An 84-year-old war veteran was recently denied Hurricane Sandy aid by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Why was he denied aid? Because he was staying with his son in New Jersey when the hurricane struck and not in his Staten Island home.
Vito Colluci Sr. was diagnosed with dementia two years ago and has lived with his son in Neptune, N.J., ever since. His son, Vito Colluci Jr., planned on fixing up the home and selling the property. Colluci Jr., 61, filed an application with FEMA just three days after Sandy on Nov. 1. Within a week, FEMA denied the claim.
“They said because my father didn’t live here, owner or not, it doesn’t matter," Colucci Jr. said. "It’s a second home, so he doesn’t qualify for aid. I said, ‘The guy is sick. He hasn’t got a second home.’ It's not like you’re talking to somebody that has a ton of money.”
Vito Sr. owns only one house, the one on New Dorp Beach in Staten Island, which he has owned for more than 25 years. He moved in with his son so he could monitor his health.
“One day he tells me that he’s got another son like me, but the guy was a little bit better looking,” Colucci Jr. said. “I said, ‘Dad, that's me.’ He says, ‘No,’ so I take out an old picture and he says, ‘That’s him!’ I said that’s me when I was younger.”
His 35-year-old grandson and his wife moved into his Staten Island home during that period. The Daily News did not report whether the couple filed a separate FEMA claim on the home, but it appears the damaged property has not had any repairs.
Colucci Jr. said most of the furniture was ruined by the 3-foot flood waters that inundated the house. He said because the FEMA application was denied, he was unable to get an estimate for the total damages to the home.
Looking back, Colucci Jr. wishes he had not disclosed on his father’s application that he had been living with him in New Jersey.
“I was trying to tell the truth, and look what happened,” Colucci Jr. said. “I’m a loyal American and when they needed me to step up, I joined the service. Now we’re penalized for not playing the game.”
Standing on the property at Winham Avenue, Colucci Sr. said, “We used to all have parties out here and the neighbors would come and bring food. I wish it was like how it was before. Now it’s all gone.”
FEMA spokesman, Ray Perez, said the family could appeal the denial of aid.
“That’s why we say everything is case by case,” Perez said. “Where your primary residence is at the time of the disaster is the main thing. That can affect the application.”
Americans affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 understand the headache of dealing with FEMA. Too well.
In 2011, FEMA sent out 83,000 notice-of-debt letters to recoup assistance it sent out to Katrina survivors. The people, most of whom were displaced or moved in the six years since the storm, were asked to prove they lived in New Orleans (or the hurricane-affected area) on Aug. 29, 2005. To do so, they were asked to provide utility bills, addressed envelopes, copies of a license or something showing their address in 2005. Most people do not retain such records after five years, let alone people who lost everything they owned in a massive flood.
“I nearly had a stroke,” said 63-year-old David Bellinger, who moved to Atlanta after Katrina destroyed his New Orleans home. “I’m totally blind. I subsist entirely on a Social Security disability check. If I have to pay this money back, it would pretty much wipe out all the savings I have.”
The “debt” was about $4,622 per recipient.