Sue Marticek loves to tell this story:
A family that turned to her agency for assistance was put out of their home by Hurricane Sandy the year their daughter graduated high school.
The daughter graduated college this year, and they’re still not home.
“That put it all in perspective,” Marticek said. “Four years! Think about how much life goes by in four years.
“We’re trying to help people and solve their problems day in and day out, so the time just goes by and your head is in your work,” she said. “But when you step back and think, ‘Four years!’ It’s amazing some of these people (Sandy victims) haven’t completely unraveled.”
For those who have, though, Marticek and the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group (OCLTRG) have found ways to get them counseling, just as they have for Hurricane Sandy victims who can’t find housing, can’t afford rent or housing, need food or clothes, are having trouble navigating the federal and state recovery programs (and who hasn’t?), or were ripped off by their flood insurance carrier.
MORE: Recent Mark Di Ionno columns
This weekend marks the fourth anniversary of the storm and the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group is the last nonprofit agency standing to meet what the executive director calls “unmet needs.”
In nonprofit parlance that means the gaps between insurance payouts and government grants and loans. Anyone following the Sandy recovery — often called “the disaster after the disaster” by people bound in the eternal red tape – knows there are thousands of people out there still waiting to get home or to hoping to become financially solvent.
For Marticek it’s been an education — and one she is anxious to share with anyone who will listen.
She testified at the Louisiana Statehouse two weeks ago following the devastating floods in the Baton Rouge area. She’s been called by disaster officials from West Virginia and Houston after floods, and California after wildfires.
Lesson No. 1 is that victims need advocates who will take them through the daunting process of filing insurance claims, applying for government programs and finding charity help.
Four years! Think about how much life goes by in four years.” — Sue Marticek, head of Ocean County recovery group
“It’s overwhelming,” she said. “People think the only people who get lost in this are older people who aren’t internet savvy. Let me tell you, I’ve had doctors and lawyers who throw their hands up and say, ‘I can’t figure this out.'”
For Frank and Mary Ellen Azack, the OCLTRG helped them out of a bureaucratic quagmire that left their wrecked house in the Silverton section of Toms River stuck in the mud.
“We got shortchanged by our insurance company,” Frank Azack said. “Then we were denied a RREM (Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation Program) grant. The house was just sitting there. I was living in a small attic apartment, but my wife couldn’t stay there because she has multiple sclerosis and couldn’t climb the stairs.”
Azack met OCLTRG case workers at a Sandy victim information meeting in Toms River in 2014, and things started to move. Marticek’s group partnered with the United Methodist Church’s volunteer building group called “A Future of Hope” and they took on the Azacks’ project – including putting in a lift to make the new elevated home more accessible for Mary Ellen Azack.
“Right now, we hope to be in by Christmas,” Frank Azack said. “There is no way we could have gotten through this mess without their help, even if it was just to try to cheer us up when we were having a bad day.”
The OCLTRG’s funding has come from several charitable sources, including the Robin Hood Foundation, Catholic Charities of Trenton, the Salvation Army, the Ocean First Bank Foundation and others.
Since the storm, the group has spent about $7 million to help people get back on their feet, but the funding sources are drying up.
“A lot of the money for ‘unmet needs’ is going away,” said Bridget Holmes, the OCLTRG’s assistant director.
Meanwhile, the need continues. The Ocean County group is now taking on cases from Bergen and Essex counties all the way down to Cape May County.
The group is currently helping 170 families navigate their National Flood Insurance Program appeals and another 65 families with basic needs, such as rental assistance, while their homes remain uninhabitable.
“We’re getting cases all the time,” Holmes said. “We’re picking up about five or 10 a week.”
Marticek describes her agency as “the gray matter” between government rules and the realities of getting things done.
“My mantra is we all have to work together: government, business and nonprofits,” she said. “And many times the nonprofits are in the best position to know the people and their needs because we have the most contact.”
And that leads to another story Marticek loves to tell:
A 96-year-old man got so fed up with the state’s RREM program that he wanted out. The first builder hired by the state to elevate his home, Seneca-SmartJack, left the program with a trail of unfinished homes.
The man waited for builder No. 2. His 95th birthday came and went, then his 96th.
“I mean, the guy is 96! How long should he have to wait!” Marticek said. “He decided he just wanted to live out his life in his unraised home.
“The state says, ‘Fine. You owe us $15,000,’ ” Marticek said. “They wanted him to pay the design costs of raising the house — which was never done. He couldn’t afford it. And it was wrong.”
A few phone calls later, Marticek said, and the state saw the wisdom in avoiding headlines that would have read: “RREM program makes man, 96, homeless.”
The man is back home and the costs for the design that was never implemented went away.
Mark Di Ionno may be reached at email@example.com. Follow The Star-Ledger on Twitter @StarLedger and find us on Facebook.
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on October 29, 2016 at 8:45 AM, updated October 29, 2016 at 8:46 AM