Thursday, March 21, 2013

fish by flashlight

These are the only photos I took the night of the storm. We were still in a pretty light mood then because we didn't know how badly things would turn out.

This is what it looked like from D&P's window. I knew what ended up here would be different than what my eye saw. It was impossible to catch it on a pocket camera. But I still like the effect.

Here's a view of Red Hook with lower Manhattan in the distance, just after the power went out. Eventually the other lights went out too.

Derrick wanted to cook the fish from the CSA share before things in the fridge went bad. We were cracking up about how the fish looked.

That's D cooking by flashlight.

It was the beginning of a very long slumber party.

in limbo land

It's been over two weeks since I last spoke with Misty. She requested that I find out if the IRS had received my 2011 1040, so she could put in another request for the transcript. I hadn't filed a 2010 1040 because I thought that my income had been under the threshold required for filing, so she also requested that I send her my Schedule C, the business Profit or Loss Statement. I emailed the information to her on March 6 but hadn't heard anything back. I did call the IRS and everything checked out for 2011, so I thought we were okay with that.

In the mean time I received a bill from the IRS for my 2011 taxes, including hefty fines for failing to file and failing to pay, plus interest. Included with the bill was a sheet addressing Sandy victims, stating that the IRS might be able to help! (Yes, I've heard that one before.) So I called the IRS and told them that because of the losses from Hurricane Sandy and the fact that my business was destroyed, I am unable to pay my tax bill. The rep I spoke with went over my options- I could either set up a payment plan or request that my account be put on hold until I can pay. In both cases interest would continue to accrue. I asked if the penalties and interest could be waived because, after all, I was a Sandy survivor. He told me that he might be able to waive the penalties but not the interest, but any decision would be based on my history with the IRS. I should point out that 2010 was the first year in 30 years of filing taxes that I've ever been late. The rep noted that I had requested an extension, but then failed to file. I explained to him that my income had been lower than the amount required to file, but he told me that since I was self-employed, I was still required. I went back and checked the 1040 instructions and sure enough- buried down on Chart C, Other Situations When You Must File, condition #3: You had net earnings from self-employment of at least $400. And this is why people pay professionals to do their taxes.

On Monday I filled out the blank copies of the tax forms I had kept on hand in case something like this happened, brought them to the post office and off they went to Kansas City. The IRS rep told me that once they received my return, I might be able to get the penalties removed from my bill. I had filed my New York State 2011 taxes the week before, and was also charged late fees. Since the amount was more reasonable I paid my bill minus the fees, and will contest those fees once the State receives my return, as instructed by one of their tax reps.

Today I called the SBA to find out the status of my application. Misty had never received the information I sent her- I had missed the dot between her first and last names in the email address I used. And this is how things go. Two weeks after requesting information from me, which she never received, and she never bothers to find out why. Because this woman has so many applications to process, she barely remembers my case when I call her with questions about it. And my application had fallen into some inactive state when it was discovered that two of the four years of tax returns they requested from the IRS were unavailable. So since Misty barely remembered my case, I had to refresh her on what document I had been trying to send her. And at this point she asked me- did I file a 2010 tax return. And now I was telling her yes, I had filed the return earlier this week. So now we have to start the whole thing over again. And since it's tax season, it might take a month for the 2010 transcript to get to her. So I should go to my local IRS office and request that they time stamp my copy of the 1040. And if they can do this, I should send a copy of this time-stamped 2010 return to her. And this will reactivate my application, although Misty might or might not be assigned to my case after my request for reconsideration.

But wait- there's more! I had planned for today to be a day of accomplishment. This morning I sat down with my phone and list of calls to make. How is it that by the end of the day I felt worse instead of better? How is it after almost five months of near full-time attention to collecting some kind of disaster relief, I've gotten no more than what FEMA considers to be one month's rental assistance, and eleven weeks of unemployment at third-world country rates? But yes, the President and the Governors and the Mayors will tell you that they are doing everything they can to help Sandy victims recover from this crisis.

On my list of calls to make was one to Time Warner. Although our apartment was completely destroyed on October 29, they continued to charge us for internet for November, December and January. And since I was set up for automatic bill pay, the amounts for November and December had been deducted from my bank account. On my first call to them I was told these amounts would be refunded once we returned our modem. One of the last errands we did before leaving Brooklyn was to drive to the Time Warner office and return the modem. I was told that we would be receiving a $25 check in the mail as a refund of the deposit we had paid for it. Would you be surprised to know that we never received the refund for the modem, nor for the months we were overcharged? So back on the phone I go to Time Warner. And again I am told that I will be receiving a check in the mail. Months go by, no refund, Bryan swings through Brooklyn on his way back from JFK one day, and he returns with some mail that had come to Derrick and Pamela's apartment for us. And oh, what's this? An envelope from Time Warner? Maybe it's a refund check? WRONG! It's a statement for January, in which they have credited the amount for the returned modem against a partial month of service. SAY WHAT? So back on the phone I go, and this time I remain calm. Because this is my new approach. Don't freak out Mollie, don't get angry. State your case calmly and this time you might get through to them. And on March 4 I spoke with a very capable-sounding customer service rep who seemed to get what I was saying. And on top of the over-charges, he was going to give me a credit for Sandy victims. And within a week I would receive a check. So here I am two and half weeks later, and where's my check? Back on the phone today- yes, I would be receiving a check, but what the last rep told me was wrong. He was wrong- the check wouldn't take one week, it would take four to six weeks. Yup. This is Time Warner's latest answer- my check should arrive by April 19, but could arrive sooner because it is in process.

Okay, those aren't the only calls I made today but I'll leave it here for now. Bleh.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

four and a half months in

The Monday after supplying Dave with the necessary info for SBA I started receiving calls from Misty in Texas, who was processing my application. It seemed that the 2011 return I had filed with the IRS had crossed paths with her request for access to the document. When we arrived in Kingston on New Year's Eve we checked into the Super 8 and made it our base of operations. We spent days scouring Craigslist for apartments and gathering some basic office supplies so I could get started on my taxes, untouched since 2010. The motel had wifi and a nice laser printer. I placed my laptop on the motel room's desk and set up my supplies. My filing cabinet had been one of the last things to be sorted through after the storm. We had removed the bottom drawer and placed it on top of the cabinet, thinking the flooding would be no higher than a few inches. Luckily that bottom drawer had contained the relatively unimportant files- years of magazine clippings from the pre-internet days. We had been encouraged to keep these when I was in art school and I used them periodically for projects. Since the filing cabinet was in the main room, the top drawer was tossed around and files flew everywhere. Or so I assume- I wasn't there for the second day of clean out. The cabinet and its remaining top drawer had been wheeled to the back yard and served for weeks as a cleaning product station.

As Pamela sorted through Bryan's hardware I faced the task of opening the filing cabinet. I tossed most of the wet files but kept a few key documents such as my New York seller's permit, our lease and any important business records. It was truly great that I had placed our expense receipts for the past few years high on top of the closet, where they had remained dry. Before I started my taxes I had to catch up on my sales records, which were incomplete. I was up to date on the recording of sales since I am required to file and pay sales taxes to the state. But I got miserably behind on expenses, which are more complicated since they can be paid for in various ways- cash, debit card, paypal, or by Bryan.

So the chain of financial disfunction I found myself in went something like this: FEMA had given us ZERO for personal possessions because our loss was less than the allowable grant amount. FEMA had determined this because they assumed my income for 2011 to be ZERO. While filling out their online application I had left the income field blank, intending to go back and fill it in later. Since I hadn't yet filed my 2011 taxes, I didn't know what my income was. Curiously I had left other, less important fields blank, and FEMA's software had not allowed me to complete the application. But leave the income field blank and FEMA assumes you had no income. Intentional? Maybe.

Once this error had been brought to my attention, naturally I assumed it could be corrected. WRONG! Once the application is submitted, no changes can be made. I could have asked for a re-inspection of my property, assuming the inspector had made mistakes (and he did) but I could not correct a mistake I had made on the application. The day I found this out, presented to me by a FEMA employee in their trailer in Coffey Park, I started crying. The woman who had been helping me, a mom-like midwesterner with fluffy, bleached-out hair, came around from behind her folding table and hugged me, hard. I was so confused. I had entered the FEMA trailer with three questions, none of which had been answered for me at the main FEMA office on Ikea's second floor, from where I had just come. Now I was being squeezed by this stranger, the bearer of bad news, before she shuffled me off to the SBA office, a tiny room behind a door at the end of the trailer.

I entered the room and I had no idea why I was there. The FEMA rep (whose name I don't know because she, like the first FEMA rep I had spoken to at Ikea, wore her badge so low that when she sat down, it hung below the level of the table) had failed to explain to me FEMA's system for working around problems like these. Or maybe she attempted to explain it to me, but it still remained unclear. You see, even in my devastated and emotional state, I was still thinking logically. And logic has no place in the Federal Government, whose system is based upon rules. And the rule apparently goes, if a person is rejected for a FEMA grant, they are encouraged to apply for an SBA loan. If the loan is rejected, FEMA reconsiders the grant application. This made no sense to me at the time, nor did I fully understand the procedure. All I was told was to apply for a loan, which I knew I didn't want.

Behind a smaller folding table in the tiny SBA office sat a young man to the left and an older, seasoned veteran to the right. They both wore short-sleeved shirts in a dark color and khaki pants. The young, muscular man had dark hair pulled back in a pony tail, and wore a gold chain around his neck and a rather dainty, matching one on his wrist. I spoke to him, indicating that I didn't know why I was there. In front of his tanned, wrinkled, white-haired, heavy-set partner sat the remains of a milky coffee drink in a clear, quart-sized reusable mug with a straw. His partner stood up and tried to steer the conversation in some sort of direction. Did I own a business, he asked me. What kind of business? I worked at home? Did I keep sales records? Did I have a federal tax I.D.? On and on. The questions got increasingly more accusatory, as he seemed to imply that I was making everything up. Why was I even here? Why was this man asking me questions about my business? I thought we were trying to sort out the problem of a mistake being made on my FEMA application. I got up and left and once again the FEMA rep seemed sympathetic. Implying that there was nothing else this office could do for me, she pointed me to the next trailer, where the City of New York had set up shop.

Choked-up and teary-eyed, I entered the City trailer. Noticing my state, I was quickly approached by a young, energetic woman who sat me down to speak with a counselor. The counselor used the same end office in this trailer SBA used in FEMA's. But instead of approaching me from behind a table, from behind a closed door, he pulled his chair up to mine as the woman ran off to get me a bottle of water. I briefly explained my story as the counselor looked me straight in the eyes. When the woman returned she assured me that the City was fully aware of FEMA's shortcomings and they had been prepared to deal with distraught people like me. And here I was- their first case! After calming me down, the pair asked me if I was aware of what the City had to offer- had I applied for SNAP benefits? I returned to the main room and quickly noticed the difference between the City employees and those of the federal government. These people looked normal and helpful. They wore bright orange wind breakers and had clear complexions and bright eyes. I sat down to apply for SNAP benefits (aka Food Stamps) as the energetic woman rushed off the FEMA office to find out exactly what had happened with my case.

To be continued...

Saturday, March 2, 2013

disaster relief

We have bad phone service at our apartment. Kingston is so small that it is only served on one end by cell phone towers. Bryan and I will usually plan something around the opportunity to go uptown and make phone calls. Yesterday we stopped by the bank and then headed west, uphill. I thought it would be a nice day to drive to Phoenicia, a small skiing and tubing village in the Catskills. As we headed out of town through the traffic circle and onto Route 28, I picked up the phone and called Dave, the SBA representative who has been trying to get ahold of me for the past week. The Small Business Administration's role in disaster relief is to administer emergency loans. If mistakes were made in your FEMA application or inspection, you are encouraged to apply for the SBA loan. If you are not approved for the loan, your application will go back to FEMA for consideration. I was also told that I could have requested a second inspection, but that didn't happen. I didn't find out the inspector had entered incorrect information about my apartment until well into the process, after numerous phone calls to the federal FEMA number and visits to the local FEMA office. All of it was so confusing and I was under an enormous amount of stress. I was planning to appeal my FEMA decision, but I missed the deadline.

So after all else I applied for the SBA loan. The online application was fairly easy. After filling it out I was instructed to submit IRS form 8821, which gives the IRS permission to show my tax returns from 2008 to 2011 to the SBA. I filled out the form electronically and added a scanned signature, then digitally faxed it to the number in the instructions. A few days later I began getting voice mails from the SBA, saying they needed me to submit the 8821. I checked a confirmation email I had received from the SBA when I submitted my application and found that I was supposed to submit the form directly to them. So I emailed the form, but they rejected it, saying that it had to contain an actual signature. Bryan was asking me how they knew, whether I had flattened the image before saving it as a pdf. I said I probably hadn't, and that the signature was too small also. He said if it had been good enough I would have gotten away with it. So I put a copy of the unsigned form on my flash drive and brought it uptown to Catskill Art Supply to have it printed so I could sign it and then have them scan it for me and put it back on my drive. I emailed it over and a few days later I started receiving messages from Dave.

Dave asked me a few basic questions- what the total value is of what we lost, did we have a vehicle that was damaged, what kinds of things did we lose, did FEMA give us anything, did we have insurance? I told him I could give him an itemized list of what we lost and our expenses related to the flood, and photographs of the damaged apartment. Seemed like I was barely on the phone with him a few minutes before I started to lose phone service again, heading into the mountains. But I was able to call him back and he gave me an email address to send the information to. Bryan and I went over our lists today before I sent the packet over. I have learned that it is a mistake to get my hopes up. But I haven't learned not to. So I am hopeful.