Sandyversary Sheds Light on Problems Yet to Be Solved, a Community United in Recovery - By Victoria Ford, The SandPaper
On Saturday, Oct. 29, the fourth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, 130 people who either were directly affected or otherwise support the recovery cause attended a gathering at the Lighthouse Tavern in Waretown to raise money and to reflect on progress made and progress yet to make. Planned and led by the New Jersey Organizing Project, the event raised $8,000, which will support the community-funded Sandy Truth Project, the first of its kind, a community-based participatory post-Sandy survey.
Through the storm itself and the flood insurance and bureaucratic disasters that followed it, as NJOP founder Amanda Devecka-Rinear put it, “families and communities have fought for respect, dignity, and to make recovery programs work.” The party provided an opportunity to connect with others facing similar circumstances “and to recognize the fighting spirit of our communities,” she said.
Many donors bought tickets for those who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend. “We didn’t turn anybody away, and we were able to give away around 30 tickets.”
The most pressing matter at present is the foreclosure bill in the state Legislature that would buy time for those in danger of losing their homes as a result of Sandy-related financial straits.
Based on what the bill looks like today, according to Devecka-Rinear, its passage would allow for people in the RREM program, or people who received rental assistance from FEMA after Sandy, to apply for a forbearance on their mortgage. This is good news, especially for those who lost their primary homes and didn’t end up in RREM, or those located outside the nine counties that qualified for RREM and such programs, she said. It’s also good news for people already in foreclosure – the bill stops the clock for a few months to catch up – and for those not yet in foreclosure but struggling every month to pay the bills. Some breathing room might make it possible to finish rebuilding projects.
But to those who stand to benefit, what would the legislation really mean?
“I’ll have a life again,” says Tricia McAvoy of Brick. She has experienced “one problem after another” for four years, including post-traumatic stress because her neighborhood was not under evacuation orders, and she and her father, husband and two kids were trapped in and later rescued from the house, which is situated 15 feet from a bulkhead. Today she can’t go inside the house alone; the memories are too vivid.
“I’ll never forget the sound of the gurgling,” she said. “That was the water coming in.”
NJOP members Colleen Forest and Chuck Griffin, both from Little Egg Harbor, are at different stages of the process but share a common resolve: “I’m not going to stop until my neighborhood is restored,” Forest said. Forest moved back into her home about a month ago, while Griffin has seen no physical reconstruction work started yet because he got tangled up with a fraudulent contractor.
At this point, the toll on mental health is a concern for many. Forest, for example, had thought she was over the worst of the psychological trauma of coping with the grief and loss, but being back in her house now she finds the anxiety has returned. Some have a whole new wave of fear washing over them, haunted as they are by the past while standing in the shadow of an unknowable future.
Devecka-Rinear said she is confident the Senate and Assembly will pass the foreclosure bill; the real variable is the governor, who in January conditionally vetoed similar legislation. “I just hope he understands that he’ll be directly responsible for families losing their homes to banks if he vetoes it again,” she said.
Two days prior to the party, NJOP members had testified before the state Oversight and Regulatory Committee, where the chair committed to write legislation to address the critical problems and needs. While the governor keeps saying the state has recovered, Devecka-Rinear argues less than 50 percent of the families in the state’s RREM program are not finished with their construction or elevation projects.
And yet, “every day, residents find the strength and courage to keep pushing to get home.” As a galvanizing entity, NJOP and the coastal region it serves has “continued to stand together and fight to get families home and make sure they can afford to stay,” she said.
In addition to troubling financial and health issues, RREM has been sending recoupment or “clawback” letters to participants, requiring them to pay back thousands of dollars with no clear explanation or appeal process. The message from NJOP: “Don’t panic. We need to tackle this together.”
Moreover, New Jersey is the only coastal state in the country without a plan for sea level rise. “We’re concerned that we’re no more prepared for rising water and extreme weather now than we were before Sandy,” Devecka-Rinear said. “That puts millions of homes, jobs and families in jeopardy.”
So, plenty remains to be fixed and figured out.
The takeaway, from NJOP’s perspective: “We are the ones who are going to create change in our communities, and we’re going to do that by acting together. For folks that are still struggling to get home – know it’s not your fault. The recovery has failed many, many people just like you. Know that you’re not forgotten. We’re standing with you.”
— Victoria Ford
A chance to tell your real Sandy story | Di Ionno - By Mark Di Lonno, NJ.com
George Kasimos felt bad about cursing at the governor.
"For about a minute," he said. "Then I figured, 'He's the governor. He should know better.' "
At issue was the number 1,700.
That was how many people Gov. Chris Christie said remain displaced by Hurricane Sandy when he spoke last week in Seaside Heights on the fourth anniversary of the storm.
Christie's exact quote during the news conference at Jimbo's Bar and Grill on the boardwalk went like this:
"It truly is something to highlight that, in four years, we've helped to restore the households of nearly everyone affected by the storm that impacted nearly 365,000 homes and we're down to 1,700 left of people who are not back in their homes."
Kasimos' exact quote went like this:
"That's a bull(----) number and you know it," Kasimos shouted.
"When he said that, I went through the roof," Kasimos said this week. "I mean, I personally know a few hundred people still out, just in my organization alone."
That group is Stop FEMA Now, started by Kasimos and others in January 2013 in response to new federal flood maps that forced homeowners to elevate their houses and raised their insurance premiums.
"In Toms River alone, we still have about 600 to 700 homes substantially damaged," he said. "That's just Toms River! What about the rest of the state?"
Good question. From Moonachie to Newark's Ironbound to Union Beach, to Ortley Beach to the lagoon areas of the Metedeconk and the Toms rivers, there are still pockets or swaths of vacant homes. Some are under construction and some are just the way Sandy left them, except for the plywood boards nailed over the windows or doors.
At the Friday event, Christie hadn't even finished saying "1,700" when Amanda Devecka-Rinear yelled out, "That's not true, governor!"
We want a more complete picture of what the recovery actually looks like." -- Amanda Devecka-Rinear, NJOPDevecka-Rinear is the head of the New Jersey Organizing Project (NJOP), formed on the second anniversary of Sandy to give a unified voice to storm victims.
Devecka-Rinear not only objects to the number 1,700, but also to the nearly "365,000" homes the governor obliquely claimed the state helped make whole.
That number has often been kicked around, but when the state's umbrella agency for the recovery, the Department of Community Affairs (DCA), applied for federal Sandy aid, it said "40,000 owner-occupied homes in the state (were) severely damaged or destroyed."
That does not include second homes, which are ineligible for government recovery aid. A ride through Ortley Beach and other parts of the barrier island north of Seaside Heights proves many vacation homes are still boarded up or under construction.
According to the DCA website, a total of 7,995 homeowners entered the state's Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program and Low-to-Moderate Income Homeowners Rebuilding (LMI) program.
The state website suggests 4,115 of those homes are still being worked on.
"We just don't know the real numbers," Devecka-Rinear said. "We know, at one point, the state said there were 15,000 people who applied for RREM grants, which means 7,000 dropped out. What happened to them?"
Another good question.
That's why NJOP is developing a statewide survey of storm damage called the "Sandy Truth Project."
While the research may not be all-encompassing, Devecka-Rinear said she hopes it will "record the stories of what the recovery actually looks like.
"This is more than just about the numbers," she said. "It's about the impact of the storm on people's financial and mental health, and all the other elements of adverse impact."
That includes the frustration of dealing with insurance claims and government recovery programs, or quantifying the problems people had with insurance companies and contractors.
Part of the point is to understand what help victims of Sandy still need. For instance, NJOP pushed for legislation which would have staved off foreclosure for people still out of their homes, but that bill was vetoed by Christie earlier this year.
"We're still pushing that bill," Devecka-Rinear said. "That's a good example though of what you learn when you hear people's stories."
The idea for the survey came from a summer-long tour of Sandy-impacted areas by NJOP and other nonprofit groups looking to help storm victims.
Part of the tour was a portable "Sandy wall" that displayed photos, messages and other remembrances of the storm and the recovery.
"We had so many people come out and tell us their stories, we wanted to do something more comprehensive," Devecka-Rinear said.
The group is training volunteers to conduct surveys in several impacted communities, with help from Rutgers and Stockton State universities.
Sign-ups for the survey are available online at newjerseyop.org. Devecka-Rinear knows many of the people most impacted might not be internet savvy, so they can also call NJOP at (609) 312-3899 to participate.
"We certainly want to reach the older people and people who might not have access to the internet," she said. "That's the only way to a get a complete picture."
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