The review of flood insurance claims from superstorm Sandy has been bogged down in confusion and hesitation, according to a letter to FEMA from U.S. Senator Robert Menendez’s office.
Menendez, and perhaps eventually the entire New Jersey Congressional delegation, is asking the Federal Emergency Management Agency to push the deadline on the Sandy claims review process back three months to December 15.
“Thousands of homeowners still have countless questions about what information they need to provide and how they need to proceed in order to get every penny they’re entitled to,” reads the Democrat’s letter.
Come Sunday, 1,000 days will have passed since Superstorm Sandy began her rampage across the Jersey Shore. Thousands of New Jersey families are still displaced. The state has been unable to match the pace of spending that Louisiana set in order to get its residents back in their homes after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. New Jersey has spent nearly $1.2 billion to rebuild or repair homes since the Oct.29-30, 2012 storm, or less than 20 percent of what Louisiana distributed in the same amount of time after Katrina, according to the latest figures filed by both states to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Rebuilding government and economic infrastructure has proceeded much faster. Nearly $2.4 billion has been spent to restore damaged railways, roads, marinas, water centers, town halls and boardwalks.
Those improvements are of little comfort to the thousands of Shore residents forced to move from rental home to rental home because of bottlenecks in the reconstruction process hampered by sluggish government agencies and programs.
FEMA begins reviewing Sandy claims
Although more than 1,300 homes have been rebuilt through the state’s flagship rebuilding program, less than half of those have been elevated. Just 64 — out of 15,100 homeowners that originally sought help — are finished.
“A lot of people are hung up in the air,” said George Kasimos, one of the founders of the Sandy advocacy group Stop FEMA Now.
“I feel like we’ve been abandoned”
Little Egg Harbor residents Ralph and Amalia DeNisco just want to go back home.
The retired couple moved out of their 1,300-square-foot, lagoon-front home in September so a contractor could elevate the house. They expected to be back by January.
Six months later, the house remains unfinished, perched on wooden cribbing with missing floors that have left the interior open to both winter storms and summer heat. The DeNiscos remain stuck: They’re renting a room from a neighbor and their possessions, including furniture, flooring and flat-screen TVs, remain crammed into two metal containers on their block. One container sits on their lot while another is across the street, where a neighbor had given permission for it to be temporarily stored.
There is no reliable estimate of the number of New Jersey residents still displaced. But its clearly in the thousands.
“I’m tired about people asking what’s happening with the house. What are you doing? Why don’t you sue them? All I want is for the guy to come and finish,” said Amalia DeNisco, 66, her voice cracking. “ I feel like we’ve been abandoned.”
Progress slow in RREM program
Sandy damaged or destroyed nearly 90,000 housing units in New Jersey, while Hurricane Katrina destroyed 200,000 Louisiana homes.
Yet at the same point in the recovery process, Louisiana’s signature recovery program was spending virtually all of the housing aid as it was coming in from the feds, but New Jersey has been more deliberate. There was nearly $96 million in RREM budgeted funds available to New Jersey that had not been released by the end of March, according to HUD reports.
Nearly 7,200 homes in New Jersey’s largest rebuilding program for homeowners, the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program, are in construction or ready to start, but just 64 homes are all the way out of the program, according to the state Department of Community Affairs.
Presidential candidate and Gov. Chris Christie — as he has often done before — pointed to government red tape as the culprit.
There are several choke points in the rebuilding process, but one in particular is home elevation.
By the end of March, fewer than 500 homes had been elevated through RREM or its sister program for low- and moderate-income homeowners. All 9,200 homes in those programs must be elevated, and then pass final inspections, before they are finished with the program. There is no estimate when all the houses will be elevated, but the RREM grants will expire Oct. 29, 2016, four years to the day after the storm hit the Shore.
Not enough home lifters
On January 13, Greg Durgin, 52, moved out of his home in the Loveladies section of Long Beach Township so that his house could be elevated. He thought that was the beginning of his return home, but it wasn’t the beginning of anything: No work started for four months.
Durgin said he later learned that his RREM-assigned contractor had not applied for building permits until late April.
“This is definitely the worse and most stressful thing I have ever been through,” he said.
A look back: Destruction caused by superstorm Sandy
Kasimos, the Stop FEMA Now co-founder, said many people’s homes have been lifted but remained unfinished.
“Contractors need money to keep working,” said Kasimos, of Toms River. “RREM is paying 120 to 180 days late.”
Four to six weeks is the normal turnaround for payment requests, said Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.
There are 53 active registered home-elevation contractors in the state, according to the New Jersey Department of Consumer Affairs.
Not all of those are equally capable, says Jason Yarusi, vice president of W.A. Building Movers, a family-owned company out of Westfield that has been lifting homes since 1970. He estimates that just 13 contractors in the state who actually have the experience the state requires.
That’s only part of the reason why progress has been so slow, Yarusi said. With so many schedules and variables to juggle — permits from individual towns, utilities, other contractors, when grant money gets released — it’s difficult to project when work will actually get done.
Problems beyond troubled state programs
Those not in the RREM program, like the DeNiscos, are also struggling.
After the DeNiscos’ house was flooded with about three feet of water during Sandy, the couple repaired their home and replaced water-logged furniture and appliances using $60,000 in flood insurance proceeds and a Small Business Association loan.
Last year they decided to elevate the house to protect it against future storms and also lower their flood insurance payments. By the time the couple decided to lift their home, RREM was no longer accepting applications.
They instead are relying on $30,000 in federal mitigation funds available for homeowners who had flood insurance at the time of the storm, and an additional $30,000 from the state’s Hazard Mitigation Grant Program.
In June, they signed a contract with Little Egg Harbor-based RCMS to lift their house and install pilings that would elevate it to 9 feet. Company owner Jeff Colmyer also agreed to re-install their laminate flooring and replace landscaping on the property. The DeNiscos said Colmyer told them they would have to leave their house in early September, but promised they’d be home by the holidays.
“We figured it would be the end of January, because there could be bad weather,” said Ralph DeNisco, 67. They moved across the street into the house of their neighbors and good friends. The neighbors spend winters in Florida, and the DeNiscos thought they’d be able to move back home before their neighbors returned.
Permits and paperwork
The lift of their three-bedroom, two-bath home began on Oct. 16. The DeNiscos said they paid RCMS $10,000 on June 20, when they first signed the contract, and $5,000 more in November.
The delays began early on, they said. The DeNiscos carefully documented every bit of work done on the property, creating a detailed timeline that’s filled with gaps in which RCMS did no work at all.
Infrastructure upgrades since Superstorm Sandy
RCMS owner Jeff Colmyer said that it took Little Egg Harbor government six months to issue a building permit for the property, which accounts for most of the delay. Additionally, the township’s zoning office rejected the initial plans for the house on Jan. 28, noting that the rear stairs were too close to the lagoon because of a previous addition to the home. That required him to resubmit a zoning application for the project, which took more time.
Colmyer said he was eager to help the DeNiscos get back into their home faster, so after filing all the required paperwork, he began working on the house before receiving the permit. The township fined him $2,000 and ordered him to stop work on the project until the permit was received, Colmyer said.
“I don’t take on jobs because I’m trying to get over on anybody,” Colmyer said. He said his company is working on about 60 projects and “I’m tight for cash.” So far he has only received $15,000 for the work at the DeNiscos, he said.
Running in place
From Jan. 13 to April 15, no work was done. By April 3, Amalia DeNisco had begun to panic. Her neighbors would soon be back and the house was not close to completion.
“Very little has been done,” Ralph DeNisco said. “We’re still at least three to four months away from completion.” The couple has continued to pay $1,200 monthly in mortgage and flood insurance payments on the house. They’re also paying rent to their neighbors.
Frustrated, the DeNiscos filed a complaint against RCMS with Ocean County Consumer Affairs, one of two filed with the county against the company, according to Stephen Scaturro, consumer affairs director. “We just want him to come back and finish the work,” Amalia DeNisco said.
The state Department of Consumer Affairs has taken over the investigation into the complaints. Spokesman Jeff Lamm said a third complaint has been filed with the state against RCMS. “They are open, and they will be reviewed,” Lamm said. “Other than that, I am not allowed to discuss anything about pending complaints.”
“It won’t help us,” Ralph DeNisco said of the couple’s reason for filing a complaint. “But it might help someone else.”
Colmyer said he is meeting with the DeNiscos early next week to discuss what needs to be done to complete the project and get them back home.
Slowing the process
Sue Marticek, executive director of the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group, said of the 500 RREM projects the group is helping to get through the process, about one in eight have had some kind of dispute with a contractor.
“On a short-term level, we really need to put a watchful eye on the contractors,” Marticek said. But she also criticized the slow pace of payments in the program, noting that’s making it difficult for legitimate contractors to move forward with projects.
Vincent Simonelli, a builder who owns Dream Homes in Lacey, said contractors working in the state’s rebuilding programs must be prepared to wait weeks for payment and have the financial means to do so.
“The state cuts checks once a month,” said Simonelli, who estimated his company is working on or has completed about 100 RREM projects. “If you forget to sign even one line, they will send the paperwork back to you and you won’t get paid.” He estimated his firm is owed $300,000 to $400,000 for completed RREM project work.
He said that while the RREM program has streamlined the process, it’s still slow going.
Yarusi, the house lifter, remains optimistic that circumstances are changing.
“Ultimately, I see a lot of people getting back in their homes now,” he said. “I was recently on one street in Port Monmouth that we have raised four homes on and almost the whole street has been raised and the homes are looking great and hopefully much more of this will follow.”
Frank Hagen of Cherry Quay, on left, watches as volunteers begin installing sheet rock as his ceiling. Next to Hagen are volunteers Dale Abraham, 21; Emily Clark, 23; and Elizabeth Gemignani, 25, on the ladder. (Photo by Judy Smestad-Nunn)
BRICK – Frank Hagen watched as about a dozen volunteers installed sheetrock in his Cherry Quay home, some three years after it was nearly destroyed by Superstorm Sandy.
Hagen, 54, and his wife, Theresa, were home during the storm when their house filled with four feet of water, while three houses behind theirs burned during a transformer fire.
“We lost everything. The street was full of furniture,” he recalled.
But almost three years later, the Hagens are among those helped by the United Way of Ocean County’s mostly young volunteers who are aiding in Sandy rebuilding efforts through AmeriCorps here in Brick and elsewhere locally.
A small ceremony was held recently on Hagen’s front lawn to thank and recognize the volunteers, who came from all over the United States.
The volunteers were young college students completing a “Summer of Service” as part of United Way of Ocean County’s ReBuild NJ AmeriCorps Program.
The volunteers would be wrapping up 300 hours of summer service, for which they receive a small living stipend and scholarship dollars, said Linda Gyimoty, Executive Director of the United Way of Ocean County.
Sandy-impacted homeowners unsatisfied with payouts from claims filed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP) can get free help understanding and navigating the process of requesting a review next week in Toms River.
The Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group (OCLTRG) has organized the clinic, which will involve lawyers and insurance experts providing one on one assistance to residents.
Half of the 140,000 FEMA flood claims are in New Jersey, and 36,000 are in Ocean County, according to Susan Marticek, OCLTRG Executive Director.
“The last number I got from FEMA was less than 9,000 people on the entire East Coast have opted in for review,” said Marticek.
Not trusting the system, feeling overwhelmed, and being burnt out are among the many reasons Marticek cited as to why she thinks people are preventing people from reopening a claim.
“We want to see a lot more people have the opportunity to get the money that is rightfully theirs,” Marticek said. She is encouraged by a handful of cases being worked on currently.
“It looks like there’s a lot of room for them to get some additional funding, and we all know that people are short money in order to put together a construction budget, so this may make a difference for a lot of people who may not make it if they don’t get extra monies,” she said.
For those still hesitant about requesting a review, Marticek, compared it to “a free swing at bat.” She added, “There is a small percentage of people that may get taken back from them, but we feel that that is such a minutia amount of people and probably those would be the people that may have done something wrong or mistakenly in the beginning.”
Marticek said there is a consistent theme from the hundreds of clients the OCLTRG’s assists, that they feel they have been underpaid by their insurance company. One example of a case she pointed out involve a homeowner who had a $175,000 policy, but only received $4,000.
“They have to rebuild their home, so it seems as though there is a lot of room in those two numbers to come up with some more money for them,” Marticek added.
The free NFIP Clinic takes place on Thursday, July 30, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m., at St. Andrews United Methodist Church, 1528 Church Road, Toms River.
Appointments are recommended, by calling 732-569-3484, ext. 24. Walk-ins are welcome on a first come, first serve basis.
TOMS RIVER – Leo Brancato learned the hard way that when you’re part of the RREM program, your home is not your own.
New Jersey says only 64 out of roughly 8,600 homes have been released from the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program, the state’s largest reconstruction program for homeowners trying to rebuild after superstorm Sandy.
Hundreds of those homes have been rebuilt and elevated, but a deed restriction, which is placed on all homes, remains for nearly all. While that deed restriction is in place, homeowners can’t sell their homes — even if they think they’re done with the program.
Most homeowners, like Brancato, don’t know that when they sign up for RREM, they’re allowing the state to severely curtail what they can do with the property.
Brancato spent months attempting to have the deed restriction released so he could sell his waterfront house. Although he had a certificate of occupancy and an elevation certificate that confirmed the house has been lifted to more than 13 feet above sea level, he was unable to persuade the state to lift the restriction until earlier this month — one year after reconstruction on his home was finished..
“I’ve jumped through all the hoops,” said Brancato, 63, in June. “I can’t get out of the RREM program.”
Signed and sealed
Every recipient of a RREM grant — 8,642 homeowners in New Jersey have been approved — signs something called the Declaration of Restrictive Covenant. As of July 17, only 64 homes had been released from the covenant and are truly out of the program, even though the state reports that 1,349 homes have been rebuilt — although not necessarily elevated yet — through RREM.
The covenant is meant to give the state leverage to demand that the work being paid for with federal money meets minimum federal, state and local home construction and environmental standards. The only ways to remove the restriction are to comply with the program’s requirements or pay back the grant.
That means that homeowners such as Brancato, who choose to act as their own general contractor through the program’s Pathway B, would be responsible for ensuring — and proving — that these standards have been satisfied and for setting up the final inspections. That’s where some avoidable delays originate, said Tammori Petty, a spokeswoman for the DCA.
BOARDWALKS AND RAILWAYS ARE BACK UP BUT THOUSANDS OF FAMILIES REMAIN STUCK IN RECOVERY.
Sunday marked 1,000 days since superstorm Sandy began her rampage across the Shore.
Thousands of New Jersey families are still displaced. The state has been unable to match the pace of spending that Louisiana set in order to get its residents back in their homes after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
New Jersey has spent nearly $1.2 billion to rebuild or repair homes since the Oct.29-30, 2012 storm, or less than 20 percent of what Louisiana distributed in the same amount of time after Katrina, according to the latest figures filed by both states to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Rebuilding government and economic infrastructure has proceeded much faster. Nearly $2.4 billion has been spent to restore damaged railways, roads, marinas, water centers, town halls and boardwalks.
Those improvements are of little comfort to the thousands of Shore residents forced to move from rental home to rental home because of bottlenecks in the reconstruction process hampered by sluggish government agencies and programs.
BRIGANTINE — Years after Hurricane Sandy, Atlantic County residents are still reeling from the damage the storm did to their properties.
But there are still opportunities for homeowners to get help making repairs. Sandy victims unsatisfied with their flood insurance claim settlements can request a review through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The Brigantine Community Center held a free workshop for residents to understand how they might be able to get some money back.
Robert DeClementi, 58, of Brigantine, didn’t know whether his insurance company would be liable for $150,000 difference for his house from his state grant. Without Wednesday’s workshop, he would have been in the dark about his finances.
“So many things the (workshop) said could be fixed, the insurance company told me wasn’t covered,” he said. “I’m lucky to have this today. It was a big help.”
The event, coordinated by Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, Brigstrong, the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group and Legal Services of New Jersey, was aimed at guiding homeowners through FEMA’s Sandy claims review.
Landowners were shown a 14-step timeline that policyholders who have already filed for assistance would be taken through if they chose to opt in and request a review of their claims.
But it is up to the individual policyholder to opt in to have the claim reopened and independently reviewed.
Policyholders would receive a letter from the National Flood Insurance Program and must choose to participate within 90 days of receiving the letter or before Sept. 15. The process should lead to additional funds for policyholders if they follow the steps correctly.
Jessica Limbacher, 28, an attorney with Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, a nonprofit based in Newark that provides legal assistance statewide, was optimistic for those who wanted to request a FEMA review.
Limbacher called this Phase 1 of the work they are trying to accomplish for Atlantic County residents.
“The chances they get money back is uncertain, but FEMA has made it clear they want to correct mistakes they made,” she said. “It’s likely people who opt in will get something additional.”
She said the process can be done without a lawyer, but they are available to assist people in need.
The process to request a claim review is only for people who don’t have cases currently in litigation.
Steven Sandbery, press secretary to U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said FEMA has assured the senator that the claims process was made with the policyholder in mind and should be quick and easy.
“The senator would encourage any Sandy survivor who feels they were lowballed on their flood-insurance claim to take advantage of this rare second opportunity to get what they deserve,” he wrote in an email to The Press.
Alexander Hersonski from South Jersey Legal Services reassured the dozens in attendance that as long as they needed help, they had people in their corner.
“It isn’t a characteristic of ‘if,’” he told the crowd about their requests for their flood insurance claims to be reviewed. “This is going to happen (for you).”
Policyholders who would like to file for a claim review should call 866-337-4262 or go to FEMA.gov.
Ground was recently broken for an affordable housing project on at the corner of Oakwood Avenue and Parrow Street in Orange. The townhouse development is being built with a $7.5 million federal grant to build affordable housing for victims of Hurricane Sandy. Orange, NJ 7/2/15 (Robert Sciarrino | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
“It’s a still mess down here. I think people have forgotten how bad it is,” said Jakes, who credits the Salvation Army, not the state, for “keeping me alive.”
Tomorrow, Gov. Chris Christie will announce his candidacy for President in Livingston, a town not far from the meandering Passaic River, which keeps Fairfield, Wayne, Lincoln Park and Little Falls on red alert after a day or two of heavy rain.
In the coming months, it will be interesting to see if Clinton or Christie or any other candidates make fixing FEMA a campaign issue.
They should. The numbers – and news – reminds us that cataclysmic flooding can hit anybody.
I think he’s only vulnerable among people who are still out of their homes or slow to go back.” — Patrick Murray.
Joan Wujcik becomes emotional as she finds bags of mold-encrusted construction debris and an oil drum dumped inside her still-wrecked home in the Gifford Park section of Toms River Township. Wujcik and many other New Jersey residents continue to struggle to get back on their feet almost three years after Hurricane Sandy destroyed their homes. 6/23/15 (Andrew Mills | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
As we move deeper into the third summer after Sandy, the crushing effects of the storm have been forgotten by people who don’t live where wrecked homes and broken hearts still overwhelm the landscape.
Nearly 9,000 families in the state’s Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program are not in their primary homes.
That number doesn’t include people not in the program – those who didn’t qualify, or missed deadlines or were told their paperwork was lost and just gave up. It doesn’t include people who are trying to rebuild on their own.
The truth is no one knows the real number.
“For every one of our clients in the RREM, we have at least one not in the program,” said Sue Marticek, head of Ocean County’s Long Term Recovery Group, which disburses aid from a variety of funds. “I’d say, conservatively, there are 20,000 families out of their primary homes.”
I went from being a homeowner and manager of a restaurant to being a homeless, unemployed bag lady.” — Joan Wujcik