3/8/2015 Family of 10 still homeless after Sandy Mark Di Ionno Star Ledger
When Jen Toole walked into her house in Manasquan after Hurricane Sandy, she was overwhelmed by the stench.
"The floors looked like we had the ugliest brown carpeting," she said. "It was brown sludge, raw sewage. It almost made me sick to my stomach."
Her refrigerator was knocked over. Brown water gushed from cabinets and the dishwasher. Furniture and household items were soaked with the same nasty concoction of sewage and oil, carried by overflowing briny water from nearby streams and coastal lakes.
In the 28 months since, the reflexive gagging and panic Jen Toole experienced when she saw her family's home destroyed has been replaced by a nagging, ulcerative kind of anxiety.
We're getting pretty good at it. I almost don't think about it. It's our reality." -- Matt Toole, father of eight
The Toole family -- Jen, her husband, Matt, and their eight children -- are still not home, and not sure when they will be.
They have moved four times. They squeezed in with her parents. They camped out in a friend's basement, which once began to flood in heavy rain. There have been two off-season rentals. The small bungalow they now occupy near Brielle Avenue Beach will be rented for the summer to post-college-age partiers and the family will have to move again.
They're not sure where.
All that moving would be tough for anybody. But with eight kids? And all that comes with them?
"But we're getting pretty good at it," Matt Toole said. "I almost don't think about it. It's our reality."
There are a lot of realities to the Tooles' story -- realities faced by tens of thousands of people left homeless by Sandy, or with destroyed second homes.
They have boxes of paperwork. Insurance claims for wind and water damage. Federal and state applications for grants, loans and rental assistance. Demolition permits, building permits. Information on ever-changing elevation requirements.
"I wish there was one place to go for answers; I wish you could have one advocate to work on your case," Jen Toole said. "Just the other day I was in the town (municipal) offices, and there was still a question of how high we have to build to get the best flood insurance. Was it town standards? Or FEMA? Nobody seems to know."
They have been handed off to four different representatives from their insurance company, two from as far away as Mobile, Ala. They have had three different caseworkers from the state's Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program, and four from Coastal Habitat for Humanity.
They were first told to rehab, then rebuild, by FEMA and insurance adjustors. Each option required a different set of paperwork for applications, permits, grants, loans. Paper, and more paper. Forms on top of forms.
They had flood insurance, but got low-balled, then had to hire a public adjuster and lawyer, and now they are in court, wrangling to get the maximum $250,000 coverage allowed by law for a home valued at $400,000. Depositions and statements, more forms, more paper.
"They first offered us $109,000. Now, it's up to $160,000," said Matt Toole, who said it will cost about $320,000 to rebuild. "I paid between $1,600 and $2,000 a year for $250,000 coverage for 17 years. Why is this an issue? Why is this a fight? My house was totally destroyed.
"You can't keep track of all you have to do and have a full-time job," he said. "This (paperwork, etc.,) is a full-time job."
And if you slip up -- miss a deadline, forget a piece of paper, fill out the wrong form -- the process grinds to a halt. The proof is in the number of people "still out" as opposed to "back in," two pieces of post-Sandy lexicon that need no further explanation.
"I wish this story was unusual, but it isn't," said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, co-founder of the New Jersey Organizing Project, which focuses on issues surrounding Sandy and environmental problems in the coastal regions of the state. "There are thousands of people still not back home. We want to see a greater effort, as a state, to get these people back home."
Of the 10,800 families in the RREM program, only 328 are back in their homes, according to a report released last month by the Fair Share Housing Center,in conjunction with the Latino Action Network and the New Jersey NAACP.
Of 5,400 damaged rental units in the state's multifamily restoration program, only 51 have been completed, according to the same report.
"The frustration level is very high," said George Kasimos, of Stop FEMA Now, an activist group that now has the state RREM program in its crosshairs.
"The RREM program is a mess. People are on waiting lists ... money gets disbursed, then they ask for it back. People are getting jerked around by their towns and contractors. Now, we have the insurance fraud issue (with FEMA announcing Thursday it will review all claims in which homeowners suspect engineering reports were falsified). This has been an unmitigated disaster."
Lisa Ryan, the spokesperson for the state Department of Community Affairs, said late Friday that 5,900 RREM program houses are under construction. She said 650 homes have been completed, including 400 in the last three months, "despite the brutally cold temperatures.
"We expect to see the construction completion pace accelerate as winter ends and warmer temperatures arrive," she said.
That's the big picture.
The small picture is a family like the Tooles; 28 months out of their house, roughly 850 restless nights, infinite levels of stress, anger, hopelessness.
They lived for 17 years in the home that was destroyed. Five of their children knew no other home -- a lifetime of memories. All grew up there. Over the years, they improved it, adding some bedrooms, updating throughout. Investing.
The winter rental they live in now is not home. It's a typical summer bungalow, not meant for year-round comfort. The bedrooms are small, there is no dining area. Everything is tight. But the Tooles have furnished it with a lot of laughter.
"We're lucky our kids love each other," Matt Toole said. "They gravitate toward each other, even when we have room."
He said this as Claire, 21, had Claudia, 17, on her lap, braiding her hair. A few feet away, Trent, 9, and Tate, 7, were playing mini-basketball in the kitchen. Tyler, 25, and Chloe, 15, were nearby, at the counter that separates the kitchen from the living room.
Twenty-eight months after the storm, there is hope, but they will "be out" at least another year. Friends are helping raise funds so the family can build a foundation for a new home on the property where their old home was. Volunteers from Coastal Habitat will help with the rest.
Claudia's friend, Conor Gleason, started a crowd-funding site for the family atgofundme.com/toolefamilyfund.
The Manasquan Elks is holding a fundraiser called "No Family Left Behind"on April 11 for the Tooles.
"I think of all the fundraising events I've been a part of," Jen Toole said. "It seems neighbors are always there to help neighbors. Thank God for neighbors."
We're South Jersey and the Shore standing together for community solutions.