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Sandy victims struggle to stay warm

Mold persistent in areas hit hard by flood waters

Devon Lawrence uses a kerosene heater in Far Rockaway.

Seth Wenig/Associated Press

Devon Lawrence uses a kerosene heater in Far Rockaway.

NEW YORK — Devon ­Lawrence neatly stacked bricks on the gas burner of his kitchen stove and turned up the blue flame, creating a sort of radiator that warmed the ice-cold room.

His two-story house in the Far Rockaway section of Queens has not had working heat since Hurricane Sandy’s flood waters destroyed the oil burner in the basement. Now mold is growing upstairs ­because the house has been damp for so long.

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Lawrence wakes early every morning to heat the bricks and light a kerosene space heater while his 75-year-old mother sits in bed in a hat and gloves.

‘‘That way she doesn’t freeze,’’ said Lawrence, a former Army medic who served in ­Afghanistan and Iraq. ‘‘Even the dog is cold.’’

Three months after Sandy struck, thousands of storm victims in New York and New Jersey are stuck in limbo: waiting for the heat to come on, for insurance money to come through, for loans to be approved — waiting, in a broader sense, for their upended lives to get back to normal.

Although Congress passed a $50.5 billion emergency aid package that President Obama signed Tuesday, many say the rebuilding has been complicated by bureaucracy. Some people are still living in mold-infested homes, while others desperately try to persuade the city to tear theirs down. Illegal immigrants who do not qualify for aid are struggling. Small businesses have shut down in neighborhoods where nobody seems to shop anymore.

US officials say they understand the frustration and are working quickly to compensate people for their losses.

‘‘The infrastructure and the homes that were in place that Sandy took away took a lot longer than 90 days to be built up and put into place,’’ said ­Michael Byrne, who is overseeing the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Sandy response in New York State. ‘‘If there’s any assurances I can give folks that feel that way, we’re not leaving until we get it done.’’

The Oct. 29 storm damaged or destroyed 305,000 housing units and disrupted more than 265,000 businesses in New York State. About 14,000 housing units have been repaired through New York City’s Rapid Repairs program. In New Jersey, 346,000 housing units were destroyed or damaged, and 190,000 businesses affected. Nearly 18,000 households have received aid from FEMA.

‘‘This is a war zone down here,’’ said Donna Graziano, who has been running a 24-hour relief hub near the beach on Staten Island in a tiny white tent heated by a generator. ‘‘This looks no better than it did three months ago.’’

On a recent snowy evening, at least a dozen people huddled over plates of food in Graziano’s tent, which has become a gathering place where displaced residents can exchange greetings and get updates.

‘‘This is three months now. And we’re still fighting,’’ said Nicole Chati, who is waging a battle to convince the city that her flood-damaged house must be torn down. ‘‘And we’re still filling out more paperwork.’’

Chati said two contractors advised her it would be safer to demolish the house than to salvage what’s left. But the city’s Buildings Department disagreed.

Along with her husband, 7-year-old daughter, and mother, Chati is renting a basement apartment with aid from ­FEMA. But the family cannot rebuild until the house comes down.

‘‘I had to hire my own engineer, my own architect, to prove that my house is caving in,’’ she said.

Government officials and nonprofits could not provide numbers on how many people still live in damaged homes, but stories abound in neighborhoods that suffered flooding.

The furniture is wet and the curtains are black with mold in Pura Gonzalo’s Far Rockaway home, where the ­Cuban immigrant says she has throat problems and feels exhausted.

‘‘My son tried to clean the basement as much as he could, but the mold is still there,’’ said Gonzalo, 89, who lives with her son, Jorge.

Anthony DiFrancisco refuses to move his family of seven out of his mold-infested ranch house on Staten Island. Until about two weeks ago, the family lived without heat or hot water, relying on electric heaters and showering at friends’ homes.

‘‘We’re cleaning the mold as we go,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m cleaning it with the bleach and doing it a little bit at a time, so we don’t kill everybody.’’

Mold remediation usually requires people to move out of their homes for days at a time, and the job can cost as much as $15,000. Some homeowners complain that the lump-sum payments they get from FEMA are not big enough to cover mold removal along with rent and all the other things that need to be repaired.

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