Fraud Cases Popping Up in New Jersey Four Years After Sandy - By Kate King, The Wall Street Journal
New Jersey officials are still addressing a flood of fraud complaints related to superstorm Sandy four years after it slammed ashore.
Prosecutors are investigating or have filed criminal charges in 161 cases involving more than $15 million in alleged fraud stemming from the storm, according to the state attorney general’s office and prosecutors in Ocean County, one of the counties hit hardest by the storm.
More than a third of the criminal charges brought by state prosecutors were filed in 2016, records show.
Many of the investigations have focused on building contractors accused of cheating their customers. But hotel operators, car dealers and homeowners also have been charged with stealing disaster relief money and other crimes.
In September, the owner of an Ocean County motel pleaded guilty to falsely claiming that he had sheltered Sandy victims to get $81,000 in federal funds. In 2014, an operator of a used-car dealership in Middlesex County was sentenced to three years in state prison after pleading guilty to securing fraudulent vehicle titles to sell cars damaged by Sandy to unsuspecting customers. The state has also filed charges against residents accused of improperly claiming disaster funding.
“We’ve getting new victims every day,” said Sgt. Mark Malinowski, who runs an economic-crimes unit for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office. “I have a feeling that this is something that’s not going to go away, at least in Ocean County.”
In addition to criminal cases, New Jersey officials have issued $1.5 million in civil penalties and restitution claims against 46 people and companies, mainly for hotel and gas price gouging.
Another $1.8 million in civil claims have been assessed against 135 home-improvement contractors accused of performing shoddy or incomplete work in the hardest-hit counties.
The cases prosecuted by the state involve more than $3.5 million in alleged fraud. Although small compared with fraud investigations typically handled by the state, the nature of the crimes calls for prosecution at the highest level, said Attorney General Christopher Porrino.
“When you’re preying on people who have already been displaced from their homes and disadvantaged, it’s particularly troublesome and egregious, so we’ve been very aggressive,” he said. “We’re literally making examples of people for the purposes of deterring this kind of conduct.”
Sandy wrecked more than 40,000 New Jersey homes and caused an estimated $37 billion in damage. Government agencies awarded more than $8 billion to help residents and businesses in the state rebuild. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has approved $4.5 billion of the $8 billion in disaster relief and recovery assistance, usually works with state attorney-general offices to prosecute fraud, spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said.
New Jersey officials have allocated $4.2 billion in federal Sandy recovery funding. As of Oct. 17, $2.7 billion had been awarded to homeowners, businesses and public programs.
New batches of fraud complaints seem to follow each new round of recovery grants that is distributed, Sgt. Malinowski said.
Unscrupulous builders note when a large amount of public funding is released, and homeowners, eager to begin repairs and flush with government cash, don’t always do their due diligence. Some residents appear to have been defrauded by multiple contractors.
“You have people who’ve lost everything,” Sgt. Malinowski said. “And now they’ve lost it twice.”
In Ocean County, local and county authorities have filed charges or are investigating cases involving more than $11.9 million in alleged fraud related to Sandy. County prosecutors have conducted dozens of investigations involving more than 150 victims.
Little Egg Harbor resident Chuck Griffin, who lives on a lagoon and whose house was flooded with 40 inches of water during the storm, still isn’t home four years later. The delay came about in part because the local contractor he hired to fix and elevate his house allegedly pocketed Mr. Griffin’s $55,000 initial payment, disconnected the utilities and disappeared.
The contractor, Jeffrey Colmyer, was arrested along with his partner, Tiffany Cimino, earlier this month and charged by the state attorney general with defrauding Mr. Griffin and two dozen other homeowners of more than $377,000. Prosecutors, who are still investigating the case, have accused Mr. Colmyer and Ms. Cimino of using customers’ money to buy luxury items, including a $17,000 diamond ring, and gamble in nearby Atlantic City.
Ms. Cimino’s attorney didn’t return calls for comment. Mr. Colmyer, 41 years old, doesn’t have an attorney, state officials said.
Mr. Griffin, 70, a retired nurse, has owned his 860-square-foot home since the mid-1980s. He met with a builder this month and hopes to be back in his home by May.
Mr. Griffin said that Mr. Colmyer’s alleged crimes delayed his rebuilding by nearly two years and pitched him into a paperwork and bureaucratic nightmare. “You can understand why people walked away,” he said.
Chaos erupts at Christie speech in Seaside - By Erik Larson, Asbury Park Press
SEASIDE HEIGHTS - Chaos erupted at an event commemorating the fourth anniversary of superstorm Sandy on Friday, forcing Gov. Chris Christie to temporarily leave his lectern where he was delivering a speech about the recovery.
Christie was at Jimbo’s Bar and Grilll on the Boardwalk in Seaside Heights when he was interrupted by protesters after he stated that of the 365,000 homes that sustained damaged in the Oct. 29, 2012 disaster there were 1,700 homes that were still uninhabitable.
"Governor, that's not true," called out Amanda Devecka-Rinear of the New Jersey Organizing Project, who was seated near the media in the back of the bar.
"I call bull----!" shouted George Kasimos, founder of Stop FEMA Now, who was standing nearby, and who continued to repeat the line again and again. "That is a "bull---- number, sir!"
At issue was whether the governor was inflating the original number of damaged homes, counting those properties with just minor damage, in an effort to give the appearance that the recovery had been far more successful than was factual.
Devecka-Rinear said later that the number of homes in New Jersey that were rendered uninhabitable four years ago was actually closer to 40,500 — data she said came from the state Department of Community Affairs in a report to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The situation began to deteriorate when a Seaside Heights police officer attempted to calm Kasimos, who was the loudest of what became a chorus of several shouting protesters — some who had raised homemade signs over their heads critical of the recovery effort.
"If you want to arrest me, you can arrest me, but I'm going to talk," Kasimos said, as another man repeatedly shouted: "Finish the job!"
"This is what happens when you don't work for the people, sir!" Kasimos said. "Four years of frustration!"
"Governor, there are 7,679 families that are not back home yet!" said Jim Keady — the man who two years ago was infamously told by Christie to “sit down and shut up” — at a 2014 Sandy anniversary ceremony in Belmar, where Keady had also heckled the governor.
Christie met with Sandy protestors in Seaside Heights
NJ Governor Chris Christie was met with protestors at Jimbo's Bar & Grill on the Seaside Heights boardwalk Friday, October 28, 2016, during what was planned as a commemoration on the fourth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy highlighting business and infrastructure rebuilding and recovery across impacted communities. THOMAS P. COSTELLO"That's simply not true," replied Christie, who remained calm during the demonstration. Eventually, he left the lectern asking the protesters to join him at the front of the room where he invited them to write down their contact information so his staff could contact each of them on Saturday.
The gesture had the effect of pacifying the protest and Christie was eventually able to continue his remarks with few interruptions.
When Christie returned to the podium, he continued to assert that the number of homes "damaged or destroyed" was 365,000 and there were 1,700 families left that were still waiting to return to their homes.
"I'm not happy that 1,700 families have not been restored," Christie said, who outlined the bureaucratic complexities of the recovery effort, the challenges of trying to address the needs of all the victims, of opening the reconstruction process to a bigger pool of building contractors — some of whom were unscrupulous and engaged in fraud.
"So let's keep things in perspective on what's being done and what hasn't been done," Christie said, who remained poised throughout the event and quipped that he would have attempted to make changes at the federal level — specifically referencing a need to overhaul the National Flood Insurance Program — had his presidential ambitions succeeded.
"The fact that all but 1,700 of those homes are back and restored is something I'm enormously proud of no matter how many people yell and scream," Christie said. "And that doesn't mean that those who have valid complaints shouldn't be heard and shouldn't try to be helped. Our office has been trying to help everyone and has helped tens of thousands of people who have been put in that circumstance."
After the governor's speech, a relaxed and congenial Kasimos spoke to reporters and even offered some praise for Christie.
"I think the governor hit it right on the head when he said that FEMA was just screwing with (National Flood Insurance Program) policy holders, I'm glad he brought that up and I love it," Kasimos said. "But we've been waiting four years to get money to rebuild our homes and the banks are foreclosing on us. That's a big problem."
In January, Christie conditionally vetoed legislation that would have let Sandy-impacted homeowners delay foreclosures and put off mortgage payments until 2019 and that infuriated disaster victims such as Kasimos who thought the governor could have alleviated much suffering with the wave of a pen.
"We definitely need protection for our homeowners," he said.
Colleen Forest, 54, of Little Egg Harbor, said Christie's opposition to the foreclosures bill had motivated her to protest the governor on Friday. For the first time since Sandy destroyed her house four years ago, she finally returned home one month ago.
"So many of my neighbors are still out and one of the problems that we're having in Little Egg Harbor, and all over this region, are foreclosures and that's why I'm here for today," Forest said. "He needs to sign that bill."
Forest said she had a chance to speak to Christie after he left the lectern amid the heckling and the governor expressed a willingness to stop the foreclosures but that he was opposed to the specific bill the Legislature had sent him 10 months ago.
"We are so financially taxed from Sandy," Forest told Christie. "If I did not get the rental assistance, my home would be in foreclosure."
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EDITORIAL: Sandy victims need foreclosure protection - By Daily Record
What remains remarkable, and tragic, about the ways in which Hurricane Sandy victims have been mistreated is the sheer scope of the offenses. Seemingly every government agency and program that has had its hands in the recovery has cheated and blundered its way through the process, extending the suffering for four years — and counting.
That was the overriding message from victims who poured out some of their heartache during an Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee hearing on the Sandy recovery Thursday. And their nightmares are just a small sampling. Talk to those who have been forced to rebuild and the horror stories just keep coming.
Homeowners have been bewildered, angered and pushed to the brink of capitulation by a bureaucratic maze with obstacles around every turn. The indignities keep multiplying. Many owners were unfairly underpaid on their claims, the result in some cases of intentional doctoring of damage assessments and an appeals process that was itself manipulated to suppress payments. Others endured unreasonably long delays in receiving any assistance, putting greater and greater pressure on their own finances; thousands of homes under the state’s RREM (Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation) program have yet to be rebuilt.
Most troubling to many of the residents who spoke before the Assembly committee is the state’s effort to reclaim supposed aid overpayments that have long been spent, and that recipients can’t possibly be expected to return. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has sent out similar recoupment letters trying to get money back. These are not just cases of suspected fraud. Many of the overpayments were simple mistakes. So now victims have to suffer again to make up for someone else’s error?
All of this underscores the critical need for legislation that would protect homeowners from foreclosures for an extended period. A bill that would have accomplished that was conditionally vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie in the last legislative session, and lawmakers clearly aren’t working aggressively enough to push a fresh version of a bill through to the governor’s desk. Christie objected to oversight elements, preferring that judges be given control of individual homeowner cases.
Regardless of the method, it is necessary legislation that Sandy victims deserve. Government officials owe it to them after all they’ve put them through after the storm.
Remember how we got here. The recovery effort after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was plagued by problems that generated extensive criticism of excessive spending. FEMA, as a result, was motivated from the start of the Sandy recovery to keep costs down. In theory that meant greater efficiency and awards that more appropriately reflected actual damage, but in practice that meant a variety of schemes to cheat victims.
Damage reports developed on site were changed and underplayed by others who never visited the scene. Public pressure forced many of the underpaid claims to be reconsidered under appeal, but the appeal procedure itself was structured to discourage challenges by withholding entire payments while under review, even if only a portion of the award was under appeal. Public pressure eventually forced officials to reopen many cases that had already been closed, but whistleblowers said even that process was tainted by orders from above to those examining the appeals to simply plug the claims into a formula designed to cheat victims. Under public pressure FEMA eventually adopted several related reforms.
Meanwhile, we learned last week that the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development wants the state to justify $43 million in apparently questionable spending, or pay the money back. That stems from an audit of the company formerly in charge of distributing aid under three of the state’s disaster programs. But if some of that money has to be returned, where will it come from? Does the state plan to hit up victims for more repayments?
Nearly everyone, it seems, has failed Sandy victims. Their stories should not have to end with foreclosures largely forced upon them by government incompetence. Lawmakers need to provide some protection while homeowners continue to recover not just from the storm, but from the recovery process itself.
Sandy showed coastal vulnerabilty - By Michelle Brunetti, Press of Atlantic City
PISCATAWAY — Hurricane Sandy showed how vulnerable coastal communities are to storm-related destruction, and models of sea-level rise have made clear the vulnerability will only increase, said speakers at Rutgers University’s “Taking Chances” symposium Friday.
But politicians have not taken the long view, and they haven’t considered ways to deal with storms other than rebuilding, the speakers said. The symposium is one of many Sandy-related events this week, leading up to the fourth anniversary of the Oct. 29, 2012, storm.
Short-term pressure to rebuild “bigger and better” in the same places has dominated the discussion, a panel of policy experts stressed.
That pressure comes from the tourism industry and homeowners understandably desperate to get back into their homes, said Rutgers associate professor Karen M. O’Neill, co-editor of a book on the aftermath of Sandy called “Taking Chances: The Coast After Hurricane Sandy.”
But increasingly, those owning coastal properties are the wealthy, and the panel predicted that trend will continue.
“My conclusion is the real choice is not between rebuilding or retreating, but between gentrification or retreating,” said Clinton J. Andrews, Rutgers professor of urban planning and policy development. “The people won’t be the same people who were living there who get to rebuild in most cases.”
Low- and moderate-income people are being priced out of rebuilding, he said, in some cases forced to sell damaged homes or empty lots at a deep discount, only to see wealthier people build much larger homes there.
Andrews said society needs to let the federal pendulum “swing back towards self-sufficiency” and stop thinking that simply elevating houses is a viable long-term solution.
“It gets us over the next storm, maybe, but not over the long-term sea-level rise,” said Andrews.
Rutgers scientists have predicted a likely 1.5-foot sea-level rise by 2050, effectively drowning many of the wetlands that provide buffering against storm surges and leaving roads and utilities underwater much of the time in some places.
People simply aren’t looking realistically at risk, said Daniel J. Van Abs, Rutgers associate professor of practice for water, society & environment.
“The most significant thing we have not done, we are still not doing, is a recognition of risk,” said Van Abs, the other co-editor of “Taking Chances.” “Unless you are willing to recognize risk, there is no particular incentive to take action.”
The panel recommended looking at ways to begin working collaboratively on a regional level to plan for moving residents out of the most vulnerable areas, including by consolidating municipalities east to west.
At the same time, many of those who are trying to rebuild in areas hard hit by Sandy are still not back in their homes, according to representatives of the New Jersey Organizing Project. The nonprofit was formed to help people negotiate the complex flood insurance and federal emergency funds systems.
They spoke at a state Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Reform and Federal Relations Committee hearing Thursday and at a Tuesday night Sierra Club of New Jersey forum in Brick Township called “Are We Stronger Than The Next Storm?”
“Forty thousand primary homeowners were impacted by the storm (with significant damage), and 15,000 applied for the RREM program,” Amanda Devecka-Rinear, director of the New Jersey Organizing Project, said at the Sierra Club forum.
The state Department of Community Affairs administers the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program with $1.1 billion in federal funds.
Eligible homeowners whose primary homes were damaged by Sandy got up to $150,000 in grants to pay for construction projects such as raising homes that were not covered by other funding sources.
“Of them, 8,000 remain (in the program) today. What happened to the other 7,000, I don’t know,” she said. “Only 4,000 have completed construction and elevation projects. The other 50 percent are not finished. Obviously we need to do better.”
Devecka-Rinear said many have simply given up on negotiating the complex insurance and assistance programs or were inappropriately told they didn’t qualify. She is lobbying for legislation that would let people still caught in Sandy-related financial problems put off paying their mortgages on damaged properties for a time, instead extending the length of their mortgages.
“Our concern is that not only has the state not learned from Sandy, but that these policies will leave us at risk during the next storm,” said Sierra Club Director Jeff Tittel.
He said the state has rolled back controls over development in environmentally sensitive coastal areas, in spite of models that predict a 1-3 foot sea-level rise by 2050.
When asked at the Sierra Club forum how anyone can justify rebuilding in highly vulnerable, exposed coastal areas, former Asbury Park Press reporter Kirk Moore said soon there will be strong financial pressure against doing so.
“People want to live near the water,” said Moore, who is now associate editor at WorkBoat magazine and field editor for National Fisherman magazine. “Banks and insurance companies will walk away, and only the super-wealthy who can self-insure will be able to live there.”
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Superstorm Sandy is not over for these residents - By Phil Gregory, NewsWorks
Four years after Superstorm Sandy, thousands of New Jersey residents still have not finished rebuilding. Some of them told their stories to an Assembly committee.
Penny Ryan-Sesta says her house in Little Egg Harbor Township was destroyed and she’s still not back home. She says a state-approved contractor in the RREM program took her money but did not rebuild the home.
"Being a victim of contractor fraud has elevated my fears, crushed my confidence, and further delayed our rebuilding project. I’m here to ask please don’t forget about us. Help us and the other thousands of families out there,” she said.
Doug Quinn says the site of his Sandy-damaged home in Toms River is now an empty lot.
He says the state blocked him from the RREM rebuilding program because it lost documentation about his address and he had to go to Senator Bob Menendez to get his grant restored.
“What about the people that don’t know you can call a senator? What about the people that are elderly? What about the people that have young children? What about the people that are just too wiped out from losing everything they own and living like a refugee for four years that just don’t have it in them to fight this kind of bureaucracy?” he asked.
Julie Suarez says she rebuilt her Little Egg Harbor home with the help of a RREM grant but got a letter two years later demanding she repay the state $50,000. She says her four years of efforts to maintain her family’s stability is taking an emotional toll.
“I have fought tooth and nail to get my family back home and keep us whole and keep our community together. It has been a challenge and then I open this letter. I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I want you to help me," said Suarez.
Adam Gordon with the Fair Share Housing Network says about 5,000 families who originally applied for RREM grants to rebuild their Sandy damaged homes got to the point where they gave up.
“That is what happens when these programs don’t work and people are being foreclosed upon. We need to focus partly on this group of people and make sure if there’s any way with these remaining resources that people can be made whole and get back in these communities," he said.
Staci Berger with the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey urges the legislature to approve a bill that would put a moratorium on foreclosures of Sandy-damaged homes.
“It is unbelievable to me that the federal government or the state government would spend a lot of money and all of these good people’s time and energy and then allow a bank to repossess that house,” she said.
Assembly Regulatory Oversight committee chairman Reed Gusciora says legislation passed by the Assembly and awaiting action in the state Senate would deal with many of the victims’ issues by ensuring project deadline fairness and establishing a foreclosure and mortgage relief program.
Sandy survivors blast Christie on slow recovery process - By MaryAnn Spoto, NJ.com
SEASIDE HEIGHTS — Gov. Chris Christie used the eve of the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy on Friday to hail the state's recovery process, but a group of hecklers who took exception to his claims accused him of exaggerating the progress.
In a visit to Jimbo's, a Seaside Heights boardwalk restaurant destroyed by Sandy, Christie got shouted down after saying only 1,700 of the 365,000 homes damaged by Sandy are still not repaired to the point of getting the homeowners back in.
Christie's comments came a day after the housing advocacy group Fair Share Housing Center told the Assembly Regulation Oversight and Reform and Federal Relations committees that some 7,000 homeowners, trapped in the morass of a state-run recovery program, are still not back in their homes yet.
"Governor, that's not true," one woman shouted.
Property owners say recovery is taking too long and they're facing foreclosure as a result
That opened a floodgate of cat calls from the crowd, including jeers from Christie critic James Keady and from George Kasimos, founder of the grass roots protest group Stop FEMA Now.
"That is a (bull) number, and you know it," Kasimos yelled. "There's 600 substantially damaged homes in Toms River now."
Chiming in was Keady, a former Asbury Park councilman and a failed state Assembly candidate who Christie infamously told to "sit down and shut up" during a Sandy gathering in Belmar for the two-year anniversary.
"Governor, the day you told me to sit down and shut up, you said that you would meet me any time, any place to debate Hurricane Sandy," Keady said.
Christie's office did not immediately respond to an email seeking clarification of the conflicting figures.
For his part, Christie largely ignored the shouts and instead started speaking briefly with some of the frustrated homeowners, promising them his staff would contact them on Saturday.
When the crowd eventually quieted about 15 minutes later, Christie said he understands their frustration but stressed he told residents after the storm that recovery would be a long process.
He appeared to place much of the blame for the remaining delays on unscrupulous contractors who take money but don't do the work. Christie said he was reticent to change the state's rebuilding program to allow property owners to choose their own contractors in the interest of expediency but did so because of the outcry from Sandy survivors.
Still, he said, the state has made great strides, particularly the Jersey Shore, which saw a record for tourism last summer.
"Let's keep things in perspective on what's been done and what hasn't been done, he said. "365,000 homes in the state... are going to take a while to rebuild. The fact that all those...are back and restored is something that I'm enormously proud of no matter how many people yell and scream."
Christie tried to calm the crowd by offering to have his staff meet with them individually to discuss their problems.
MaryAnn Spoto may be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryAnnSpoto. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
Protesters shout down Christie at Superstorm Sandy event - By Wayne Perry, Associated Press
SEASIDE HEIGHTS, N.J. (AP) — Two years ago, on the second anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie yelled at a protester frustrated with the slow pace of storm recovery to "sit down and shut up."
On Friday, a day before the fourth anniversary of the storm, it was Christie's turn to be silenced, at least temporarily.
Protesters angry that hundreds of Sandy victims have still not been able to return home four years later shouted Christie down as he visited a storm-damaged boardwalk bar in Seaside Heights. They included the heckler who Christie rebuked two years ago.
When Christie used an often-cited figure that his administration had to deal with helping 365,000 homeowners, the protesters stood up, waved signs critical of the recovery pace and began yelling at him.
"What do we want? To go home!" chanted Amanda Devecka-Rinear, director of the New Jersey Organizing Project.
They claim Christie's administration has grossly inflated the number of people it helped with storm recovery, an assertion the administration has rejected.
Before his speech, Christie's office released figures saying that of the approximately 7,600 homeowners actively participating in New Jersey's main storm rebuilding program, approximately 4,300 have completed construction and another 1,400 have returned home while construction is completed.
"I'm proud of what we've been able to do within the last four years to be able to restore our state," Christie said once the protests subsided. "I've given you the very best I can give you over the last four years in this effort."
Protesters included individuals who are still not back in their homes. And Jim Keady, an Ocean County businessman and unsuccessful candidate for state Assembly who was on the receiving end of Christie's "sit down and shut up" put-down in October 2014, also yelled out. This time, someone else told him to be quiet.
While the protesters shouted and chanted, an uncharacteristically restrained and patient Christie huddled with other residents who had come seeking help, taking down their names and phone numbers, and promising that someone from his staff would contact them on Saturday to hear their concerns.
Christie also called for abolishing the National Flood Insurance Program, saying it had failed many policy holders after Sandy.
"But I ran for president and lost, so I don't get to do it," Christie said.
Since months after Sandy hit, Christie has been pushing a plan to build or reinforce protective sand dunes along New Jersey's entire 127-mile coastline; shore towns that had the dunes fared much better during Sandy than those that did not.
But the effort has met with pockets of resistance up and down the coast. Though some work is already underway and more is due to start in the spring, some oceanfront homeowners are still fighting the plan. Friday morning, a group of five Margate homeowners asked a judge to issue an order prohibiting dunes from being built in their town just outside Atlantic City.
They claim water will become trapped between the dunes and their homes, creating fetid ponds that will spread disease and cause flooding.
Also on Friday, a group of Bay Head homeowners fighting the dune plan in court said a series of post-Sandy storms has shown that the rock wall they privately built and paid for provides adequate protection. They want to be left out of the dune plan.
"We know that we have the resources to maintain the revetment and protect our homes and our community," they said in a statement. "We have no faith that the state will have the financing to protect our community or any other community along the Jersey Shore."
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Hurricane Sandy Survivors Face a New Threat — from the State - By Tom Johnson, NJ Spotlight
Demands for repayment of grants used for rebuilding, threats of foreclosure are only two of the troubles Sandy victims now have to deal with.
Hurricane Sandy is still tearing up people’s lives four years after the storm wreaked devastation up and down the coast.
Take Julie Suarez. A couple of years after settling back into her Little Egg Harbor house, she got a letter this June from the state demanding she pay back $50,000 of the $150,000 grant she received to rebuild her home after the superstorm.
Joe Karcz is fed up with moving. The disabled pipefitter still is not back in his Beach Haven West home, after relocating more than a dozen times. “You sleep in your own bed,’’ he told legislators, his voice rising, at a hearing on Sandy recovery efforts yesterday. “Try sleeping in 13 beds.’’
Paul Jeffrey is upset the state still does not have a comprehensive coastal resiliency plan four years after 99 percent of the homes in Ortley Beach suffered damage in the storm. A beach club on the water that was destroyed by the storm is up for sale, zoned for 16 oceanfront condos. “In 50 years, it will be gone,’’ he predicted.
Others at the hearing before the Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee in the State House complained of people trying to rebuild their homes while fighting foreclosure actions at the same time; of being ripped off by corrupt contractors; or of getting little or no help from the state Department of Community Affairs or federal agencies disbursing funds to recover from the storm.
During the hearing, representatives from various nonprofit groups urged the state to quickly move on legislation (A-333) — conditionally vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie in the last session — that would create foreclosure protections for homeowners threatened with the loss of their homes.
“Our residents deserve so much better than what they are getting,’’ said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “There needs to be an immediate moratorium on foreclosures.’’
Probably the most contentious issue raised in the hearing was the suggestion that the state is going after residents who received rebuilding grants under RREM (Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation), seeking to recover some of the money.
Suarez said she still cannot understand why the state is asking her to repay a portion of the grant, a demand she cannot possibly afford. “There is no explanation why I have to pay it — at least that is understandable to an educated person.’’
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), the chairman of the committee, said this is the first he has heard of such tactics, but vowed to draft a bill to deal with the situation.
“Many of the stories we heard today were heartbreaking, but they were also infuriating because bureaucratic incompetence compounded an already devastating situation and made it nearly unbearable for many victims,’’ Gusciora said. “The common refrain we heard today is that the administration and the DCA, in particular, have failed Sandy victims.’’
The criticism has often been heard during the Sandy recovery process, from complaints about victims being shortchanged by insurance companies; problems navigating the application process among state and federal agencies administering grant programs; to bureaucratic mistakes.
Most recently, the federal government, in an audit, found the state failed to properly oversee a contractor hired to distribute federal aid, and suggested the state may have to reimburse the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development $43 million.
Sandy victims had little good to say about the state’s handling of the Sandy recovery at yesterday’s hearing.
“It’s a rudderless ship and you know what: The money’s running out,’’ Karcz said. “There’s no accountability.’’
The DCA did not respond to a request for comment, but has said in the past that 4,230 homes have been rebuilt. Critics, however, point out that 7,679 homes are participating in the program. “We need to focus on this group of people and make them whole,’’ said Adam Gordon of the Fair Share Housing Center.
Others were more pessimistic.
Joe Mangino of Stafford Township worries that the state has no plans to deal with climate change. “Until New Jersey develops a comprehensive plan to deal with sea-level rise, I feel that our future is nothing but a pipe dream.’’
As Chris Christie touts progress after Superstorm Sandy, hecklers voice outrage - By John Ensslin and Jame M. O'neill, NorthJersey.com
Still not back in their homes four years after Superstorm Sandy, protesters confronted Governor Christie on Friday, disrupting an event held to promote his administration’s recovery efforts.
“I’ve got to shout at my governor to get something done,” George Kasimos, a member of a group called “Stop FEMA,” yelled at Christie. “I don’t even call you governor any more.”
George Kasimos, one of the founders of the group Stop FEMA Now, was among the protesters who disrupted Governor Chris Christie's speech at Jimbo's Bar & Grill on the Seaside Heights boardwalk Friday, October 28, 2016.Christie was a few moments into a speech at Jimbo’s Bar & Grill in Seaside Heights when about a dozen people stood on their chairs holding up signs and shouting him down. He stepped away from the lectern for several minutes and spoke one-to-one with some residents, taking down their contact information.
“I won’t be content until all the people who are yelling and screaming stop yelling and screaming,” Christie later said to the crowd of 100 people who had gathered at the boardwalk tavern. “These are complicated issues and they don’t lend themselves to explanations when people are yelling and screaming.”
Christie marked the fourth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy with two public events Friday, one in Bergen County and the other on the boardwalk in Ocean County.
Christie’s response to the storm — his embrace of President Obama, his forceful demand that people evacuate, his trademark blue fleece sweat shirt — marked the high point of his tenure.
Since then, however, his approval ratings have plummeted, his bid for the presidency failed and three of his former allies have been linked to the George Washington Bridge scandal. And all the while, critics of the Christie administration have complained about the pace of recovery. And environmentalists have said many of his policies will do nothing to reduce the effects of climate change, such as a rise in the sea level and more powerful storms that can push greater storm surges at the shoreline.
On the attack
At his Hackensack stop, hours before he was heckled in Ocean County, Christie lashed out at those critics.
“We’ve gotten the job done in the rebuilding from Sandy,” he said.
“It is fashionable today to be critical of government and everybody in it,” Christie continued. “I understand that. That’s the media focus, that’s the atmosphere they’ve helped to create in our state and across our whole country. But I am extra proud of what all of us working together have done over the last four years.
“There will always be critics,” Christie said. “And I am happy to take the criticism. Because when you take the criticism that means you’re actually in a position to do something. The people most of the time who are hurling the criticism are the people who have never accomplished anything in their lives worth note.
“This weekend is a weekend for us to take a moment to remember what we felt like four years ago,” he said, “and take a moment to celebrate how far we’ve come since then.”
The PSE&G substation in Hackensack was inundated by storm surge and then rebuilt and elevated to prevent damage from future storms.
The project, Christie said, was one example of how far the state has come over the past four years to improve the resiliency of key infrastructure against the sort of catastrophic damage that Sandy inflicted.
“We’re highlighting resiliency today because, man, we are a lot better off than we were four years ago,” he told a small gathering of PSE&G officials and electrical union workers.
Christie started his public commemoration with the stop in Hackensack, he said, because of the destruction Sandy wrought to such communities as Little Ferry, Moonachie and Carlstadt.
“I wanted to start in Bergen County because I think sometimes people don’t pay nearly as much attention to what happened up here,” Christie said. “We need to continue to remember that those folks, just as much as folks at the Shore, had their lives turned upside down.”
He ran off a laundry list of the damage inflicted by the storm: 325,000 housing units affected, $5.9 billion in overall damage, 19,000 small businesses closed temporarily or permanently, 70 percent of gas stations in northern New Jersey that were closed or had sparse delivery.
He said 71 percent of electric distribution in the state was cut off by the storm. He noted that 100 transmission lines were out of service, 5,000 transformers and 9,500 utility poles were damaged or destroyed, and 50 substations were damaged or knocked out. “That’s not a small problem,” he said.
“This substation was two feet under water at points,” Christie said. In fact, one of the older pieces of equipment off to his side had a line painted in white several feet above the ground — the level to which the water from the Hackensack River covered the site during the storm.
In Ocean County, Christie said several contractors had been prosecuted on fraud charges. He also said the state opened the rebuilding program to contractors who had not been pre-screened after hearing complaints that the process with the approved contractors had been going too slowly.
And he put part of the blame for problems on the National Flood Insurance Program. He said that program first paid out too little in claims, then too much. When the agency sought the state’s help in recovering some of those funds, Christie said he refused.
Rebuilding the PSE&G substation was a $20 million project that included replacing and raising the site’s electrical distribution equipment 4.5 feet. The substation improvements were part of PSE&G’s $1.2 billion Energy Strong program, designed to strengthen the utility’s electrical and gas infrastructure to withstand future storms.
“Because of our infrastructure investments to date, if a Sandy-like storm were to occur today, about 225,000 customers impacted by flooded substations and switching stations during Sandy would not lose power,” said Ralph LaRossa, PSE&G’s president. “And customers who did lose power would be restored more quickly.”
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State Wants Some Sandy Victims To Pay Back Grant Money - By Patricia A. Miller, The Berkeley Patch
Four long years after Superstorm Sandy, some 170 New Jersey homeowners thought the worst was behind them.
Until they got the letters.
Letters from the state's Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program, informing them they had to pay back some of the grant money they used to rebuild, according to a report in nbcphiladelphia.com.
Lisa Stevens of Little Egg Harbor lost her bungalow in the Oct. 29, 2012 storm. She used her grant money to build a smaller home.
"I didn't build a mansion!" she said. "I went smaller because that's what I could afford to do with my grant."
Her signed approvals for the RREM program show she did not receive duplicate benefits, she said.
“They knew every dollar amount I was getting,” Stevens said. “They signed off on it.”
Stevens is among the 170-plus homeowners who have received similar notices from New Jersey’s Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation or RREM program.
NBC10 investigators found some, like Julie Suarez, with far larger refund demands. Suarez, a public school teacher, was told she owes more than $51,000.
“You can send us a cashier’s check at your earliest convenience," she said. " No ‘why.’ No ‘how to appeal.’ No ‘how to make a payment plan.’ Just, ‘you owe us 50-thousand dollars,’” she said.
The demands for reimbursement are a "gut punch" for Sandy victims, said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, the executive director of the New Jersey Organizing Project (NJOP), an advocacy group for Sandy victims.
She believes the number of refund demands will only rise as more families finish rebuilding. She also says better oversight could've prevented overpayments in the first place.
New Jersey officials have a legal obligation to recover funds that were duplicated, exceeded costs or were used on ineligible expenses. The DCA says any refund letters relate only to those over-payments.
The agency said in a statement that all the affected homeowners “were afforded the opportunity to provide us with additional documentation (i.e., receipts, invoices) to offset potential recovery of grant funds.”
To read the entire story, click here.
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