A New Jersey motel owner who stole more than $81,000 in federal disaster relief funds by falsely claiming he had sheltered Superstorm Sandy victims is now headed to prison.
Sandipkumar Patel received a three-year sentence Friday. The 44-year-old Edison man had pleaded guilty in September to theft by deception and has paid full restitution.
State authorities say Patel fraudulently took $81,567 from a Federal Emergency Management Agency program that paid hotels and motels for rooms temporarily occupied by victims.
Patel and his wife own the American Motel in Toms River.
Authorities say Patel falsely billed FEMA for 11 supposed victims, including eight of whom never stayed at the motel. The three others stayed for shorter periods than were billed or shared a room that Patel had already billed to FEMA.
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.
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.
Demands for repayment of grants used for rebuilding, threats of foreclosure are only two of the troubles Sandy victims now have to deal with
Hurricane Sandy is still tearing up people’s lives four years after the storm wreaked devastation up and down the coast.
Take Julie Suarez. A couple of years after settling back into her Little Egg Harbor house, she got a letter this June from the state demanding she pay back $50,000 of the $150,000 grant she received to rebuild her home after the superstorm.
Joe Karcz is fed up with moving. The disabled pipefitter still is not back in his Beach Haven West home, after relocating more than a dozen times. “You sleep in your own bed,’’ he told legislators, his voice rising, at a hearing on Sandy recovery efforts yesterday. “Try sleeping in 13 beds.’’
Paul Jeffrey is upset the state still does not have a comprehensive coastal resiliency plan four years after 99 percent of the homes in Ortley Beach suffered damage in the storm. A beach club on the water that was destroyed by the storm is up for sale, zoned for 16 oceanfront condos. “In 50 years, it will be gone,’’ he predicted.
Others at the hearing before the Assembly Regulatory Oversight Committee in the State House complained of people trying to rebuild their homes while fighting foreclosure actions at the same time; of being ripped off by corrupt contractors; or of getting little or no help from the state Department of Community Affairs or federal agencies disbursing funds to recover from the storm.
During the hearing, representatives from various nonprofit groups urged the state to quickly move on legislation (A-333) — conditionally vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie in the last session — that would create foreclosure protections for homeowners threatened with the loss of their homes.
“Our residents deserve so much better than what they are getting,’’ said Staci Berger, president and CEO of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. “There needs to be an immediate moratorium on foreclosures.’’
Probably the most contentious issue raised in the hearing was the suggestion that the state is going after residents who received rebuilding grants under RREM (Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation), seeking to recover some of the money.
Suarez said she still cannot understand why the state is asking her to repay a portion of the grant, a demand she cannot possibly afford. “There is no explanation why I have to pay it — at least that is understandable to an educated person.’’
Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer), the chairman of the committee, said this is the first he has heard of such tactics, but vowed to draft a bill to deal with the situation.
“Many of the stories we heard today were heartbreaking, but they were also infuriating because bureaucratic incompetence compounded an already devastating situation and made it nearly unbearable for many victims,’’ Gusciora said. “The common refrain we heard today is that the administration and the DCA, in particular, have failed Sandy victims.’’
The criticism has often been heard during the Sandy recovery process, from complaints about victims being shortchanged by insurance companies; problems navigating the application process among state and federal agencies administering grant programs; to bureaucratic mistakes.
Most recently, the federal government, in an audit, found the state failed to properly oversee a contractor hired to distribute federal aid, and suggested the state may have to reimburse the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development $43 million.
Sandy victims had little good to say about the state’s handling of the Sandy recovery at yesterday’s hearing.
“It’s a rudderless ship and you know what: The money’s running out,’’ Karcz said. “There’s no accountability.’’
The DCA did not respond to a request for comment, but has said in the past that 4,230 homes have been rebuilt. Critics, however, point out that 7,679 homes are participating in the program. “We need to focus on this group of people and make them whole,’’ said Adam Gordon of the Fair Share Housing Center.
Others were more pessimistic.
Joe Mangino of Stafford Township worries that the state has no plans to deal with climate change. “Until New Jersey develops a comprehensive plan to deal with sea-level rise, I feel that our future is nothing but a pipe dream.’’
Four years ago Saturday, Superstorm Sandy barreled into New Jersey.
For some, the storm isn’t over yet. And for others, another wave may be coming in the form of increased property taxes.
Still-displaced homeowners took their grievances to an Assembly committee Thursday, which heard more than two hours of testimony that suggested the headaches they’ve dealt with – insufficient flood insurance payouts, unresponsive state recovery programs, unscrupulous contractors – still persist.
“Thousands of New Jersey families are not home yet,” said Doug Quinn, who is among them. “Most people have gone on with their lives. They think it’s over: ‘Sandy? Oh, that’s done.’ But for a lot of us, we still live in this every single days of our lives.”
“You have to understand how these people have lived, what it likes to live like a refugee for all these years,” Quinn said.
In some cases, the old problems been joined by new crises – foreclosures and clawbacks, the latter in which the state is demanding repayment for what it says are duplicative benefits.
Julie Suarez said she got back into her home in June 2015, then got a letter from the Department of Community Affairs demanding that around $50,000 be repaid within 30 days. She doesn’t have that money, says she followed the state rules and hasn’t gotten a clear answer why money must be repaid.
“I feel like my world has been in a chaotic spiral since October 29, 2012,” said Suarez, who said she’s on the brink of foreclosure and asked lawmakers to pass legislation that can give Sandy victims some more breathing room.
Temporary mortgage relief programs have been passed by the Legislature, only to be vetoed by Gov. Chris Christie.
“This state is going into disarray with foreclosures, and these people are suffering, and it’s not their fault. They were in the state program. And that is just unfair,” Suarez said. “I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. I want you to help me. And I want you to help all of us that are still trying to get home.”
Suarez said another person she knows through the New Jersey Organizing Project has been directed to repay $104,000.
Quinn said legislation is needed, and Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, the chairman of the Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Reform and Federal Relations Committee, said he is developing a bill.
“The DCA needs to be reined in on this horrible methodology that they do,” Quinn said. “These people need to understand that it’s not their money they’re giving out. They are managing a national resource – our tax money that average, working-class people like myself have paid in. They need to not treat us like we’re criminals. They need to not treat us like we’re asking for favors.”
Many of the complaints were familiar ones about the state’s administration of the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Program.
“At best, it’s challenging. At worst, it’s completely inept,” said Susan Marticek, executive director of the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group.
RREM is the largest of the state’s federally funded recovery programs, accounting for more than $1.3 billion in spending of the nearly $4.2 billion received. More than 80 percent of the money has been disbursed to homeowners, said DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan.
However, out of the roughly 7,700 homeowners in the program, only about 700 cases have been fully closed out, said Adam Gordon of the Fair Share Housing Center. Ryan said around 5,700 are back in their homes, including 4,300 who have finished construction and 1,400 living there while work is completed.
That leaves close to 2,000 families in the program still displaced. Almost 5,000 additional homeowners had initially been deemed eligible for the RREM program, then dropped out for one reason or another. While 141 had their homes bought through Blue Acres funds, which are used by the state to acquire flood-prone properties, the others withdrew, either voluntarily or administratively, Gordon said.
“They just gave up. And where are they now? Who knows? There’s no tracking going on. What happened to those families? I mean, this is 40 percent of the people. This is not a small number. Forty percent of the people originally found eligible by the state are gone,” Gordon said.
“Four years later, we still have a lot of work to do,” Gordon said. “I don’t think any of us in October 2012 would have thought that in October 2016 we’d be sitting here hearing these stories today.”
Ryan said the DCA has made constant efforts to streamline the RREM program, such as giving homeowners more flexibility in designing their rebuilding project, and has provided rental assistance programs so people aren’t paying mortgages and rent at the same time.
“We recognize the hardship endured by people who lost so much to Sandy and we recognize there is more work to do. But we have made significant progress in helping households recover from the worst natural disaster in our state’s history,” Ryan said.
Another wave of Sandy’s impacts is on the horizon, Marticek warned.
The state used $136 million of its $4.2 billion in Sandy recovery funds for grants to local governments, to help them maintain services despite having tax ratables destroyed by Sandy.
That program has expired after three years, and the federal government won’t allow more money transferred into it so it can be extended. In some places, that’s going to be mean tax hikes. Toms River, for instance, still has $880 million less in ratables than it did before the storm.
“Wait ‘til the subsidies end,” Marticek said. “Those people that don’t know that Sandy is still going on are going to find out very quickly that even without getting a drop of water in their house, they are going to be dramatically impacted.”
TRENTON — Victims of Hurricane Sandy unleashed a torrent of frustration and anger at state lawmakers on Thursday over the continued slow recovery process that they say is leading to foreclosures, wasting public money and failing to plan for future storms.
Two days shy of the fourth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy pummeling major swaths of New Jersey, the state Assembly Regulatory Oversight and Reform and Federal Relations committees listened to stories of heartbreak, financial ruin and poor planning that victims say continues long after the state’s worst natural disaster.
With speaker after speaker complaining about the slow recovery process, victims hammered at the state’s Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program, a federally-funded plan designed to help homeowners pay for repairs but has been fraught with problems from the start.
He said that of the 15,000 property owners applied for the RREM program, 12,500 were deemed eligible. Since then, thousands have dropped out of the program for unknown reasons, leaving just under 7,000 property owners still moving through that process, Gordon said.
“We are far from finishing the job,” Gordon said, noting the state expects to spend all the Sandy aid funding by the end of this fiscal year next June.
“We need to finish the job because these funds were supposed to make people whole and we’re just too far away…from making sure that happens,” he said.
One woman said that after following all the RREM rules and being back in her home for two years, she recently received a letter claiming she owes $51,000 to various Sandy aid programs without any explanation.
“I don’t know what these numbers are and I honestly have no idea how I’m going to repay them,” she said.
Joe Karcz, who’s still not back in his home in the Beach Haven West section of Stafford Township, asked for a law granting Sandy victims waivers from the financial penalties of early withdrawals from their pensions.
“Because the process took so long, they are then in a position to lose their home,” Berger said. “That’s unconscionable.”
Allowing foreclosures to occur on homes that had been repaired by Sandy aid would be a waste of public funds, she said.
Susan Marticek, executive director of the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group, said one in five calls her organization gets weekly is from a Sandy victim facing foreclosure.
Paul Jeffrey, president of the Ortley Beach Voters and Tax Payers Association, criticized the state for failing to plan for future storms beyond a massive beach replenishment project for the coastline.
He cited the example of the former Joey Harrison’s Surf Club in town, which was destroyed by Sandy. The oceanfront property is now for sale, but the state won’t buy it through its Green Acres program because it instead wants large swaths rather than individual parcels.
Yet the site is approved for 16 oceanfront condominiums which will most likely be destroyed in another major storm, Jeffrey said.
“The recovery is far from complete…We think it’s at least three to five years before the tax base is back and we’re fully recovered,” Jeffrey said. “And that’s scary because you have heard and we all know (that) funds are drying up.”
First it was the insurers, then the government and now it’s the contractors that are frustrating Sandy victims
Five months and you’ll be back home. That was the promise Price Home Group made in a contract with Patricia Bollman and Maureen Molz, a Brick couple among the thousands at the Shore who lost their home to superstorm Sandy.
Now three years later, after making $187,000 in payments and enduring months of delays, unreturned calls, and what she claimed as shoddy workmanship, Bollman is convinced Price Home Group was only looking after itself.
The rebuilding experience was filled with “tremendous emotional pain and heartache,” Bollman told the Asbury Park Press. “It is my opinion, PHG didn’t care if it was (disaster aid) money, my money, another customer’s money or insurance money. To PHG, it was all their money.”
At the end of August, a state Superior Court jury in Ocean County sided with Bollman and Molz in their breach-of-contract claim against Price Home Group, awarding the couple $300,000 in compensative damages. It marked the first such victory at trial in New Jersey for a Sandy-affected homeowner against a contractor.
The landmark proceeding is part of what many regard as the next wave in the Shore’s post-Sandy rebuild — the filing of lawsuits targeted at contractors who disappointed customers in sundry ways — from failing to complete projects to performing second-rate work, or never showing up after accepting payment.
The New Jersey Office of the Attorney General has cited 135 violations for unregistered or non-compliant contractors in Monmouth, Ocean and Atlantic counties since January 2013, and sought nearly $1.3 million in restitution for customers, according to the office.
Sue Marticek, executive director of the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group, said she has seen more homeowners at the group’s workshops who have been victims of contractor fraud. Others are involved in disputes with contractors who have not completed work or performed poorly.
Price Home Group alone is involved in at least 15 lawsuits alleging breach of contracts with customers. A pending civil action by the state alleges fraud, among other claims.
For Sandy victims, the new legal tangles follow years of squabbling with insurers, unscrupulous engineers, and the exasperation that accompanies glacially paced government recovery programs.
But lawsuits, while usually the last resort for settling disputes, may provide only a Pyrrhic victory to some property owners.
Marticek notes that it is difficult for homeowners to recover money from a builder through the legal system, even if the builder has been charged with fraud.
Many builders — including all three founders of Price Home Group — have declared bankruptcy or are otherwise insolvent.
“There is really no leverage for the homeowner in these cases, and that’s become a problem,” Marticek said.
The collapse of Price Home Group, which denied any wrongdoing in court papers, revives long-running questions about the state’s oversight and vetting of builders.
The now-defunct company was one of the original contractors approved by the state to serve homeowners in New Jersey’s primary rebuilding program, the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation, and Mitigation (RREM) program — an initiative paid for with your tax dollars.
Internal financial reports filed in court show the partners of the Stafford-based builder pulled hundreds of thousands of dollars out of the operation as profit — while they were buying expensive cars and taking international trips — even as the company’s financial situation was deteriorating.
Fifty-one homeowners selected Price Home Group, which trumpeted its state-approved status on the company’s website, as their RREM contractor. Of those projects, fewer than half — just 22 — were seen through to completion, according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs.
The RREM program evolved to give homeowners more freedom — and responsibility — regarding the selection of their contractors, instead of having the state acting as the matchmaker.
With such responsibility has come headaches.
Sandy recedes, but a surge of money follows
Price Home Group was formed on Feb. 6, 2013 — 100 days after Sandy made landfall. The venture was a three-man partnership: brothers Jeremy and Jonathan Price, an attorney and contractor, respectively, and Scott Cowan, a Newark pawnshop owner.
Cowan and Jonathan Price each kicked in $5,000 while Jeremy Price pledged his equity in the form of legal work, according to depositions and bankruptcy filings. From that $10,000 initial investment, the start-up would go on to amass more than $25 million in home sales and contracted work, some of it paid for with federal disaster grants, according to Cowan’s attorney.
The venture was lucrative while it lasted.
(story continues below)
Internal documents entered into Jonathan Price’s bankruptcy case show he and Cowan drew up to $32,000 a month each out of the business, with the outflow beginning just weeks after the business was formed.
A transactions sheet shows Jonathan Price taking $405,338 out of Price Home Group’s coffers, most of it labeled as a partner distribution or member’s draw, from April 2013 through the end of 2014.
Cowan was making similar withdrawals, including one for $5,000 – equal to his initial investment – within five weeks of the company’s birth.
A customer’s deposit was supposed to reserve their modular home with the Price Home Group’s supplier. Evidence presented during the Bollman-Molz trial showed that money from new projects often went to paying for materials and work on older contracts that had been neglected for months.
Once the Bollman-Molz’s declined to make any more payments, the Price Home Group left the project, according to court documents.
The work at the home remained incomplete and required the couple to hire other workers so the reconstruction could pass inspections, which it did in October 2014 — about eight months after the Price Home Group contract said the couple would be able to move home.
“If they told my clients upfront that we’re going to use your money for something else, like salary or trips, that we’re going to wait for another sale to come in to order your house, my clients would have said no,” said the Brick couple’s attorney, Mark Molz. “Anybody with common sense would say no. They took advantage of bright people, but people who were already victimized by the hurricane.”
Bankruptcy records also show the principals buying a new Mercedes-Benz and a $35,000 Toyota Tacoma while the money was still rolling in. They traveled to Italy, Indonesia and Las Vegas.
“They had no ability to put up the homes that they were selling. They had no thought they could complete all those homes,” said attorney Molz, who is also Maureen Molz’s brother. “They claimed more of a capacity and experience than they actually had and, in my opinion, were strictly about getting the money without any thoughts to producing a quality home in a timely fashion.”
(story continues below)
Price Home Group folded while still owing homes to 19 customers.
Christopher Adams, attorney to Cowan, one of the principals, blamed the business’s failure on rule changes, slow state payments and poor work by some subcontractors, which Price Home later sued. Jonathan Price declined to comment.
The company, according to its owners, completed 70 homes in less than two years. They also elevated 20 homes, although the state says Price Home Group was never licensed to lift houses.
The bankruptcy filings reveal Cowan and Jonathan Price racked up thousands in credit card debt after a key supplier pulled out. They sold waterfront land in Stafford and poured the sale’s proceeds back into the business, the bankruptcy documents show.
Adams said that the two partners put $600,000 back into the company, reducing their annual salary to an average of $111,000 in each of the three years.
Jeremy Price, who says he has since severed ties with the company that bears his family name, reiterated the defense’s courtroom claim: the Ballman-Molz were inflexible and wanted to ruin the Price Home Group in court.
“This was a bad decision at the conclusion of a bad trial and we are very confident that it will be overturned on appeal,” Price said. “PHG built and completed approximately 70 homes in New Jersey in a very short time and these plaintiffs like to pretend that is not a reality. These plaintiffs were after dollar signs and headlines and it appears they have succeeded in that for now.”
The state Attorney General’s Office has filed civil suits alleging consumer fraud against five contractors since July, including Price Home Group.
Before the first homeowners signed up with Price Home Group, the state of New Jersey welcomed the company into the fold.
Price Home Group was approved to join RREM’s pool of “qualified builders” in 2013, a fact touted in company marketing materials.
Initially, the task of hiring homebuilders was handled within the RREM program, using only those companies identified as qualified builders. Later, the state got out of that part of the rebuilding business entirely — directing all homeowners entering the program to choose their own contractors.
(story continues below)
To participate in RREM, the state checks that a company has the proper licenses, is registered to do business in New Jersey and hasn’t been debarred from doing business with the government, according to Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs. The office oversees RREM, the $1.1-billion housing recovery program covered by anybody who pays federal taxes.
Testimony made in depositions shows that Jonathan Price and Cowan lied about their educational attainment in their RREM applications. Both claimed to be university graduates, but Price said he had only a few months in community college and Cowan acknowledged that he dropped out of high school.
Nonetheless, the company would be assigned five home construction projects by the state.
In April and May 2015, all of those projects were transferred to other builders to complete — at Price Home Group’s request, Ryan said, and not as a result of any performance issues. It continued to be the general contractor of record for at least 20 of the ongoing projects — rebuilds where it had been selected by the homeowner.
“Everybody was trying”
The death knell for Price Home Group came when Ritz-Craft, the manufacturer that supplied the builder’s modular homes, terminated the relationship at the end of September 2015. It cited Price Home Group’s “bleak and dire financial situation” as the basis for severing ties, according to the lawsuit.
In a lawsuit that followed, Ritz-Craft acknowledges it had received a grand jury subpoena from “New Jersey state court” seeking paperwork related to Price Home Group.
The Office of the New Jersey Attorney General and the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office declined to comment.
Price Home Group should be judged on the circumstances at the time, Joyce Bartlett, the Price Home Group’s accountant, told the Press.
“Everybody was trying,” she said of the rebuilding climate. “The builders, the construction departments … but when you have a 300-year storm come in and literally destroys thousands of homes at once you had chaos — you have chaos.”
HADLEY — For his efforts overseeing coastal protection and marsh restoration work in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services scientist Richard Bennett has been named the 2016 GreenGov Presidential Awards “Climate Champion.”
Bennett, regional scientist at the service’s Hadley office, received the award Sept. 7 at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington.
“It was a total surprise to me and a complete honor,” Bennett said. “It really was the effort of a lot of folks and I accepted it on behalf of everybody. I was just the one lucky enough to be recognized.”
Bennett said he had no idea that he was receiving this award until he arrived at the ceremony.
“They were very cryptic. I was notified that there was an event I had to go to that I was getting some kind of award but that was it,” said Bennett, 59, who lives with his wife Cindy Bennett in Sunderland.
The GreenGov Presidential Awards honor outstanding achievement in the pursuit of President Barack Obama’s federal sustainability goals. They recognize federal, civilian and military personnel, agencies and teams that have gone above and beyond to carry out innovative sustainability projects within the government.
“I’m proud to see the exceptional work of one of our agency’s leading climate adaptation experts recognized publicly by the White House,” Fish and Wildlife Director Dan Ashe said Thursday.
As regional scientist, Bennett guides efforts on topics such as strategic habitat conservation, climate change and national efforts on amphibian and reptile conservation, ocean science initiatives and science coordination across programs and agencies in 13 states.
“The work is challenging but very rewarding,” Bennett said. “Hopefully it makes a difference for the future.”
When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast on Oct. 29, 2012, the devastation it left served as a wake-up call that traditional storm protection strategies are no match for the “super storms” of the last decade, and that innovative and sustainable changes were needed.
Bennett led the Department of the Interior response team, overseeing a $167 million project to help revitalize the Northeast and to protect it from future storms and sea-level rise.
During this time, he and his team launched over 100 sustainability-focused projects, and developed performance measurements for climate resilience.
Rather than rebuilding or implementing traditional flood control structures and strategies, like rebuilding seawalls and dams, Bennett and his team focused on restoring natural ecosystems that benefit both wildlife and human communities by focusing on marsh restoration, natural shore protection and aquatic connectivity.
Bennett said these strategies are highly successful at controlling coastal flooding and erosion and protecting important wildlife habitat.
“Natural systems give multiple benefits, while just putting in a bulkhead or a sea wall serves only one function,” Bennett said.
Some of the projects included things such as restoring a natural salt marsh by closing storm related breaches, lowering water levels and doing aerial seeding.
This not only greatly improves flood control and serves as a filter for removal of sediments and pollution from the water, but also protects the salt marsh, environments known as highly productive ecosystems, serving as nursery grounds for many species of birds and fish, and habitat for other animals.
Bennett said the team addressed upstream flooding, by removing dams and improving water flow which not only “gives water some place to go” during storm events but also benefits aquatic habitats, connectivity, and improves fish passage.
“Linking ecological benefits with social and economic benefits makes us unique,” Bennett said.
To document their work and provide information for other agencies, Bennett’s team also created tools or “metrics” to measure the environmental, and socioeconomic success of the restoration projects.
Bennett said that after three years of work he and his team are now completing those projects and continuing to assess and measure what worked, and how well it worked. He added that he believes that the restorations will be very successful.
“These metrics are changing the way the entire federal government prepares for and responds to severe weather events,” Ash said.
Preparing for climate resiliency is clearly a pressing need.
According to the US Department of Commerce, Hurricane Sandy caused $71.4 billion worth of damage in the U.S. This was the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, with Hurricane Katrina topping the list at $108 billion in 2005.
“What we learn can be applied on the landscape in the future. I think we will see a valuable benefit from these tools,” Bennett said.
Bennett has been working for Fish and Wildlife for 27 years and began his career as the chief of the contaminants program at the Annapolis, Maryland, field office in 1989. Since that time he has served as the Northeast Region’s deputy assistant regional director for fisheries, regional director for migratory birds and state programs, and deputy regional director, before being named regional scientist.
“We’re fortunate to have Rick and many other visionary men and women like him working tirelessly at all levels of the service to shape our approach to climate change and other enormous conservation challenges before us,” Ash said.
Other individual recipients of GreenGov awards included: Rosalind A. Grymes, of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, for enhancing NASA’s sustainability efforts by optimizing the use of water, energy and other resources, and Timothy Currie of NASA for transforming its fleet of over 3,000 vehicles by replacing two-thirds of them with those that run on cleaner fuels, including biofuels, compressed natural gas, and electricity. This transition contributed to NASA achieving a 62 percent reduction in petroleum use since 2005.
Government agencies winning GreenGov awards included U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA’s White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the Department of Energy, and the Department of Health and Human Services.
The extent of damage from the historic flooding in Louisiana a week ago continues to grow, with parishes and local authorities reporting 60,642 homes damaged or destroyed, officials said Sunday.
Around 102,000 survivors have registered to receive federal aid, including help with home repairs and cleanup work, since what many are calling the Great Flood of 2016 submerged whole neighborhoods and left at least 13 people dead.
The number of people living in shelters has slowly decreased and was roughly 3,000 people as of Saturday night, though there are many more displaced living in hotels and with relatives, said Mike Steele, spokesman for the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Recent images show areas in the hardest-hit areas south and east of Baton Rouge, such as Livingston and Ascension parishes, where buildings are still surrounded in pools of standing water. Some are calling this the worst U.S. natural disaster since 2012’s superstorm Sandy.
TOMS RIVER — Need help with a flood insurance claim, contractor fraud or problem with the state’s Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program?
The Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group has four workshops scheduled to help people deal with these issues.
The long-term recovery group, an umbrella organization of about 80 nonprofit groups, is sponsoring the workshops in conjunction with Volunteer Lawyers for Justice and the Community Health Law Project.
The workshops will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on these dates: Aug. 17, Ocean County Library, 101 Washington St., Toms River; Aug. 22, St. Andrew Lutheran Church, 936 Baltic Ave., Atlantic City; Little Egg Community Center, 319 W. Calabreese Way, Little Egg Harbor, and Sept. 7, Middletown Library, 55 New Monmouth Road, Middletown.
Residents interested in attending a workshop can call (732) 569-3484.
Here are three issues the workshops will address:
1. Problems with flood insurance payments. The long-term recovery group has been offering free legal advice for Sandy victims who feel that they were underpaid by their flood insurance.
According to FEMA, 6,905 policy holders who reopened their flood claims have been paid more than $93.8 million through July 28.
Officials announced on Monday, June 27, 2016, a new initiative that will place 100 signs around 14 municipalities in Monmouth County that show Hurricane Sandy’s high-water mark. (Alex Napoliello | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com)
MIDDLETOWN — Residents in 14 Monmouth County towns will soon get a stark reminder that Hurricane Sandy’s high-water mark reached 14 feet above sea level.
The message will be plastered on approximately 100 signs placed in prominent locations throughout the Shore towns. The signs are aimed to promote awareness about the impact of severe flooding and will also help lower flood insurance premiums for homeowners in participating towns, officials said.
With the Belford Ferry Terminal as a backdrop, Monmouth County Sheriff Shaun Golden and other local, county and federal officials announced Monday morning the launch of the High Water Mark Initiative.
Golden said the signs are one more way the 23 towns along the Jersey coastline in Monmouth County continue to lead the way in responding to the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy.
“This initiative will constantly reinforce the message that, yes, it can happen again and, yes, we all need to prepare,” Golden said.