block, Nov. 30, lending a hand or a hug to neighbors.

"This neighborhood is awesome. Everybody looks out for everybody," said Militano. "It's like back in the day when kids played on the streets; they still do -- baseball, basketball hoops all over. We'll rebuild here, maybe not exactly the same way, but we'll rebuild."

debris removal emergency operations Hurricane Sandy