News 12 New Jersey - New Jersey marks $50M for Sandy victims still not home yet
UNION BEACH - On the sixth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, the Murphy administration is offering help to the more than 1,200 families who lack the funds to return home, and hundreds of others who face clawbacks of part of their grant money. Both issues have been reported extensively by Kane In Your Corner over the past few years, including in a two-part investigation last week.
Speaking at a sixth anniversary event in Union Beach, Murphy announced the creation of what he calls “a zero-interest uncapped forgivable loan fund, through which qualified homeowners who have already maxed out their $150,000 grant awards can seek the additional funds needed to finish the work on their homes.” Murphy says the program, which still must be approved by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, will be funded with a portion of New Jersey’s $1.2 billion in unspent federal Sandy assistance.
The governor also promised an end to new clawback requests, and said the state will work with families who have already received clawbacks.
Amanda Devecka-Rinear of the New Jersey Organizing Project applauds the program. “These have been the two issues we’ve heard the most from our members and from our community,” she says. “People are stuck, they can’t get home without extra funding, and people are terrified about clawbacks. So seeing some action on those two things means we have a path forward for the next year that we didn’t’ have before.”
For Jim and Carol Ferraioli of Middletown, the new zero-interest loan program could mean being able to fully replace their Middletown house, which has been rotting away on temporarily pilings, the result of a fraudulent contractor who started a house-lifting project and never finished. The Ferraiolis had been resigned to building a smaller house because of lack of funding but now believe it might be possible to replace what they lost.
“We really do think this is going to happen,” Carol Ferraioli says, “because Gov. Murphy was at our house last year in our driveway in the pouring rain. So he saw with his own eyes the devastation.”
Doug Quinn of Toms River is also hopeful the program will allow his family to return home after six years. But Quinn notes that after all this time, some of the damage he suffered can never be fixed.
“My daughter was 15 years old (when Sandy hit), she had just started her sophomore year in high school.” Quinn says. “She’s a 21-year-old grown woman, out of state now. And I can never get that time back.”
By Dino Flammia - 101.5 - 6 YEARS LATER, SANDY VICTIMS WANT TO FINALLY ‘CROSS THE FINISH LINE’
Of the nearly 8,000 New Jersey families that qualified for federal funds to help rebuild, rehabilitate or elevate their homes after Superstorm Sandy, 19 percent still haven't finished their projects or received the green light to move back in.
"It's pretty distressing," said Atlantic City resident Sharon Zappia, who travels daily from her rental home to her actual home that was flooded by 28 inches of water and sewage in late October 2012.
Zippia received $150,000 from the state's Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation, and Mitigation (RREM) Program, but the actual cost of getting her home back into livable shape is more than double that.
"I now stand about $50,000 short of completing the project," Zappia said. "I see the home possibly going back into foreclosure."
Zappia said she's one of three homes on her block that are "incomplete."
These folks, and many others, are looking for what they're calling "cross the finish line" funds to help them finally put Sandy in the rear-view mirror. And they think a good chunk of this financial help can come from about $1.2 billion in Sandy recovery funding the state still has on hand.
"If six years later we know people are struggling, I'm sure we can take a look at $1.2 billion and find out where to set aside, say, 20 or 30 million more to help families — that seems so doable," said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, director of the New Jersey Organizing Project, a grassroots organization formed four years ago by Sandy survivors.
Devecka-Rinear said some New Jersey residents affected by Sandy have not even started the tear-down and repair process on their home. Others are dealing with a variety of obstacles, such as contractor fraud or "clawbacks" by the federal government to recoup some of the grant money it had distributed.
And next summer, Devecka-Rinear said, even more families will feel lost. That's when a mortgage forbearance program, which suspended payments for Sandy victims, is scheduled to end.
"Many families that we work with are telling us that they're going to need more time," she said.
By MICHELLE BRUNETTI POST - Press of AC - Group still working to help Hurricane Sandy survivors cross finish line
STAFFORD TOWNSHIP — Almost six years after Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey, a group that advocates for flood survivors’ rights held its first convention, showing there is still much work to be done in the historic storm’s aftermath.
The New Jersey Organizing Project brought survivors together with representatives of government programs, politicians and others to talk about helping state residents finish projects, fight clawbacks of government assistance funds and keep health insurance coverage.
The convention was held Oct. 13 at the Ocean Acres Community Center in Manahawkin.
Oct. 29 will be the sixth anniversary of Sandy, and 19 percent of the 7,690 families that qualified for Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation and Low-to-Moderate Income grants still haven’t finished their projects, said NJOP Executive Director Amanda Devecka-Rinear.
The grants were funded by more than $4 billion from the federal government and administered by the state Department of Community Affairs.
A large number of those who got assistance are being asked to pay back an amount the government has decided was overpaid. Called “clawbacks,” the demands for repayment of tens of thousands of dollars are putting additional stresses on families that have already been pushed to their limits, said Jody Stewart, of the Mystic Island section of Little Egg Harbor Township.
“I had 42 inches of water in my home,” Stewart said, who used grant money to repair and raise her home.
“Then we struggled with a clawback. The government wanted $20,000 back, even though we never got enough money.”
Luckily it turned out the government’s paperwork was wrong, Stewart said. She did not owe any money after all. But it was stressful fighting it for a while, she said.
Sandy survivors started the New Jersey Organizing Project to better advocate for rental assistance, disaster aid and to help people who were running into roadblocks.
It is still focused on making sure families can get home and hang on until they make it home, said Devecka-Rinear.
But the group has added two big issues onto its plate, she said. It is working for affordable health care — in particular expanding access to treatment for those with opioid addiction — and for reform of disaster recovery systems so they work better for families and prepare communities for future flooding and storms.
Many people affected by Sandy suffered physical or mental health issues in the years that followed, Devecka-Rinear said.
Nancy Caira, of Waretown in Ocean Township, said her husband had a heart attack soon after Sandy, putting him out of work and complicating their ability to help pay to raise their home 13 feet. Even though they have a RREM grant, they ran into many complications and still haven’t started the work, she said.
Caira spoke at a workshop on storm recovery and preparing for future storms, along with the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Shana Udvardy, one of the authors of “Underwater: Rising Seas, Coastal Floods and the Implications for U.S. Coastal Real Estate,” and Jason Tuber, a senior adviser to Sen. Robert Menendez. Tuber talked about reforms Menendez, D-N.J., is seeking through legislation for the National Flood Insurance Program.
As of Sept 28, Devecka-Rinear said, the state’s figures show there is about $1.2 billion in unspent Sandy recovery funding, some of which could be redirected to better aid families.
By Victoria Ford - Stafford Municipal Candidates Publicly Introduce Themselves at Ocean Acres Community Center
The Ocean Acres Civic Association hosted a candidates night on Tuesday, Oct. 9, that packed the Ocean Acres Community Center. The format was a straightforward series of three-minute speeches from each candidate, introducing who they are and what they believe in. No questions were taken from the public. A coin toss gave the Democrats the floor first.
Brian White is a criminal defense attorney who cares deeply about the opioid crisis. He said he wants to solve the underlying addiction problem by partnering with citizens. The Blue HART (Heroin Addiction Response Team) program and the On Point program (for mental health assistance) are two ways the Stafford Police Department already helps. Additionally, he would like to beef up neighborhood watch efforts and drug education. “We need to think outside the box,” he said, to win the war on drugs and overdoses in Stafford. He feels his team is “a great group of people, doing this for the right reasons.”
Joanne Sitek has been a resident of Beach Haven West for over 20 years. She retired to the shore after a long, rewarding career in teaching and counseling. She was brought up to help people, she said, which is what motivated her to run for town council previously and serve as liaison to the recreation department, school system and senior citizens. She described the Focus on Stafford team as service-oriented and diverse in terms of age and gender. One of her concerns is finding solutions for the vacant storefronts in town.
Nicole Downs is a partner in a law firm and has a lot of experience in municipal law. She’s lived in town 15 years, has four children, volunteers as a soccer and cheerleading coach and sits on the boards of the American Cancer Society and Ronald McDonald House. She’s interested in working on ordinances to address the issue of abandoned and foreclosed houses, one of which would require bank registration of foreclosures, which would generate revenue and help improve communication between property owners and the town. “I’ve seen the positive effects in other towns, and I want to bring that experience to Stafford,” she said.
Chris Marzullo is a technologist (computer systems engineer) who has lived all over the world and chose to put down roots in Stafford for the quality of life and services available. As a new resident, he is enthusiastic about life and eager to dive into some complex issues. For one thing, he wants to dissect the town’s technology contracts and introduce the “My Stafford” smartphone app as a way to report potholes, downed power lines, flooding, etc.
Joe Mangino has lived in town since the mid-’90s. He is a small business owner, a wedding officiant, an oyster shell recycling program volunteer, president of the New Jersey Organizing Project, a member of the Stafford Township Board of Education, and sports coach. “As you can see, my community matters to me,” he said. He intends to govern in a manner that is both fiscally responsible and forward-thinking. “I’ve always put issues and people above party politics,” he said.
Leading off the Conservatives’ introductions was Tony Guariglia, a doctor of pediatric emergency medicine at Southern Ocean Medical Center. He has four children, one with special needs. When he was interviewing at different hospitals, he said, he chose to make Stafford his home because SOMC was the one place where every person he encountered greeted him warmly.
In terms of his priorities for the town, he said first responders are at the top. “The opioid crisis – it’s bad,” he said. Emergency personnel deserve adequate funding for equipment. He, too, believes drug education is the key to solving the problem.
Mike Pfancook is a 43-year resident of the town, with three children. He’s an avid outdoorsman, hunter, fisherman and golfer, an NRA-certified handgun instructor, a union electrical worker, and a volunteer with Boy Scouts and the Toy Run Foundation. He entered politics in 2009 when the council started laying off police, he said. “I love my country; I love my president.” He was prompted to run for office because “it’s time to be a voice and an ear for residents.”
George Williams is “fed up with politicians’ unkept promises.” The financial adviser and member of the Ocean County Bowlers Association Hall of Fame has lived in town 11 years and wants to be “a public servant, not a politician.” He believes the government should be built on principles of respect and rational thought, more transparent and less wasteful. He believes in personal responsibility, the Constitution and the “MAGA” mindset.
Bob Henken-Siefken is a resident of 19 years, a sports coach, a motorcycle enthusiast, a member of Bikers for Trump, a NASCAR fan and father of four who wants to “give a voice back to the community.” He “won’t let anyone be marginalized.”
Paul Krier moved to Stafford in 1997 and has two children with his wife, Ocean Acres Civic Association President Kate Krier. He served as a councilman from 2013 to 2015. The best part of that experience, he said, was working with the residents. He wanted the audience to know: “I’m here to represent you.”
Greg Myhre, a member of the Ocean County Republican Club’s screening committee, believes “working together is the best way to achieve goals.” He supports every Republican on the ballot, including the POTUS. “Now is not the time,” he said, “to experiment with liberal Democrat policies on any level.”
Not in attendance were Democrats Kevin Teeple and Denise Pobicki and Republican Tom Steadman. After the formal introductions, audience members (all 120 or so) lingered to enjoy refreshments and ask questions and converse with the candidates directly.
Among the crowd, Bea Michelson, age 102 and a lifelong Democrat, said this year she decided to change parties and vote Republican for the first time ever. Her reason? The Democratic party just isn’t what it used to be, she said, and “it’s time to change.” She does not approve of what she sees as a slide toward socialism. She believes in the original words of the U.S. Constitution. For her, watching Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s Senate Committee hearings evoked her sympathy, from a moral perspective. “It was just terrible, how they treated that man,” she said.
With regard to the campaign, Myhre said he feels optimistic. His impression is residents like his team’s message and non-aggressive agenda.
Asked if he plans to fire Township Administrator James Moran, Myhre said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on personnel issues but that “we’d have a lot to talk to him about.”
“I have read that Mr. Moran had filed for retirement, and I would accept his retirement,” Myhre said. (Moran, in a separate previous conversation, had dismissed the rumor that he plans to retire.)
The Beach Haven West Civic Association will host another meet-the-candidates event on Friday, Oct. 19, at 7 p.m., at the Bay Avenue Community Center.
— Victoria Ford
By Pat Sharkey - TapInto.net - Stafford Mayor Spodofora Quits Republican Club and Endorses Democrat Joe Mangino for Mayor
STAFFORD - Stafford Township Mayor John Spodofora resigned this past week as a member of the Township Republican Club and he has endorsed Democratic mayoral candidate Joe Mangino.
Mangino represents the Focus on Stafford Democratic slate of candidates.
The Regular Republican team of candidates led by Spodofora included a slate with most of the town’s current council members.
They were defeated by the "Republican Conservatives" in June.
Greg Myhre is the mayoral candidate and leader of that team. Myhre will compete against Democratic candidate Joe Mangino next month.
In his resignation to the Stafford Regular Republican Club he wrote to Republican Club President Richard Carlson:
"I have come to realize after much thought, that staying neutral would not be fair to either myself or the people of Stafford Township. The act of staying neutral indicates that as a member of the Stafford Regular Republican Club I am supporting the local Republican candidates…. I simply cannot stay neutral nor can I belong to a club that supports these candidates. It pains me to resign from the club after over 30 years, however I feel it would not be fair to either myself or the Club to remain a member.
I remain proud of the accomplishments I have been part of while in office, I am proud of the residents of Stafford who always volunteer to help others, this is truly a great community, I love the town and the people who call Stafford home. I have a saying I always use "having knowledge leads to responsibility, and responsibility requires action."
Simply put, based on my knowledge I feel responsible to Stafford to not stay neutral on this election, or give the impression that I support these local Republican candidates by remaining a member of the Republican club.
Some will try to say this is simply sour grapes for losing the primary election. I can assure there are no sour grapes, this is simply me doing what I feel is right.
In a second letter addressed to the Stafford community, Spodofora shares some detail of his support of Mangino. Spodofora wrote:
As many of you know I lost the Republican Primary in Stafford by a very slim margin. However, I have a strong commitment and love for Stafford Township. This is the place where I grew up and a community that I have been proud to serve over the past 30 plus years. I want Stafford to continue to be the great community that it is and has a quality of life second to none, and for that reason I am writing to endorse Joe Mangino to be the next Mayor of Stafford Township. I won’t be on the ballot for re-election in November, but Joe will be, and I plan to vote for him. I hope all of you who have supported me in the past will put party lines aside and vote for the best person for Stafford - Joe Mangino.
Together as a community we have faced many challenges, perhaps none as serious as Superstorm Sandy, one of the first citizens to step up to help the thousands of people in despair who lost so much was Joe.
Although Joe’s own home was severely damaged by the Storm, he put his own needs aside to help form a group of volunteers to help those in need, with hammer in hand he and his volunteers moved through the community, cleaning up debris, having materials donated, and helping those in need to rebuild. It has been said that “adversity does not build character, it reveals it”, and Joe is a prime example of demonstrating good character, and a commitment toward the people of Stafford. I worked closely with Joe and his team, his desire to help others above himself continues today, he is the right person to move Stafford forward. Unlike his opponents Joe is not part of any political machine and will always put the people and needs of Stafford first. For these reasons I am endorsing Joe Mangino, a man with a long record of service to Stafford.
I am proud of my administration’s accomplishments in many areas, including the growth of our youth recreation leagues, our efforts to upgrade our parks, preserve our environment, and protect our senior communities. To provide these services while keeping taxes stable has been my greatest accomplishment.
I offered to meet with both Mayoral candidates to bring them up to speed with the complex issues of running a Town. Only Joe met with me and during that meeting he continued to impress me as someone who has the management and leadership skills and is running for office for all the right reasons. I am confident he will always put the needs of Stafford first.
Some people may be surprised that as a lifelong Republican, I am endorsing a Democrat. But party labels have never mattered to me on the local level. I want the best person for our town, and this year, Joe is the best candidate for Mayor. His focus is not on partisan or national issues, but on what we need here in Stafford.
Joe is deeply involved in our town in many areas. He started a recreation sports league for girls’ field hockey, owns his own small business here in town and is well known for his volunteer activities. As the President of New Jersey Organizing Project, he helped Sandy victims with rental assistance, foreclosure protections, and insurance issues. It did not surprise me that Joe was the 2013 Martin Truex Jr. Humanitarian of the Year.
I would be honored to work with Joe, and together, continue our service to Stafford."
Changes are coming to Stafford Township. Residents will have the opportunity to vote in the election on Tuesday, November 6.
By Alison Arne - Voice of the People, Oct. 3, 2018: Glad to get Medicaid
Before I became a mom, I worked two jobs to cover student loans. I didn’t worry about not having health insurance, even after a $4,000 emergency room bill. Motherhood changed that. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, I qualified under the expansion of Medicaid.
In a perfect world my daughter would only need well visits. In the real world she has already had one eye surgery. I remember spending weeks terrified of the anesthesia, the cutting of her eye muscles. She never saw that fear. I was able to suppress my fears because I didn’t worry about it being a financial burden I couldn’t handle. No patient or loved one should have to worry about high costs during a medical crisis, yet millions of households are forced to every day.
When I hear about possible ACA repeal, block grants and privatization, I worry for my family and the millions of other families who need quality, affordable care. Through the New Jersey Organizing Project, I learned that collectively we can protect what matters to us from our coastline to our medical coverage. The project will celebrate its victories at its first convention in October.
LETTER: MacArthur continues to work against his own constituents by Michael Downey Brick
Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-N.J., was the only New Jersey representative to vote for so-called tax reform. His vote was a vote against me and my family. I’m a lifelong resident of Brick and a homeowner. As a working-class New Jerseyan I see his support for this bill as personal attack on us.
I consider myself blessed. I can do what matters most — look out for my family. I work shift work in retail and live paycheck to paycheck. I have an unpredictable schedule each week. But no matter what, I have been able to maintain my home and help support my disabled brother who lives with me and is on Medicaid.
This callous bill will make daily living more difficult, with an increase in taxes on many working and middle-class families, the cap of the state and local tax deduction, and the inevitable cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. But it probably will not hurt MacArthur, a millionaire who made his fortune in the world of insurance whose wealth is said to exceed $37 million.
Time and again, MacArthur chooses to work against his own constituents and allies himself with the multibillion dollar corporations. Time will show that he is on the wrong side of history. We should all be ready to defend programs people like my brother and others count on such as Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.
Survey tries to document lingering problems for Sandy survivors by Michelle Brunetti Post
Thousands of New Jersey families still struggle to repair or lift their homes or businesses four years after Hurricane Sandy, but there is little data on the problems they face and how they are handling them.
That’s especially true for the almost 7,000 families who applied for help from a state-administered federal grant program and were turned down — sometimes mistakenly.
Two nonprofit groups are trying to fill in the blanks by conducting a survey called the Sandy Truth Project.
Volunteer Lawyers for Justice and the New Jersey Organizing Project created the survey with help from Rutgers University researchers.
They are asking people who suffered damages from Sandy to fill out a survey at newjerseyop.org/sandy-truth-project.html or call 973-645-1955 for a printed copy.
The effort launched in October when Stockton University student volunteers went door-to-door in Atlantic City asking people survey questions, said Jessica Limbacher, a staff attorney who leads VLJ’s Disaster Legal Response Program.
It was a week before the fourth anniversary of the storm, she said.
The state Department of Community Affairs has administered the $1.1 billion federal grant program for rebuilding and repairs called the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program.
About 40,000 primary homes were damaged by the storm, and the owners of about 15,000 of those applied for help from RREM. The program accepted 7,600.
Of those, only 4,300 had completed their repairs and construction after four years. Another 1,400 had returned to their homes anyway, living there while reconstruction continued.
Almost 7,000 homeowners who sought help didn’t get it, some after being inaccurately told they didn’t qualify.
Limbacher said the survey will try to find out what happened to that large contingent of people who faced significant damages but were left out of the assistance programs.
“We have about 250 surveys completed. Our goal is 500, so we’re about halfway there,” said Limbacher. “We are planning to wait a few more months to collect some more surveys.”
VLJ is a Newark based nonprofit that has been helping Sandy survivors with free legal advice and representation since right after the October 2012 storm, she said. It has a roster of about 2,000 lawyers willing to help, she said.
“They have been great. The problem now is, as you get farther out from the storm, the legal issues get more and more complicated,” said Limbacher. “It’s more difficult to find someone with the expertise and time and resources to take on a complex legal case.”
NJOP is a nonpartisan advocacy group founded by Sandy survivors in 2014 to help families go home and afford to stay there, and says is working to pass state legislation to prevent foreclosures on Sandy families and to hold contractors accountable.
Analysis will start once a large enough sample size has been collected, but from paging through those already received, Limbacher said, one issue jumped out at her: The number of people who say they still need help with mental-health issues four years after the natural disaster.
“There were a lot of great mental-health resources a year or two after Sandy, but now all the funding has run out,” Limbacher said. “People are saying they wish there were more resources now.”
The survey seeks to identify the main barriers to recovery and to push for solutions, Limbacher said.
It asks about issues such as problems with the state grant program and contractor disputes, as well the storm’s impact on finances and physical and mental health.
“We believe that having statistics will be a powerful tool in advocating for changes on behalf of Sandy victims,” Limbacher said.
Joe Mangino, co-founder of NJOP, said his group is seeing new problems emerge as the recovery drags on, “while the financial and health strains on families are evident.”
Forum in Atlantic City addresses environmental equity, post-Sandy problem by Erin Serpico
ATLANTIC CITY — It’s been five years since Hurricane Sandy, but local officials and environmental advocates haven’t stopped discussing the storm and its consequences.
At a climate change and energy town hall Saturday, local experts drew attention to environmental equity and how to prevent communities from falling through the cracks.
The forum, “How Climate Change & Dirty Energy Impact Our Communities,” was sponsored by Food & Water Watch, ReThink Energy NJ, the Pinelands Preservation Alliance and the National Institute for Healthy Human Spaces.
The afternoon forum addressed concepts such as climate change, flood prevention and ways to mitigate storm repercussions in the area — and it all drew back to Atlantic City.
Carol Ruffu, president of the Chelsea Neighborhood Association who came to the forum to discuss the fight to prevent the Municipal Utilities Authority from being privatized, said construction was completed last month on her Chelsea Heights home that was damaged during Sandy.
“I know the frustrations that are out there,” she said.
And several Jersey Shore residents are still waiting to get back into their homes after the storm, said Priscilla Robinson, an organizer with the New Jersey Organizing Project.
This forum was really to “ensure that we’re prepared for the next storm,” she said, adding people have had trouble moving back in, health and financial consequences from the damage, and frustrations with recovery aid.
“People have depleted everything just trying to rebuild their homes,” she said.
Roy Jones, executive director of the National Institute for Healthy Human Spaces, discussed how Atlantic City and the region surrounding it must protect itself from future storms.
“Even when there’s no storm, there’s flooding,” he said.
Jones cited the prevalence of flooding in Atlantic City as an example, and brought up potential solutions to overflowing bays and storm damage prevention. He cited sea level rise and a lack of storm barriers around parts of South Jersey coastal islands.
With the right push for funding, he said, communities can properly raise roads, bridges and homes and flood-proof homes and businesses.
“Unless we do something today, Atlantic City could basically become a river,” he said.
The forum also addressed environmental equity around the state with keynote speaker Nicky Sheats, director of the Center for the Urban Environment at Thomas Edison State University.
He spoke on environmental justice and the need to protect all neighborhoods from pollution. He showed the relationships between pollution and minority communities, and pollution and poverty.
“If you live in New Jersey, the amount of pollution in your neighborhood is connected to race and income: the amount in your pocket, and the color of your skin,” he said.
HOW MANY NEW JERSEY HOMES WERE SERIOUSLY DAMAGED BY SUPERSTORM SANDY? by Scott Gurian
With Christie administration refusing to clarify source of its numbers, storm-victim advocates argue governor has seriously exaggerated damage to score political points.
Superstorm Sandy was by all accounts an unprecedented disaster in New Jersey. It left three dozen people dead, along with tens of billions of dollars of damage in its wake, coastal communities flooded, boardwalks torn to pieces, and lives and livelihoods upended and forever changed.
But how many houses were seriously damaged or destroyed? It’s a simple question that seems as if it should have a straightforward answer, especially three years after the storm. But different departments within Gov. Chris Christie’s administration have provided wildly divergent and contradictory information. Pressed to explain the differences, officials have referred inquiries back to the governor’s office, which has in turn refused to elaborate, despite repeated requests. Meanwhile, the governor continues to cite a figure that appears to be grossly inflated and could make the current status of the state’s Sandy recovery seem much farther along than it actually is.
There’s one number most often used by the administration, including Christie himself.
"When you lose 365,000 homes, significantly damaged or completely destroyed in one day, it's a long time,” he said in Toms River on the second anniversary of the storm. “For anybody who's not back in their home yet, they're going to be incredibly frustrated. I understand that, but we can only go as fast as we can go."
“If anybody thought that we were going to lose 365,000 homes in 24 hours and then two years later, every one of those homes was going to be rebuilt, then you’re not thinking,” he repeated in March on his "Ask the Governor" radio show.
Speaking on the radio earlier this month, he cited the figure again.
“You’re talking about fewer than 7,500 families now that are not back in their homes after we had 365,000 homes rendered uninhabitable,” he said. “You’re talking about over 350,000 people back in their homes in three years!” he added, noting that he’s “pretty happy” with the progress his administration has made.
Various media outlets -- including NJ Spotlight -- have quoted the Christie administration’s 365,000 number on multiple occasions, but now some storm-victim advocacy groups are questioning its veracity.
“Think of all the people that will hear this that still aren't home and feel even worse, and smaller and more ignored than they already do,” said Little Egg Harbor resident and New Jersey Organizing Project member Chuck Griffin, who himself is still trying to rebuild.
Fellow NJOP member Amanda Devecka-Rinear agreed that things just didn’t seem to add up. If 365,000 homes were “significantly damaged or completely destroyed” -- or rendered “uninhabitable” -- she wondered, why are there only 8,000 families in RREM, the state’s largest Sandy homeowner grant program? While thousands of storm victims have dropped out of RREM or been disqualified since its start, only 15,000 had applied to begin with, which is still a small fraction of the overall 365,000. And while it’s true that RREM doesn’t cover secondary homeowners or renters, could there really have been that many of them to make up the difference?
The governor’s stats don’t seem to make sense either to Adam Gordon, a staff attorney at Fair Share Housing, which has spent the past three years advocating on behalf of storm victims.
“There is just no way to say that 365,000 homes were significantly damaged or completely destroyed,” he wrote. “To put this in perspective, New Jersey has about 3.2 million primary residences; 365 thousand homes equals over 11 percent of all homes in New Jersey.”
In its 2015 “State of the Sandy Recovery” report, Fair Share Housing instead refers to the "40,000 owner-occupied homes in the state that were severely damaged or destroyed," a number the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs cited when it applied to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for federal Sandy aid. While Gordon said his group’s analysis suggests that 40,000 figure likely undercounts the number of severely damaged homes, he thinks the actual number is perhaps an additional 10,000, but certainly not hundreds of thousands more.
So where did the 365,000 number come from? Gordon speculated it comprised primarily of people whose lights simply went out during the storm. But with a total of 2.7 million utility customers in the dark during Sandy, that explanation doesn’t entirely make sense.
So NJ Spotlight posed the question to the Department of Community Affairs: Why has the governor repeatedly said 365,000 when the state’s own formal submission to the federal government stated that "Current data suggest that approximately 40,500 owners’ primary residences and over 15,600 rental units sustained ‘severe’ or ‘major’ damage [more than $8,000 worth of physical damage or one foot of flooding on the first floor] according to classifications made by HUD?" How to explain the discrepancy between the two different figures, with one being nine times as large as the other?
DCA forwarded our inquiry to the governor’s office, which emailed a response the following day.
“Apparently you fielded a claim by an activist,” replied press secretary Brian Murray.
“I know the question was asked and answered many times back in 2013, and what we have is that the estimate of 365,000 homes being damaged or destroyed by Superstorm Sandy was reported shortly after the event following assessments by the Office of Emergency Management, FEMA and reviews by many other agencies and contractors,” he wrote.
“The state Department of Insurance and Banking reported, shortly after Sandy, that nearly 340,000 initial homeowner insurance claims were filed along with approximately 71,500 residential flood insurance claims. Naturally, some of the flood claims overlapped with the homeowner claims, and DOBI broke it down to 365,000 homes. At the time Congress was reviewing relief proposals, the House was presented with data showing 22,000 housing units have been rendered uninhabitable while another 324,000 units have sustained significant damage [Murray’s emphasis].”
In other words, 365,000 was the starting point, the total number of households that filed any type of claim, from those that were totally destroyed to those that may have had relatively minor damage? Did the governor accidentally misspeak? Should we instead be referring to the 346,000 (324,000 plus 22,000) homes that were “significantly damaged or destroyed?”
“The Governor did not misspeak and the 365,000 is not ‘any type of insurance claim.’ Reread Brian’s email,” chimed in fellow press secretary Kevin Roberts.
But how does the 365,000 number -- or the 346,000 figure, for that matter -- square with the mere 40,000 homes that DCA reported were significantly damaged or destroyed? The numbers aren’t even close.
“This is very clear,” said Murray. “And it’s not new. This info has been provided and explained repeatedly for three years.”
NJ Spotlight turned to the Department of Banking and Insurance for further clarification. Spokesman Marshall McKnight confirmed that DOBI had indeed accounted for about 340,000 initial Sandy-related homeowner insurance claims, but he stopped short of taking responsibility for coming up with the 365,000 figure.
“As for residential flood claims in New Jersey, FEMA has always been the source this Department has directed press inquiries to,” he wrote in an email.
What about the governor’s office’s claim that 324,000 homes had sustained "significant damage?” Was DOBI the source of that number?
“This Department did not make a determination on significant damage,” he said.
Thoroughly confused, we returned to the governor’s office for a follow-up.
“This is consistent with what Brian sent to you already,” wrote spokesman Kevin Roberts.
We called back Marshall McKnight to try one more time to make sense of it all. We started at the beginning, explaining that the governor’s office had claimed DOBI was the source of the widely quoted 365,000 figure.
“I spoke to the governor’s office, and that’s not what they told you,” he said.
So we quoted Brian Murray’s email to him. The part that said, “Naturally, some of the flood claims overlapped with the homeowner claims, and DOBI broke it down to 365,000 homes.”
Long pause on the line.
“I’ve given you my statement,” he said. “I have nothing more to add.”
One person who’s looked closely at Sandy storm damage is Stephanie Hoopes Halpin, Director of the New Jersey DataBank and author of an October 2013 paper for the Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration titled “The Impact of Superstorm Sandy on New Jersey Towns and Households."
Using estimates she said she obtained from DOBI in May of that year, her report noted that "there were over 325,000 housing units damaged totaling $5.9 billion," a figure in the ballpark of the number that Gov. Christie has been using. But asked to clarify, she confirmed that “includes all damage -- both homes that were substantially damaged or completely destroyed as well as ones that may have filed much smaller insurance claims for minor damage.”
However, she added, “while Christie may be overstating the case about how many homes were actually destroyed, the Sandy report makes clear that even a relatively small amount of damage to a family with a low income and no savings was a severe hardship.”
That’s a fair point, says the New Jersey Organizing Project’s Amanda Devecka-Rinear, but that doesn’t let the governor off the hook for getting the numbers wrong.
“While it's important not to minimize the damage that all the households in New Jersey sustained during Sandy,” she said, “if we're measuring the people who are home, we need to measure that number against the people who had significant damage to an extent that they had to leave their homes until they were repaired. There's a big difference between 365,000 and 40,500. And so when we say there are fewer than 7,500 families still not home that we know of, and hold that up against 40,500, it demonstrates the breadth of the hardship our communities are still facing. To mask that hardship by inflating the number of people who couldn't get home is an insult to our state and the families who are still struggling to get there.”
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