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.”
N.J. Republican blasts colleagues for shortchanging Jersey Shore on flood insurance by Jonathan D. Salant
WASHINGTON -- Rep. Frank LoBiondo, whose Jersey Shore district was devastated by Hurricane Sandy, blasted his fellow House Republicans for advancing a flood insurance bill that he said was biased against New Jersey.
LoBiondo, R-2nd Dist., turned his ire on his colleagues during debate on the 21st Century Flood Reform Act, designed to renew the National Flood Insurance Program that expires this year.
"We're picking winners and losers," LoBiondo said on the House floor. "Why should it be that the concerns of my district and people I represent have any less of an influence than on what happens here."
"I'm sick and tired of having to defend the people of my district and the people of the Northeast from policies that don't mean the right thing for us," he said.
The legislation, which still needs Senate approval, would renew the insurance program for five years, increase premiums for policyholders, and allow the same private insurance companies that administer the program for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to also sell policies in competition with the government.
For those living in houses built before flood areas were mapped, the annual premium increase would be 6.5 percent to 15 percent instead of the current 5 percent to 18 percent.
The maximum premium for primary homes would be $10,000. Homeowners could receive $60,000, up from $30,000, to bring damaged properties up to current standards.
Beginning in 18 months, the bill would prevent homeowners amassing total claims worth three times the replacement value of the damaged structure from obtaining government insurance. The legislation does not include federal funding to update flood maps.
The measure passed, 237-189, with 15 Democrats voting yes and 14 Republicans voting no. Reps. Chris Smith, R-4th Dist., and Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-11th Dist., joined LoBiondo and all seven New Jersey Democratic lawmakers in voting no.
"New Jersey's recovery from that traumatic event has been prolonged, in part, by issues facing the National Flood Insurance Program," said Rep. Frank Pallone, D-6th Dist.
"We need a long-term (National Flood Insurance Program) reauthorization that focuses on increasing affordability, investing in mitigation, capping the profits of the flood insurance companies, and comprehensively restructuring the claims process," Pallone said. "This bill fails that test."
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who has introduced bipartisan legislation in the Senate to overhaul the flood insurance program, said the House bill was the "Republicans' first concrete step towards dismantling a critical program" that serves 227,343 New Jersey households.
"Rather than reform and improve the (flood insurance program) to make premiums more affordable, increase mitigation and make the claims process more fair for policyholders, this bill goes in the opposite direction, raising fees, kicking vulnerable families out of the program, and giving a massive giveaway to the private insurance industry," Menendez said.
Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-3rd Dist., and Leonard Lance, R-7th Dist., were the only New Jersey lawmakers to support the bill.
MacArthur, whose district also includes part of the Jersey Shore, said the legislation addresses the flood insurance program's fiscal issues.
"This program is desperately needed," MacArthur said during debate.
The legislation does little to address the insurance abuses uncovered after Sandy, when FEMA paid out an $350 million extra to homeowners whose original claims were rejected or reduced, critics said.
"We have to apply the lessons that we learned from Superstorm Sandy," said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, director of the New Jersey Organizing Project, an advocacy group founded by Sandy victims. "It doesn't put enough protections in there to make sure some of the things we saw in Sandy don't happen again."
Still, the legislation allows the FEMA administrator to penalize engineering firms and others that falsely adjust claims to avoid paying damages; gives FEMA 90 days, with a 15-day extension if needed, to approve or reject claims; and makes it easier for homeowners to appeal if their claims are denied.
Federal flood insurance is one of the few federal programs that benefits New Jersey more than other states. FEMA has paid $6 billion to property owners in the state from Jan. 1, 1978, through Sept. 30, 2017, more than one-tenth of the $59 billion it has paid out in claims across the country, agency statistics show.
Property owners in Toms River alone received $597 million in payments from Jan. 1, 1978, to Sept. 30, 2017. That was more than the entire state of California, which received $555 million during that period.
LoBiondo, who announced his retirement Nov. 7, said GOP leaders should have accepted modifications, primarily his proposal to lower the annual maximum insurance premium to $5,000 instead of $10,000 for primary residences, and to hold down the proposed surcharges to rebuild the flood insurance's reserve fund.
Contractor problems keep plaguing some Sandy victims by Michelle Brunetti
VENTNOR — In the kitchen of a Sandy-damaged house that can’t be lived in, a group of homeowners explained how they are still struggling with bureaucracy, contractor problems and incredible stress five years after the storm.
“We were right here when Sandy struck,” said homeowner Angel Eguaras, 80, of Ventnor, describing how the roof of his home partly peeled off and water streamed into the kitchen.
But in the five years since that day, he and his wife have had nothing but problems trying to get their home back into livable condition, he said to a group brought together by the New Jersey Organizing Project. NJOP formed to help homeowners with the rebuilding process after Sandy.
“We applied to the RREM (Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation) program, and contacted someone on the list,” Eguaras said of a state-provided list of contractors. Work done by the contractor was failed by city inspectors numerous times, he said, but the RREM program told him it couldn’t help him unless he could get the police to charge the contractor.
An engineer working with the contractor even reported work on the house was not done in accordance with its professional drawings and specs, Eguaras said.
Yet it took more than a year to get the police to charge the contractor, and he is convinced he was only able to get police action with the help of NJOP, he said.
Now he’s waiting for the RREM program to decide how to proceed, since his house needs to be raised again, as the first house lifting left it too low.
Listening intently were 2nd District state Assemblyman Vince Mazzeo, D-Atlantic; state Sen. Colin Bell, D-Atlantic; and Assembly candidate John Armato, D-Atlantic; along with several other homeowners who have had similar problems.
Amanda Devecka-Rinear, of the New Jersey Organizing Project, said the Democrats were invited to fill in for Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, D-Essex, candidate for lieutenant governor on the ticket with Democrat gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy. She was due to participate but had to cancel.
Deveka-Rinear said the Murphy campaign has been responsive to her organization’s requests that the needs of Sandy affected families be addressed in the campaign, but the Republican candidate Kim Guagdano’s campaign has not responded.
But she said District 2 Assemblyman Chris Brown, R-Atlantic, who is running for state Senate against Bell, has been helpful.
“We enjoy working with him,” she said of Brown.
Jason Johnston, of Ventnor, said his mother’s home is torn apart, without even walls or electricity, yet her contractor billed her for work not done.
“In a 100-yard radius (of her home) you can see houses up in the air” but unfinished, Johnson said. Contractors have walked away.
“Until we get help, the words you guys say mean nothing to us,” Johnston told the politicians there. “My mom is devastated emotionally and financially.”
Julie Suarez, of Little Egg Harbor Township, said the work on her home is finished, but then she got a letter from the state saying it mistakenly paid her $51,000 too much, and she had to pay it back almost immediately in what is known as a “clawback.” When she questioned the amount, the state dropped the total to $25,000. But she has never seen an explanation for the amount, she said.
“We have all been through hell with this stress on all our lives,” Suarez said. She said she has borrowed from her pension and taken another loan to finish the work, and doesn’t know how she can pay back what the state wants.
Beth Torsiello, of Ventnor, said she is also waiting to find out from the RREM program how to proceed with adding a third floor to her home, which could not be lifted because of its construction. She said her first floor was lost to Sandy, and then she lost $12,000 she paid for design work to a contractor who never provided her services.
Her contractor, Werks Intended LLC, of Somers Point, also doing business as McAllister Building Group, was recently charged by state Attorney General Christopher Porrino and the state Division of Consumer Affairs with defrauding homeowners of more than $1 million in federal funding to repair, rebuild or elevate homes after Hurricane Sandy. The owners are Lawrence “Tre” McAllister III and Monica McAllister, officials said.
Torsiello has had her work delayed by the contractor problem and by the RREM program at first telling her she didn’t qualify.
“I see all these people in Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, who think they are seeing the worst of it now,” said Torsiello. “It’s not. It’s yet to come.”
How Sandy changed us: Is it enough? by Michelle Brunetti Post
Five years after Hurricane Sandy made a direct hit on the Jersey Shore, massive amounts of money have been spent on rebuilding and resiliency projects.
The state has raised and repaired thousands of homes, set strict elevation standards, bought out hundreds of repeatedly flooded properties under the Blue Acres program, replenished beaches, required utilities to harden infrastructure and experimented with restoring wetlands.
Sandy changed us. But is it enough? Are we prepared for the next big storm?
Critics say no.
There is too little Blue Acres money to buy out people in flood-prone areas, and the program has not bought out anyone in communities on the Atlantic Ocean, said Sierra Club of New Jersey Director Jeff Tittel.
Instead, the 600 properties the state has purchased for about $128 million are on the Delaware Bayshore or along rivers, where property is not as expensive as on barrier islands.
“Many people along coastal areas are being held hostage to the next storm by the DEP because they are not being bought out under the Blue Acres program,” said Tittel. “The DEP is keeping people stuck along the coast who want to leave. This wastes money and keeps people in harm’s way.”
But others are optimistic, looking to protect the shore rather than abandon it.
“It takes years — at least five years — to do any major project by the time you design and build it, if everything works out,” said Jim Rutala, of Linwood’s Rutala Associates, a consultant who has worked with every coastal town in Atlantic County and some in Cape May and Cumberland counties to plan resiliency projects and get funding for them.
Rutala says we are still working toward being ready for the next big storm, but a lot of progress has been made.
“What’s really surprising in some ways, the municipal officials in towns are still aggressive on resiliency issues,” said Rutala. “Even Atlantic City has bonded and moved projects that they hadn’t addressed in decades.”
The city got funding for a $50 million sea wall and new Boardwalk in the Inlet, sharing costs with the state and federal governments; and $12 million to put in electronically controlled floodgates in the century-old underground Baltic Avenue Canal, he said.
Rutala, the former business administrator in Ocean City, worked with the city to acquire funding for both projects.
Ventnor recently passed an ordinance requiring newly built properties to have 3 feet of freeboard, or feet above the base flood elevation. The state only requires 1 foot, Rutala said.
“(Ventnor’s) position is that 3 feet protects those homes that much more. It also helps them get (National Flood Insurance Program) discounts. The towns are focused on issues like that.”
But Amanda Devecka-Rinear of the New Jersey Organizing Project, a nonprofit started to help families recover after Sandy, said New Jersey made a decision not to think about sea-level rise in its approach to planning for the future.
“It has potentially cost us millions and millions in federal grant money we could have used to prepare for future storms,” she said. “The governor pretended building dunes was going to address sea-level rise.”
It’s a start, but nothing more, Devecka-Rinear said.
And problems with the state’s oversight of federal funds for repairing and raising homes delayed or prevented help going to thousands, she said.
About 40,000 homes were damaged by the storm badly enough that homeowners had to leave, but only about 8,000 homeowners were admitted into the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation and Low-to-Moderate Income Homeowners Rebuilding programs, she said.
According to the program’s website, as of September only 5,695 have completed their projects, leaving 2,191 unfinished, Devecka-Rinear said.
Exact numbers on how many of the 40,000 are still struggling with repairs are unknown, but a survey by the nonprofit New Jersey Research Project found more than 20 percent of respondents are still not finished, she said.
Still, the work goes on.
The state Department of Environmental Protection is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on a $3 million study of flood prevention for back bay areas, from Raritan Bay to Cape May.
Stone Harbor, Wildwood and North Wildwood got a total of about $25 million in funding from the DEP’s Flood Hazard Risk Reduction and Resiliency Grant Program, which administers federal funding to minimize flooding, especially around evacuation routes.
The Stone Harbor project includes elevating streets, building a new pump station and installing flood control valves on the bayside to benefit the 96th Street bridge exit off the island.
But the Black Horse Pike into Atlantic City still needs to be addressed, said Rutala.
“It’s a state highway, and it shuts down every month,” he said, at high tide. “It’s an emergency evacuation route. It’s a constant reminder something has to be done … to elevate that route.”
He said many parties are working on potential solutions.
“At first it was response and recovery, now it’s resiliency,” said DEP spokesman Larry Hajna.
Wastewater treatment plants that failed in Sandy have had infrastructure hardened to be able to keep functioning in future storms, he said.
“We were moving in the same direction prior to Sandy, after Hurricanes Irene, etc.,” said Hajna. “But Sandy was definitely the impetus behind a lot of things we’ve done.”
On Tuesday, the state DEP and Department of Community Affairs announced $230 million in federal funds for construction of a flood-resistance system to protect Hoboken, parts of Weehawken and Jersey City in Hudson County.
The funds are from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its Rebuild by Design project.
Of the $930 million awarded in the Rebuild by Design program, $380 million is coming to New Jersey. The rest is going to New York and Connecticut, according to the RBD website.
Until Sandy, the approach to beach replenishment was “a hodgepodge. Some met Army Corps of Engineers standards; many did not,” Hajna said.
Now, the Army Corps and DEP are wrapping up the final beach-replenishment projects on Absecon Island, which when finished will mean all beaches from Raritan Bay to Cape May will meet Army Corps standards, he said.
NBC10 Investigators: New Jersey Demands Refunds from Superstorm Sandy Victims by George Spencer
For Lisa Stevens rebuilding after Superstorm Sandy meant down-sizing. The storm destroyed her bungalow in Little Egg Harbor, New Jersey.
"I didn't build a mansion! I went smaller because that's what I could afford to do with my grant," Stevens said.
But what has surprised Stevens most about the rebuilding process came in an email from the state of New Jersey. It was what has become to be known as a claw back notice. The email demanded that Stevens pay back more than $7,400 of the grant money she was given to help rebuild. It said she received "duplicate benefits."
Stevens counters that her signed approvals show she did not receive duplicate benefits.
“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.
The 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. No ‘why.’ No ‘how to appeal.’ No ‘how to make a payment plan.’ Just, ‘you owe us 50-thousand dollars,’” she said.
Amanda Devecka-Rinear with the New Jersey Organizing Project (NJOP) describes it as “a gut punch” for Sandy victims. Devecka-Rinear is the executive director of the advocacy organization set up to helping 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 over-payments in the first place.
NJOP wants the state to clarify its refund calculations, create realistic repayment options, and open a formal appeal process.
"We've gotta look at what financial capacity folks have -- we don't want them to go further into debt, be threatened to lose these houses," said Devecka-Rinear.
The NBC10 Investigators tried to take those requests to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. After two interview denials, reporter George Spencer and photojournalist Dan Lee went to the agency’s Trenton, NJ office. Commissioner Charles Richman finally agreed to an interview at noon that day. But just two hours later, his communications director Lisa Ryan canceled the interview saying urgent and unexpected business came up.
“He has an obligation to answer questions about it,” Spencer said.
“We’ve provided you with a statement,” Ryan replied.
Spencer and Lee waited for Richman to return to the office but after five hours, he did not return.
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.
In a statement the agency points out that all impacted homeowners “were afforded the opportunity to provide us with additional documentation (i.e., receipts, invoices) to offset potential recovery of grant funds.”
The NBC Investigators also reached out to Governor Chris Christie’s office. No one replied.
Suarez gets emotional when she thinks about paying back more than $50,000. She says even on the State’s 36-month payment plan, there won’t be enough time to pay the bill. And for Stevens, there’s still no appeal process mentioned.
“I wish I could say this was just a dream,” Stevens said.
Five years after Sandy, Questions Remain About Whether New Jersey Is More Resilient by Scott Gurian
When the eye of Sandy made landfall just north of Atlantic City, Fran Baronowitz’s neighborhood – which was a few miles away in Ventnor – suddenly turned into a lake. Water bubbled up through the air ducts of her home, and the floors buckled so much that she trouble opening the front door when she returned.
Baronowitz spent state grant money to fix and elevate her home six feet off the ground to protect it from future storms. After completing her repairs, she was finally ready to move on with her life. But then, in August of last year, she received a letter from the state saying an audit had found she’d gotten too much money and had unknowingly used some of it to make small upgrades that weren’t allowed. Now, the state was asking her to return more than $35,000. She was stunned.
“It’s just unbelievable! I had no idea that this was going to happen,” she said. “I’ve got two little pensions and social security, but it’s not a lot of money. I can’t give anybody $35,000!”
Lots of people are in her situation. Altogether, the state and federal governments have asked around one thousand homeowners in New Jersey to return more than $5 million in aid.
This weekend marks five years since Sandy came ashore, severely damaging or destroying some 40,000 homes and leaving the state with a bill for tens of billions of dollars in repairs. And even now, it continues to exact a devastating financial toll on many residents of the coast. With Governor Chris Christie’s term coming to an end, storm survivors, advocates, and environmentalists say it’s important that their concerns remain in the spotlight, and they’re hoping the state’s next governor – the election is on November 7th -- makes a number of improvements to speed up recovery efforts already underway and make the state safer in the future.
Despite all the time that’s passed since the storm, some people still haven’t been able to return home.
Angel Eguaras’s house – also in Ventnor -- remains uninhabitable due to shoddy workmanship by his state-approved contractor, who has since stopped returning his calls. Eguaras is 80 years old. His wife has been sick, and they’ve had to move 5 times, from one rental to another.
“I feel that I just fell through the cracks,” he said. “Out of sight, out of mind. We are weathering the storm, and hopefully we will emerge victorious from the struggle.”
Of the 7,600 residents receiving rebuilding grants, more than 1,000 remain displaced, according to state officials. But most of them expect to finish construction by early next year.
Storm victim advocates like Amanda Devecka-Rinear with the New Jersey Organizing Project are calling for a number of changes including making it easier for people to file claims against fraudulent contractors and a better appeals process for homeowners asked to pay the government back.
“All those folks need a hand getting across the finish line,” she said. “Could we as a state under new leadership say, 'That's it. Everyone is home by the six year anniversary,' and really drive hard to get there? Certainly we deserve that, right? And the question is, will our new governor take that up and take that on?”
The Christie administration points to a number of signs of progress in its handling of the Sandy recovery. So far it’s spent more than $2.5 billion of federal money on grants to help homeowners rebuild, assist small businesses, and provide rental assistance to displaced people. Nearly $40 million of that was spent on backup generators for hospitals, police, and fire stations to keep the lights on during future storms.
Speaking in Lavallette a few months after the storm, the governor said he’d remain focused on resiliency.
“Part of what we're trying to do in the aftermath of this tragedy is not to just build back to where we were, but to build back better and to use the federal funds that we're getting from the Congress to make sure that we make our infrastructure better here in this state to sustain future attacks by storms if they come,” he said.
New Jersey has paid for buyouts of more than 600 homes in vulnerable areas and has worked with the Army Corp to build protective dunes and widen beaches along much of the state’s Atlantic coast. It also won $380 million in a federal design competition to build walls, dikes, and pumps to flood-proof places like Hoboken and towns in the Meadowlands region. And the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says it’s invested nearly a billion dollars in projects like flood barriers to protect the PATH trains and the Holland Tunnel.
“Some of the public infrastructure has been hardened. There was some investment made in some of the big sewage treatment plants to make them less vulnerable to flooding. Some of the utilities took steps to reduce their exposure to wind and flooding, all of which are absolutely appropriate and good steps to take,” said Tim Dillingham, Executive Director of the American Littoral Society, an environmental group dedicated to protecting the shoreline. But while he’s willing to give credit where credit’s due, he still thinks it’s not enough. If another big storm were to hit tomorrow, he fears New Jersey wouldn’t be much better off than it was during Sandy.
“I don't see a lot of real difference,” he explained. “Some of the houses are elevated, but I don't see much that really changed from the old way of doing things.”
In Sea Bright, a coastal community in Monmouth County, was devastated when the storm surge pushed sand against a rock wall, essentially creating a ramp that sent waves crashing into the downtown business district. The town’s response has been to fortify that wall, but Dillingham says the focus should instead be on moving people out of harm’s way.
“The guiding attitude was ‘we can be stronger than the storm and we can go back and rebuild,’” he said. “And that's exactly what happened. That serves all the traditional New Jersey interests of real estate development and local property taxes. And it's not in the best long term interests of us as a state or even the communities or the homeowners who are going to be right back where they were, just as vulnerable with no greater protection from the next inevitable storm.”
Superstorm Sandy’s Psychological Scars Run Deep by Chris Lundy
The Seaside boardwalk is back. The bridges, too. But you don’t have to look too hard to find remnants of Superstorm Sandy’s devastation along the Jersey Shore.
A line of waterfront homes is marred by a deserted house. A vacant property with the footprint still visible. A house being rebuilt on the water. These are the physical scars that Sandy had been there. The emotional scars are usually harder to see.
Many people are still struggling with the psychological effects of Sandy. The time it takes to get back in one’s home is longer than the length of some of the programs to help people.
Tricia McAvoy has not been able to move back in to her house in Brick yet. Instead, she’s staying with her 100-year-old father in Point Pleasant Beach.
“I cannot physically go into that house alone without shaking,” she said.
It hasn’t been fully restored. There have been a host of construction issues, contractor issues, RREM issues, and more. From the outside, it looks like it’s complete, although looking beneath the surface you would be able to see the problems that continue to keep her from coming home. There’s always something else to go wrong.
“You’re waiting for the next shoe to drop. You don’t want to open any letters. I’m afraid, sometimes, to answer the phone,” she said.
Tricia McAvoy is still trying to get back into her home in Brick. (Photo courtesy Priscilla Robinson with NJOP)There are physical after-effects as well. She said she developed chronic bronchitis and has had two strokes since the storm. She used to be healthy, but now she’s on 11 pills a day.
“A lot of the stress is having to deal with the insurance company,” she said. “The stress will kill you.”
After Sandy, she worked in one of the relief centers. She was also photographed holding a sign that read “Hope.”
“Whenever there’s heavy rains, I get so nervous I start shaking,” she said. “It’ll never leave you.”
She’s not alone. The New Jersey Organizing Project was formed by a group of people who survived Sandy. They recently accumulated surveys from 492 households about what problems they are still facing. A large amount of them were in Ocean and Monmouth counties. More than 70 percent of them reported additional medical or psychological issues, or a worsening of pre-existing conditions since the storm.
“Many individuals described anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorders, often in combination with respiratory, cardiovascular, or other conditions,” according to their report, The Long Road Home. It can be found online at NewJerseyOP.com. “Many people also described an increased dependence on alcohol, tobacco products, or drugs. Of families with children, nearly 40 percent reported that their children’s school performance suffered because of the difficulties their family has faced since the storm.”
The full report outlines a score of issues that were left unresolved: people still dealing with contractors or the government, and 57 percent of them saying they think that this could happen again because towns are not prepared.
The report suggests solutions such as:
Construction on the shore, like in this Toms River neighborhood, is common to see five years after Sandy. (Photo by Chris Lundy)There was a great outpouring of mental health help immediately after Sandy, said Dr. Adrienne Sessler-Belli, director of the disaster and terrorism branch of the Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services in the Department of Health.
There were hundreds of counselors throughout the state deployed at shelters and other places to talk to people, she said. Some counselors were people who also were impacted, trained to help their neighbors and who knew what they were going through.
The counselors were a part of a program called New Jersey Hope and Healing. They went to different places in the community where impacted people were likely to be. It ended in February of 2014, giving way to other groups like New Jersey Mental Health Cares. They met people directly, and manned a hotline, having logged more than half a million residents served.
“We are aware that, after a disaster, there are different phases,” she said. “With the scope of Sandy, it becomes a more complicated recovery process.”
In the long term, some programs close, and the funding does dry up, she said.
Anniversaries are a difficult time for people, she said. The hurricane coverage in the news brings up a lot of memories and emotions.
There are some people who are overwhelmed with anxiety and other symptoms immediately after a catastrophe, but are eventually able to go back to a sense of normalcy without any great impact on their lives, she said. There are some who are not able to, and who still need to reach out for help.
“Everyone responds differently. Never judge one person’s reaction,” she said.
New Jersey has a team responding to the Virgin Islands, and they are reporting back a very similar situation of what was seen after Sandy, she said.
If you need help dealing with Sandy, reach out to New Jersey Mental Health Cares at 1-866-202-HELP.
(Photo courtesy of Toms River Township)McAvoy said that the coverage of hurricanes Harvey and Irma caused her anxiety, as news reports continually poured in about how devastating they were going to be. And then afterward, the images of the destruction hit a little close to home.
Indeed, even news reports like the one you’re reading right now might trigger some anxiety about people who lived through the disaster.
Jared Klein, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Mount Holly, said his group performed “post-event review” to see how they communicated about Sandy. It led to a policy change a year later in order to more accurately describe storms of that level so that it would not be confusing.
“It’s very important for a forecaster to put it into perspective,” he said. If there is something that happened in recent memory, like Sandy, then the forecaster should compare it to that so people know what kind of storm they are dealing with. This helps the public and media understand what kind of storm is coming.
One effect that came from Sandy is that people take storm warnings more seriously. There is less “oh, this can’t happen here.”
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