5 years after Sandy, Jersey victims see the future for those hit by Harvey and Irma by Mark Di Ionno
After Hurricane Harvey battered Houston, Doug Quinn took the bed out of the back of the 1999 Dodge van he calls "Mona" and loaded it up with water, food and sanitary supplies to head southwest.
"I just wanted to turn my wheel toward Texas," he said.
He drove to North Carolina, picked up a friend and 18 hours later, they turned into a poor neighborhood in Northeast Houston.
The scene brought Quinn back to the dawn of Hurricane Sandy's destruction along the New Jersey waterfront, specifically his neighborhood in the Silverton section of Toms River.
"It was grim, people walking around like zombies," he said of Texas.
He saw streets lined with water-ruined furniture and household possessions piled up on sidewalks. Photo albums, children's toys, all of it, representing a lifetime of work and memories, wiped out in hours.
He also saw resilience and hope. And that broke his heart as much as the destruction.
"I wanted to tell them what was coming, but I just couldn't," he said. "I wanted to tell them the hurricane is the easy part. That their lives were going to miserable, pure hell for the next five years. That 'recovery' is like slow and grinding ... it's like watching a car crash in slow motion, over and over again."
All that remains of his home on the Barnegat Bay are lawn chairs piled up in neat stacks and blue tarps covering other household furnishings exposed to the elements for years.
"It's all toast now, I'm sure," said the 53-year-old former Marine. "I had a storage unit in my yard but the town made me get rid of it."
As next month's fifth anniversary of Sandy approaches, Quinn remains one of the people still out of their primary home. Sometimes he sleeps in his van because, he says, staying in his apartment is depressing. It's not home.
"It's impossible to tell how many people are still out," said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, head of the New Jersey Organizing Project, which was formed to advocate for Sandy victims.
"We estimated there were 50,000 homeowners and renters forced from their primary homes," she said. "But the state only keeps track of the people in the RREM (Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation, and Mitigation) program."
The state's figures, as of the end of August, say that 2,190 homeowners of the 7,595 in the RREM program remain without certificates of occupancy for their homes.
Of the 315 families that applied for LMI (low- and moderate-income grants), 95 are without certificates of occupancy.
To put these figures into perspective, of the 50,000 families whose homes were substantially damaged in the storm, only 16 percent applied for state RREM and LMI grants.
"What happened to the rest? That's a good question," Devecka-Rinear said. "And nobody has the answer."
Her group did a door-to-door survey of people's Sandy experiences in the hard-hit areas. Of the 492 people who responded, she said, 19 percent remain out of their homes or have decided not to return home.
While it's a small sample, the number doesn't seem far-fetched. In Jon Thompson's neighborhood, where the Toms River meets Barnegat Bay, unfinished houses and vacant lots with "for sale" signs easily make up 20 percent of the properties.
Thompson's house is one of them.
He was in the RREM program and gave his contractor the second installment of the state's $75,000 grant. The contractor used that money to finish other houses, then told Thompson he was broke.
"He just sat me down and informed me the money was gone," said Thompson, sitting in the garage area of his unfinished home, surrounded by large planks of sheetrock he is now putting up himself.
Thompson, like many people, did repairs to his uninsured bungalow after the storm. He put in a new water and heating system and made the house livable, only to be told by the state it was "substantially damaged," a designation that mandated homeowners to raise their houses in order to get flood insurance.
Since the storm, Thompson has moved eight times and is on his fifth different RREM representative.
"I've sent in the paperwork a thousand times," he said. "Stuff gets lost, or they need more."
"I'm 68; this isn't how I want to spend my retirement," he said. "Mentally and physically I can't take it anymore. There are days when I don't want to get out of bed."
Next to Thompson's property are two vacant lots, then a house, then a third lot for sale. Down the street a contractor left a modular home unprotected and mold set in. Only the elevating pilings remain where the house was supposed to sit.
"When you drive along these streets," Quinn said, "you see a lot of new houses and things look put back together. But then you look close ..."
In Quinn's neighborhood, a house across street from his lot is raised but there are no stairs leading in and the garage door is nailed shut with plywood. Two doors down, a ranch home remains vacant, the work permits yellowed by age.
Quinn is still trying to find a contractor. He spent the first three years after Sandy fighting his insurance company, which paid him $90,000 on his $250,000 policy for his destroyed home, which was swamped with five-feet of bay water.
"I bought it for $300,000 a year-and-a-half before the storm," he said. "The insurance company came in and told me the cracks and holes in the foundation existed before the storm. Luckily I had all my home inspection reports from when I bought it. Still, it cost me $43,000 in legal fees to get them to give me the full amount."
These are the kinds of stories Quinn wanted to tell the people in Houston - but he didn't have the heart.
"You know, at that point, people are on the edge," he said. "I didn't want to tell them what was coming. It might have pushed them over."
FISK: Harvey, Irma underscore need for flood insurance reforms by Ray Fisk
Katrina. Sandy. Harvey. And now Irma. In a dozen years we’ve seen hurricane devastation in this country that, with each new storm, is harder to comprehend. The damage to property and infrastructure is staggering.
The human suffering breaks our hearts. After Katrina, more than a third of New Orleans residents left the city and never came back. Many of those former New Orleaneans moved to Houston to start a new life and have now experienced biblical flooding a second time. Here in New Jersey, Sandy evacuees returned to find homes without walls, treasured belongings buried in sand and salt water — or to find no home at all. As in New Orleans, some Sandy victims also abandoned or sold their properties for a song. Nearly five years later, families are still trying to recover or simply come home.
We share the pain of Texas and Florida because we know what their residents are experiencing. And what they will endure with FEMA, insurance nightmares and emotional exhaustion. We know it will take years, perhaps a lifetime, to get beyond this.
So we put aside disagreements we have as a nation and we do all we can to help our fellow Americans in need. We donate money to relief organizations, we donate supplies and clothing, we volunteer. We need to do this now — and especially in the coming months.
I remember what that support felt like. Immediately after Sandy, camping out in my storm-damaged home, without heat, electricity, water, or sewer — having to enter with a ladder — I remember feeling grateful to have the Louisiana State Police guarding my isolated road through the salt marsh. And more gratitude a week later when a convoy of Alabama Power trucks rolled in. Distant relatives offered to come to the Shore and help; neighbors helped neighbors; strangers just showed up to lend a hand.
During the recovery, it was a luxury to feel much at all. But emotions overwhelmed me when, at a community Thanksgiving dinner at Southern Regional Middle School, my wife and I picked through donated clothing for coats, hats, and gloves. Our winter clothes had washed away in Sandy. Most of us can’t imagine being in this position, accepting donations; it’s humbling. But this connection with caring, anonymous people is incredibly powerful and affirming. We offer that to Texas and Florida as well.
We can also offer some hard lessons. “The system” doesn’t always work for those in need. As storm survivors, we want to make sure others don’t repeat our experiences. We can improve the system.
There will be more devastating storms: We’re a nation with huge flood risks not just along our coasts, but inland as well. But we have a broken flood insurance system. For many working families it is unaffordable. We need to reimagine an affordable system that provides incentives to reduce repetitive losses and discourages future risky development. The National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) is up for renewal in Congress this year. We desperately need to fix it.
The SAFE-NFIP bill, introduced in the House and Senate, has the bipartisan support of legislators from New Jersey (and other coastal states including Louisiana and Florida). Its goal is to make flood insurance more affordable while at the same time mitigate skyrocketing future losses. It’s a start.
Among the key strategies: It ensures premiums don’t price families out of protection; makes mitigation funds and programs available to policyholders and communities before disasters to prevent future losses; requires FEMA to use accurate flood mapping technology; ensures the legal system isn’t stacked against policyholders and makes an appeals system begun after Sandy permanent.
I believe future policy should also take into account the impact of climate change and sea level rise and include an optional buyout exit for homeowners who don’t want to, or can’t rebuild. That land can then become open space and serve as a flood buffer.
We may be repeating the same mistakes if we don’t get reforms like this through Congress.
Hopefully Harvey and Irma are also new wake-up calls for us in New Jersey. We are, unbelievably, a coastal state without a strategy for sea level rise. That needs to change. Our shoreline state, with so many residents vulnerable at, or near, sea level, cries out for smart long-term planning so that our communities can be more resilient when another superstorm heads our way.
Ray Fisk, of Eagleswood, is the publisher of books including “Great Storms of the Jersey Shore” and “Surviving Sandy” and a member of the New Jersey Organizing Project. His office and home were severely damaged in superstorm Sandy.
National Flood Insurance Program is the next storm for hurricane survivors by Amanda Devecka-Rinear
Watching Harvey descend on Houston reminded many of Superstorm Sandy in New Jersey nearly five years ago. My father is remarkable at predicting weather because he has been clamming and fishing in South Jersey for years. When a big storm or hurricane warning was issued, my father would accurately explain why it would not impact us, or would not be as bad as predicted.
When the warnings for Sandy first emerged I expected the same, instead he said, “this is the one.” And he was right, again.
In New Jersey, Sandy survivors watched Harvey unfold with the heaviest hearts. We understand flooding and devastation. We also understand “the storm after the storm” — the struggle to make recovery programs work for families. Just like my father knew Sandy was “the one”, we in New Jersey can predict what Harvey survivors will go through unless something changes soon.
In less than thirty days the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) must be reauthorized by Congress. We have read and heard the program’s future debated by environmentalists, private insurance companies, and former FEMA officials. But those of us who have learned the hard lessons of Sandy have largely been absent from the debate.
We cannot afford to have this decided for us. No one should go through what we did. And, because extreme weather and flood events are becoming more and more common, families on the frontlines deserve a NFIP they can afford to be part of that works for them.
Early reports show 80 percent of families impacted by Harvey don’t have flood insurance. We’re so sorry, and we’re also sorry for those that do. Because at the moment, the NFIP works better for the private insurance companies that administer policies as part of the Write Your Own Program (WYO), than for families on the frontlines.
Many Sandy-impacted families found their NFIP flood insurance settlements lower than they thought they deserved. In an October 2014 federal lawsuit in New York, a Sandy-impacted family demonstrated that their engineering report had been altered to suggest that Sandy wasn’t responsible for the bulk of the damage.
Problems like this, pressure from policy holders, our elected officials, and years of other errors and lawsuits, prompted FEMA to agree to reopen and review any of the 144,000 flood claims from Sandy survivors who believed they weren’t fairly compensated.
As of August 2017, 19,031 policyholders who requested a review had heard back from FEMA and a total of $225,837,528 in additional payouts had been accepted by policyholders, according to FEMA.
Clearly that money should have been in the hands of storm survivors immediately after the storm, when they were crashing on couches, camping out, and figuring out how to piece together the funds to get home. While it’s important that they finally got a fair payout – we cannot let this happen to the families in Texas.
While policy costs continue to rise and homeowners were systematically underpaid, the private insurance companies that administer the WYO program were making significant profits. According to an investigation conducted by PBS Frontline’s Business of Disaster program, thesecompanies made $400 million in profit for simply administering the program.
At a time, when more and more people in America need, and should have access to flood insurance, many proposed reforms take the program in the wrong direction. Reforms must focus on affordability, addressing widespread fraud in the handling of claims, unfair exclusions and exceptions, and general underpayment from carriers.
And, the NFIP must be re-imagined in the era of frequent flooding and extreme weather to prioritize prevention and mitigation that will save our families the pain of a disaster, and save federal funds.
The SAFE NFIP reauthorization legislation introduces those key reforms. It was introduced in the Senate with nine unlikely co-sponsors: Sens. Rob Menendez (D-N.J) John Kennedy (R-La.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Chris Van Hollen, (D-Md.), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.], Corey Booker(D-N.J.), Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Jack Reed(D-R.I.).
Disasters do not hit along party lines. These reforms are based on experience and are uniting lawmakers from both parties. New Jersey representatives in the House have introduced the same legislation.
We need to close loopholes and prevent abuses and are very wary of expanding the private flood insurance market. Now is the time to reform the NFIP so it works for families, prioritizes affordability and mitigation.
We're South Jersey and the Shore standing together for community solutions.