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Ill Wind That Did No Good Still Lingers for Owners, Buyers

DEC 31, 2012 1:24pm ET

WE’RE HEARING there’s still an awful lot of damage and debris to be cleaned up in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, with staggering problems for those whose property was in low-lying coastal areas. And some financial institutions still don’t have a clear count on how many of their borrowers were affected.

Just before I decamped from New York for the holidays, I found myself chatting with a woman next to me in line at a local coffee shop in Manhattan. She volunteered that she needed a hot drink before heading out to help the unheated, outer-borough citizens of Coney Island and Staten Island for the day.

Why, I wondered, was she headed to these storm-battered areas? Turns out she’s the executive director of the Police Youth Athletic League of New York City, a nonprofit that runs dozens of youth centers in New York. She was going out to visit PAL sites in Queens and Staten Island that were severely damaged in the storm and remained out of commission, she told me.

And her story is not so uncommon. The latest storm stats are real eye openers: FEMA said that 517,763 households in the region affected by Sandy have applied for housing assistance as a result of the hurricane. So far, 165,946 are currently receiving housing assistance.

A spokesperson for New York State’s FEMA office said that in New York alone, $298 million in low interest rate disaster assistance loans have been approved for homeowners by the Small Business Administration. Additionally, FEMA has provided $815 million of grant assistance to individuals and families in New York who were affected by the storm.

Through the end of 2012, FEMA had inspected nearly 170,000 New York homes for damage. About 250,000 New York state households had contacted FEMA for disaster assistance information, FEMA’s New York office said.

Housing agencies and banks have also been reaching out to homeowners to offer relief and forbearance in the wake of Sandy. A spokesperson for Freddie Mac said that as of Dec. 28, the company still did not have a clear handle on how many of the loans it owns or guarantees belong to homeowners who suffered damage from the storm. For people with heavily damaged or uninhabitable homes, they had more pressing immediate concerns than their mortgage, she told me.

But Freddie Mac, along with the Hope Now alliance of mortgage servicers, did send out solicitations to homeowners with Freddie Mac-owned loans inviting them to a meeting to answer disaster assistance questions in mid-December. Freddie’s housing outreach team on the ground at that meeting reported that they had a nonstop flow of borrowers at their table throughout the 12 hours that they were on hand. The collaborative effort helped almost 300 Long Island homeowners, she said.

Many banks are still trying to recover from damage and disruption to their own operations from the storm.

Kelly Maude Leung, a spokesperson for New York Community Bancorp, told me that “by Thursday (three days after the storm), we only had a handful of branches that were closed because of physical damage and power outages.” Those branches were located in Howard Beach, the Rockaways, Dongan Hills and Gowanus neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.

“Our open branches became ‘community centers,’ where people could congregate, have a cup of coffee, charge their phones and learn about how their neighbors were doing,” she said.

Michael Smith, executive director of the New York Bankers Association, told me the state banking industry benefited from knowledge gleaned in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Not only does the banking industry have some 2,000 branches in the state, it also has thousands of ATM machines that had to be restored. In the immediate aftermath of Sandy, with many communities engaged in mass evacuation, one of the first challenges for banks was to keep the flow of cash coming into New York to meet the urgent needs of customers, he said.

“I think what we’ve done in New York is a template for the nation.”

Ted Cornwell has covered the mortgage markets since 1990. He is a former editor of both Mortgage Servicing News and Mortgage Technology.