- Associated Press - Thursday, December 22, 2011

WEST PITTSTON, Pa. In a normal year, Della and Biondo Antonello would have decked their once-immaculate home with strings of festive Christmas lights and trimmed their tree with ornaments collected from around the globe.

This holiday season, they didn’t so much as hang a wreath on the door. That’s because they have no wreath, no ornaments, no light strings or, for that matter, a whole lot of Christmas cheer.

More than three months after record flooding from the remnants of Hurricane Irene and Tropical Storm Lee ruined tens of thousands of homes and businesses, the pace of recovery remains frustratingly slow for Northeast disaster victims, an untold number of whom will be out of their homes for Christmas, or who, like the Antonellos, are marking the season in half-finished construction zones.

The culprit, in some cases, is red tape.

Thousands of flood-insurance claims have yet to be processed, leaving many homeowners without the means to pay for extensive repairs. Moreover, grants distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency often don’t begin to cover the damage to homes whose first floors were submerged. Some residents complain of lowball damage estimates by FEMA inspectors; others say their disaster applications were inexplicably rejected, forcing them into an appeals process.

The result is that cash-strapped flood victims are buying materials when they can and doing much of the renovation work themselves, with the help of friends and donated or discounted labor from electricians, plumbers and other contractors.

“There’s not a drop of Christmas spirit to be found in any of us right now,” said Freeman White, a West Pittston resident who has been unable to return to the home he shared with his wife, their four children, and his mother and brother, before Lee’s remnants flooded parts of Pennsylvania in September.

In Vermont, only about 500 of the 1,400 households displaced by Irene’s flash-flooding in late August have been able to return, said Jennifer Hollar, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Housing. An additional 750 are living in apartments or hotels with help from FEMA.

“People are not turning to emergency [homeless] shelters, but we do know that some of the temporary situations that people are in are not sustainable,” she said. “There are definitely people who are struggling and not sure what their next steps are. They’re doubling up or still in motels.”

FEMA statistics for Pennsylvania show the extent to which flooded residents are still waiting for disaster relief or who have been getting by on modest FEMA grants:

• As of Wednesday, about 2,400 flood-insurance claims had yet to be settled, a quarter of the total.

• Though residents can qualify for a maximum FEMA grant of $30,200, the average award has been much smaller - $3,132.

FEMA rejected about 51,000 applications for disaster assistance, more than half the total of 94,000.

FEMA spokeswoman Josie Pritchard said many applicants were declared ineligible because they already had flood insurance, were found to have no damage or were unable to verify the home as their primary residence. FEMA does not pay out on second homes.

Some flood victims, though, say they were rejected for FEMA grants for which they should have qualified.

• AP writer Dave Gram contributed to this report.

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