2013-05-16 / Other News

Displaced Gerritsen Beach Couple Grateful That “Angels” Walk Among Them

Photos and text by Linda Steinmuller

The Vasta family (left to right): Angelina, Elizabeth and Robert. The Vasta family (left to right): Angelina, Elizabeth and Robert. It’s hard to believe how slow the rebuilding process is almost seven months after Superstorm Sandy destroyed the majority of homes in Gerritsen Beach. Those who don’t live in the neighborhood may think that everything is back to normal, but that is far from reality. Although the exterior of many homes may look fine on the outside, you might be surprised at what you’ll find if you peek inside many of the ravaged houses in the community.

The Vasta family is living proof of this sad reality. Robert and Elizabeth have lived in Gerritsen Beach for about 15 years (still considered newcomers in a community where many families go back several generations). The couple has a two-story house without a basement on Florence Avenue. When Sandy hit, the storm left up to two feet of floodwater on the first floor of their home – destroying their entire living space and almost everything they own except for possessions in their upstairs bedrooms.

Angelina Vasta uses “joists” for gymnastic practice. Angelina Vasta uses “joists” for gymnastic practice. Elizabeth never imagined it would take them so long to rebuild their home and lives – and there is still a long way to go before they can move back to their Florence Avenue residence. Even though their living quarters were destroyed, the Vastas received a minimal reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – less than the amount their neighbor received whose basement was damaged. They chose to wait for the Rapid Repairs program to have their electrical work replaced and were one of the last families to receive assistance from the city program. In spite of these major setbacks, the couple is still grateful for all of the money they saved through Rapid Repairs.

“We didn’t have any plans to evacuate. Once the water was at street level, I wanted to leave but my husband felt it was too dangerous. The whole experience was overwhelming — we were in survival mode,” Elizabeth recalls, reflecting back to the day of the storm.

The Vasta’s beautiful Florence Avenue home - a different story on the inside. The Vasta’s beautiful Florence Avenue home - a different story on the inside. With dangerous conditions on the first floor of their home, the Vastas could not reside in their house, so they stayed with several families during the first couple of weeks following the storm until they found a more permanent residence.

The couple’s ten-year-old daughter Angelina is a fifth-grade student at P.S. 277 and an avid gymnast. It was her classmates’ families who generously opened their homes to the displaced family. Elizabeth refers to them as their “Gerritsen Beach Angels.” The “Angels” showed an amazing amount of compassion, despite the fact that they had their own families to tend to. Not only did the Vastas have a place to stay, the families fed them, washed their clothes, and drove them wherever they needed to go.

The administration and staff at P.S.277 also did their part. These “Angels” sacrificed time away from their families to prepare Thanksgiving dinner at the school, located at 2529 Gerritsen Avenue, for Gerritsen Beach residents who didn’t have a place to go for the holiday. “Although we were strangers, we became one big family that day,” Elizabeth said.

The first floor of the Vasta’s home, which they still feel is unsafe, doesn’t look much different than it did over six months ago. Robert and Elizabeth are concerned that someone might get seriously injured.

“There are a lot of black and blues these days,” Elizabeth said, referring to one incident where her husband was using a jack when a piece of wood flew at him, striking his shoulder. “He escaped two close calls recently.”

In another incident, Robert was using a crow bar, which slipped and hit him underneath his eye, narrowly escaping his eye, leaving him with a large bruise.

Mold is another big concern. Elizabeth has allergies and suffered the most from exposure to mold. The whole family fell ill at one time or another from breathing in mold spores. One company wanted to charge the family $13,000 for mold remediation but fortunately the Stephen Siller Tunnel To Towers Foundation stepped in to help at no cost. After mold remediation was completed early last week, HEART 9/11 volunteers laid the sub flooring and started adding insulation – that’s when the Canarsie Courier stopped by to interview the Vastas.

Almost seven months later, there is much work to be done to get the Vasta’s home back to “livable conditions.” The couple does not have an estimated date for completion but prefer to get their kitchen back up and running before they return.

They do know that they’d like to have a welcome home party for their “Angels” as a way of saying “Thank You” to families like the Witowskis, Ecocks, Corrados, Manises and Rioses. Also Pastor Alex of Park Slope Christian Center, the Verderosa and Davis families from Holy Trinity as well as the staff at P.S. 277, the Hibernians, Cort Club, Gerrtisen Beach Cares, Vollies, New York Cares and HEART 9/11.

“They truly are all heart,” Elizabeth said.

In the meantime, the Vastas, like many Gerritsen Beach residents, worry about the new elevation requirements, which mandate them to raise their house to be in compliance with the new flood maps that should be approved within two years. Elizabeth heard that there’s a three-year waiting list and it is extremely costly. If they decide to elevate, they may be displaced from their home again. “I feel clueless as to what to expect in this area.”

So the Vastas wait patiently and take each new hurdle one day at a time. “As we have learned, you never know what’s going to happen,” Elizabeth said.

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