Along with her husband, 7-year-old daughter and mother, Chati is renting a basement apartment with aid from FEMA. But the family can't move forward with plans to rebuild until the house comes down.
“I had to hire my own engineer, my own architect, to prove that my house is caving in on itself,” she said.
Government officials and nonprofit groups could not provide numbers on exactly how many people are still living in damaged homes, but stories abound in neighborhoods that suffered the worst flooding.
The furniture is still wet and the curtains are black with mold in Pura Gonzalo's Far Rockaway home, where the 89-year-old 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, who lives with her son, Jorge. “I feel very frustrated seeing my home like this, but I don't have the strength in my body to do anything anymore. I feel sick.”
Anthony DiFrancisco refuses to move his family of seven out of his mold-infested ranch home on Staten Island. Until about two weeks ago, the family had been living without heat or hot water, relying on electric heaters to keep warm 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 aren't big enough to cover mold removal along with rent and all the other things that need to be repaired.
Advocates for immigrants and other poor storm victims say many people have also been subjected to the whims of corrupt landlords who aren't repairing flood damage and are still demanding the rent.
Norma Mancia, a Salvadoran immigrant, lost precious documents when her Far Rockaway home flooded. Because she lives illegally in the U.S., she hasn't received any FEMA money. Her destroyed furniture is still piled up in the backyard.
“We lost all the receipts and papers we could need in case we have the opportunity of solving our legal status here,” said Mancia, who has received only $500 in aid from a local church. “I have cried a lot.”
The past three months haven't been easy for small-business owners like Violet Sanabria, whose flower shop in Hoboken, N.J., was filled with floating lilies and roses when the water rushed in. Sanabria spent weeks cleaning up Vera's Flower Shop, where she has worked for seven years and officially became the owner — a long-coveted dream — on Nov. 1.
She has yet to receive any insurance money.
“The storm just killed everything,” she said. “We used to make 24 orders a day. Now we're down to one if we're lucky.”
Sanabria fears she may have to close the shop. “When are we going to see the light?” she asked.
On Staten Island, Chati visits her sodden little bungalow every day in a ritual that keeps her going and renews her resolve to rebuild.
“Sometimes I curse at it,” she said. “Sometimes I cry. Sometimes I just look at it in disbelief.”