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Family in Sandy-damaged home suffers in deep freeze: 'This is being exposed outdoors'

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. -- Dee and Scott McGrath were huddled under two blankets, both wearing hooded sweatshirts and pants, with an electric heater by their bed. Dee heard her daughter coughing through the night from the room next door and feared she was getting sick.

Though they’d tried to cover up the open gaps between the wood on the first floor of their gutted home, which was inundated by 11 feet of water during Hurricane Sandy, the chill of a deep freeze sweeping New York was seeping in. Downstairs, it was just under 20 degrees. Upstairs, where they’ve restored heat, it was only 60, the couple said as they recounted the Wednesday night experience.

The McGraths are not alone in their suffering: Though the number of those living without heat is a hard number for officials to gauge, more than 9,000 dwellings remain without electricity in the city, according to data from the area's power companies.

“It’s rough, it’s very stressful, it’s very depressing. And you get the anxiety of not knowing when your work is going to be done and when your house is going to be back,” Scott, 45, said Thursday afternoon, taking a break from working on the electrical wiring in his home. “You have emotional-like panic attacks in your head, you’re thinking of what you have to do next to make sure your family don’t die or get sick with the flu and stuff … you can’t be exposed outdoors all day and this is being exposed outdoors.”

Some 20,000 residential buildings in the city were left with some damage or disruption to their utilities after Sandy. A city program, mostly funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had restored utility services and provided replacement equipment to more than 11,800 residences as of Jan. 21, while some 7,000 are awaiting help. Work on about 1,900 dwellings is under way.

The McGraths moved back in two weeks after the storm, but they only got heat on Jan. 2. Before then, they had been running nine to a dozen electric heaters off two generators at a cost of $80 a day. Until this weekend, they had to take showers and use the toilet at a neighbor’s home.

“My poor daughter is sick in bed right now running a fever and I have to have an electric heater running for her besides my heat,” he said of Crystal, 21, a meter reader for one of the city’s power providers, Con Edison of New York. Upstairs the thermostat showed it was 60 degrees. “It’s pretty sad and she’s wrapped up in two blankets.”

Although the McGraths’ home received help from the Rapid Repairs program, a first-of-its-kind collaboration between FEMA and local agencies, Scott said the program’s subcontractors had botched the installation work, with leaks springing in the pipes when the boiler was turned on. His brother, a plumber, fixed the problems.

They got electricity earlier, on Christmas Eve. But the work done by Rapid Repairs was “basic,” Scott said, leaving them with few outlets, such as just two in the kitchen. He was installing more outlets on Thursday before eventually putting up insulation and dry wall.

The couple has done almost all of the repair work on their own, finishing the bathroom downstairs, with a shower and toilet, this weekend. Though it was an achievement they had looked forward to, the timing couldn’t have been worse with the onset of the subzero temps this week. 

“It is completely unbearable to step foot out of my bedroom,” said Dee Young-McGrath, 42. “It’s like torture to sit on an ice-cold toilet. And the shower, I mean, we have holes in the wall back there … it’s just excruciating.”

The couple, who have lived in the home for 10 years, said they stayed for several reasons, including that FEMA housing options were either too far away or in troubled city neighborhoods, and many places wouldn’t take dogs. They have a 10-year-old dog, Brownie, a chocolate lab and border collie mix.

“Their (FEMA) answer was to tell me to put my dog in a shelter. That is my family. … I’d rather sleep in my car before I put my dog in a shelter,” Scott said as he called a tail-wagging Brownie “Daddy’s little girl.”

They also stayed since it's their home and because they’d heard stories of vandalism.

“Whatever I have left, I want to keep,” he said. “You stay here to protect your property, what’s left.”

Though the days are long and dark for them, there was a little levity when Katie jokingly offered a reporter a cold drink. One wall on the first floor is lined with bottles of water, a two-liter orange soda and a few energy drinks.

Katie said they were lucky to have a roof over their heads when others still did not and were sheltering at warming centers, but they both said the stress and depression has been great.

Scott said on some days he could not motivate himself to get out of bed and his hands would tremble when he was overcome with anxiety. They have been given sick leave from their jobs at Con Edison, where he is an investigative inspector and she an instructor, due to the emotional toll. The cold, with a forecast that it may snow on Friday or over the weekend, is making it even worse.

“I have … panic attacks, anxiety at night, wondering what’s going to happen to my house. You know, running electric heaters, I start to panic, thinking that I’m going to cause a fire,” Scott said, noting he also worried about the possibility of pipes breaking in the freezing weather.

“This is not a way (for) a person to live,” he said. “It’s depressing to come here every day and you’re living in this house.”

NBC Nightly News' Katy Tur contributed to this report.

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