Laura Murray was six months pregnant when she and her family packed up to stay with relatives in Cranford before superstorm Sandy made landfall.
Seawater, mud and sand took their place, overwhelming the Highlands home where they’d raised their young son, Colin, and where they were hoping to make more memories with his little sister.
The family got home quicker than most. Their now-2-year-old daughter Grace never stayed in a hotel or apartment. Laura and her husband Tom went straight from the hospital in early February 2013 back to Barberie Avenue, where their home had been mostly rebuilt.
That kind of expediency wasn’t cheap.
“We’re in credit card debt — like everybody else,” Murray said. “We had some savings, we took out a (U.S. Small Business Adminstration) loan, we had some insurance money, but we paid out of pocket for the rest.”
Three years after Sandy, the recovery along the Jersey Shore depends not just on who you ask, but on where you look.
Boardwalks, harbors, highways and infrastructure that were left in shambles after Sandy have been rebuilt.
The local tourism industry has mirrored the Shore’s recovery. Business owners last summer bathed in near-perfect weather and new, family-friendly events that drew visitors on a pace expected to easily surpass 2014.
But the same level of recovery hasn’t materialized for many homeowners.
Even for those who have returned, Sandy’s legacy continues to manifest in frustrating ways, such as endless government bureaucracy or life-altering debt.
Before Sandy, the Murrays had socked away some money toward a new house, one that could better accommodate their growing family. That’s no longer in the plans, she said.
“I’m stuck. My house was underwater before the storm, and then it was literally underwater, and now we owe too much in loans,” she said. “I’m living with four people in a two-bedroom home with one bathroom.”
Mental Health Issues Persist Three Years Into Sandy’s Wake
By Jennifer Peacock
Hope turned to depression turned to anger: Three years out, many Superstorm Sandy survivors are still displaced, and with money and other resources running low, some may never return home.
“They had hope…The initially thought, ‘Hey, we can actually get somewhere and get something done.’ So many people now that are still not back home, sill out of homes. Some people will never go home because there’s no money,” Michele Green-Ferrante, Program Director of Mental Health Association in New Jersey (MHANJ) in Ocean County, said. “People just want normalcy, and it goes back to resiliency of people. It takes so long, still taking long time for people to get home, get projects done. They are losing faith and hope.”
Her colleague, Stephanie Mulfinger, LCSW, Director of Call Center Services MHANJ, said the calls are fewer these days, but the struggles for many persist.
“This is three years that people have been under stress. We try to help them reflect, to see if there has been any progress,” she said. “We ask: Is there anything that has been done? How have you been coping, and what have been the most useful things?”
She continued: “There are still some people with very high need. Oftentimes those are the individuals who were just getting by before storm. They had just enough resources and Sandy just wiped out that safety net. It’s been much harder for them to reintegrate and rebuild. They are really struggling.”
A Rutgers/NYU study the institutions co-led was released in July 2015. According to the study, more than 100,000 residents had damage to their primary residences. The study found 27 percent of those persons had moderate to severe mental health distress, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was found in 14 percent of that population.
The report quotes David Abramson, the study’s lead investigator.
“Recovery, or stalled recovery, is not as dramatic as the storm and the initial response,” Abramson said. “But it is what exacts the greatest toll both financially and psychologically. Sandy may have occurred nearly three years ago, but it has had an enduring impact on those individuals and communities exposed to it.”
Green-Ferrante said that clients immediately after Sandy had a sense of urgency and purpose, that the focus was on filling out the right paperwork, making the appropriate plans to get “back to normal.” But as time passed and plans collapsed, the stresses of losing so much started to weigh on people. Even just the trauma of surviving Sandy poured out of people. One man who has been seemingly doing well, six months after the storm, broke down and cried; he recounted walking through waist-deep water with his child on his shoulder.
“We actually just had a client in here this morning (October 8) who said, ‘I just can’t go on.’ If it wasn’t for getting help, she couldn’t do it,” Green-Ferrante said. “We’re seeing a lot of mental issues with everything they’ve been through.”
The rising anger isn’t necessarily directed at a person, either.
“They’re angry. Angry at the system. Angry in general that they’re not home. What we try to do is offer them emotional support, and guide them to other resources to get them the help they need,” Green-Ferrante said. “We’re helping them and showing them what they’re going to need so we can relieve some of that tension. Their case managers can help guide them to complete the process. We’re just somebody who is going to listen to them, to validate what they’re going through. I think that’s make a big difference.”
While not everyone who suffers from some sort of mental illness will fall into drug or alcohol abuse, people who have used or abused alcohol or drugs in the past are more likely to turn to those things to cope after a major catastrophe, said Dr. Petros Levounis, chair of the Department of Psychiatry, New Jersey Medical School.
“Yes, that’s very interesting. We don’t have as much data about Sandy. We do have some understanding in general about the effects of disaster, including 9/11 or the Oklahoma City bombing, that is consistent with what we see with people coming out of Superstorm Sandy,” Levounis said. “We do have some ideas what has happened. We did not see many cases novel initiation for drug use in Sandy. What we have seen, however, is relapse.”
He continued: “People who have had drug or alcohol problems in the past, and then were sober, something as catastrophic as Superstorm Sandy, their acute stress was so severe that they relapsed. The bottom line is, people were unlikely to start, however, there was likely going to be increased relapse.”
He referenced one study that said people who were already in a good opioid abuse or prescription pill abuse recovery program did extremely well in continuing their care despite disruptions to clinics and pharmacies after Sandy. Those who did have good care had a minimal increase in relapse.
Several groups exist to help with mental health issues, and are focusing on those impacted by Superstorm Sandy.
A weekly support group and workshop called “Grieving with Hope” is for individuals who survived Hurricane Sandy.
The group meets 7:30 to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays at the First Presbyterian Church, 701 Forman Avenue in Point Pleasant Beach.
Topics include ways to cope with grief, how to adjust to new realities, healthy management of anger and positive thinking strategies, among others. The Mental Health Association in Ocean County offers the weekly sessions. No cost to attend. For more information, contact Pat Greeley at 908-872-5096 or email@example.com.
Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group is a nonprofit organization helping homeowners still struggling after Superstorm Sandy. They work with local community partners to fund unmet needs and work toward a safe and secure recovery. They are committed to helping qualified clients restore their homes and rebuild their lives. Contact 732-569-3484 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you filed a flood insurance claim after Superstorm Sandy and you were not satisfied with the amount of money you received from your insurance company, you can request a review of your claim through FEMA.
The Federal Emergency Management Administration just agreed to extend by 30 days the deadline to apply to have a National Flood Insurance claim re-examined.
The Ocean County Long Term Recovery group has volunteers available to help you through the process at a clinic Thursday — today — in Stafford Township.
The assistance is free.
The Ocean County Long Term Recovery group says community advocates will provide one-on-one assistance and lawyers and insurance experts will be present, but they ask that you make an appointment.
The clinic is set for 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. at St. Mary’s of the Pines, 100 Bishop Way, Manahawkin, NJ 08050. Appointments are recommended and can be made by calling 732-569-3484, ext. 24.
Walk-ins are welcome on a first-come first-served basis.
Members of the Ocean County Long Term Recovery group will be on hand at St. Mary’s of the Pines church in Manahawkin today to help Superstorm Sandy victims through the FEMA claims review process.
Community advocates, lawyers and insurance experts will be available to provide one-on-one assistance. Appointments are preferable. To make an appointment, call 732-2569-3484, ext. 24. Walk-ins are welcome on a first-come, first-served basis.
The church is located at 100 Bishop Way in Manahawkin. The clinic will run from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. The assistance is free.
FEMA and the National Flood Insurance Program recently extended the deadline to file for a claims review until mid-October.
Sandy homeowners got some good news from the federal government, one that could mean more money for their bottom line.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development officially announced that it has decided to forgive up to $20,000 in new insurance money per homeowner that overlaps with rebuilding grants.
“HUD’s action to provide relief to the vast majority of those who are concerned about potential duplicative benefits will encourage even more policyholders who may have been initially reluctant to enter the process to do so,” said Roy Wright, FEMA’s deputy associate administrator for insurance and mitigation, in a statement.
As a result of that action, the Federal Emergency Management Agency pushed back the deadline to request a Sandy Claims Review to Oct. 15. Before issuing the last-minute extension, FEMA wanted some assurances that giving homeowners more time to to sign up for a second look at their superstorm Sandy flood insurance claims would actually persuade some skeptics to enroll.
That bar was met when HUD announced the major policy change on how it will treat newly released insurance money and that money’s relationship to rebuilding grants, such as New Jersey’s RREM program.
Homeowners who receive more than $20,000 may still be able to keep it and their Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) grant, provided they can prove that all of it is necessary to their rebuilding or elevation project..
“These families have suffered enough and shouldn’t be further victimized through no fault of their own,” said Harriet Tregoning, HUD’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Community Planning and Development. “We have a larger responsibility to facilitate recovery, not to hinder it just because these families didn’t receive sufficient flood insurance payments.”
Three out of four payments from the claims review are under that $20,000 threshold, according to HUD. If someone receives more than $20,000 through the claims review they will have a chance to demonstrate that the payment is being used to rebuild and shouldn’t be recaptured, the release says.
Lawmakers are asking for the deadline to be pushed back so that more people can learn about and be persuaded to sign up for a review of their Sandy flood insurance claims.
When asked by the Asbury Park Press whether or not HUD’s announcement changes anything, New Jersey Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said “Our position remains the same.”
ASBURY PARK PRESS
Sandy flood claims deadline is today: 5 things to know
The news of HUD’s shift and the deadline’s extension was first broadcast Tuesday night by U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez’s office.
“We still have a lot of work to do before we are fully recovered, but tonight is a good night for those still struggling to rebuild,” Menendez said in a statement.
FEMA signaled in March that it intended to develop a process by which as many as 142,000 homeowners in the Sandy-damaged zone, including up to 74,000 in New Jersey, could have their flood claims looked at again.
FEMA opened the process on May 18 and then later set Sept. 15 as a deadline for opting-in. As the cut-off approached, relatively few policyholders had signed up and advocates and lawmakers at all levels of government had begun pushing FEMA for an extension. However, FEMA gave no public indication that a postponement was forthcoming as the clocked ticked down.
With a mid-September deadline fast approaching, victims of Superstorm Sandy who believe they were underpaid by their flood insurance companies are running out of time to reopen their claims.
After allegations surfaced that engineering reports had been doctored to minimize insurance payouts to Sandy victims, the Federal Emergency Management Agency took the unprecedented step of allowing policyholders to request another review of their claims.
FEMA started sending out letters to about 142,000 policyholders in May. As of Friday, 19,892 had either contacted the Sandy review call center or downloaded an application. Nearly 13,000 had been approved for review, according to FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre. The deadline is next Tuesday.
Lemaitre said FEMA was encouraged by the figures and noted that while there is evidence that fraud and underpayment occurred, there are also many people who either received the maximum benefit allowed or have reported being satisfied with their payout. He also pointed to a Senate Banking Committee report issued in June that found no evidence of “systematic underpayment” by insurers.
But lawmakers and advocates say that homeowners have been reluctant to participate in the process, either wary of getting involved in yet another bureaucratic system or fearful that the review will actually have a negative effect, forcing them to give back money or be subject to additional regulations.
“Nobody wants to do it,” said Tess Tomasi of the Bergen County Long-Term Recovery Committee, which provides resources to help those affected by Sandy. “The No. 1 thing people say is, ‘I’ve had enough. I can’t take it anymore.’”
Concerns about the FEMA-run National Flood Insurance Program, which provides flood insurance through private companies to homeowners, renters and business owners, have been bubbling up for months, but it wasn’t until the beginning of this year that things came to a head. The New York Times and CBS’ “60 Minutes” both published investigations into the engineering report allegations, and in February, investigators from the New York State Attorney General’s Office raided the headquarters of a Long Island engineering firm suspected of fraud.
Then in March, less than two weeks after the “60 Minutes” report aired, FEMA agreed to allow policyholders affected by Sandy to reopen their flood insurance claims.
More than 140,000 flood insurance claims were filed after the storm, including about 2,000 in Bergen County. All policyholders were eligible for the new review, except those who had filed suit or who have already received the maximum benefit permitted under their policy.
Lori and Bill Scheffler, who were living in Montvale at the time of the storm, are among those who have decided to again try their luck with FEMA. The Schefflers’ Jersey Shore home in Beach Haven West was significantly damaged in Sandy, torn off its foundation by the storm surge, said Lori Scheffler, 58.
They received about $60,000 from their flood insurer. They were insured for $250,000, said Lori.
But even as they go through the process, the Schefflers – who have since moved to the Shore permanently — say they are not holding out much hope.
“If we get money from FEMA, that’s a bonus,” said Lori Scheffler. “But we’re not counting on it.”
The mayor of Little Ferry, which was also hard hit by Sandy, said that while some residents were unhappy with their payout, he did not believe many had applied to reopen their claim.
“It’s not an overwhelming majority of people,” said Mayor Mauro Raguseo.
But advocates are urging residents to take advantage of this unique opportunity, arguing that they could be leaving millions of dollars on the table.
Sue Marticek, executive director of the Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group, has been a big proponent of the claims review. Her group has run multiple clinics to assist homeowners, and in 90 percent of the cases she has seen, policyholders appear to be owed money, in some cases a significant amount, she said.
“This is not a gift. This is money that people are owed in a contract,” said Marticek. “They paid money for coverage, and they did not get what’s rightfully owed to them.”
Homeowners have hesitated to get involved for a variety of reasons, according to advocates. Some have worried that any additional insurance payments they receive could affect the funding they already got through the state’s primary rebuilding program, the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation, or RREM, program.
The state program is intended to bridge the gap between the cost of repairing or rebuilding a home, and any funding – including insurance payouts – that a homeowner receives toward that work. So the fear was that if a homeowner got additional flood insurance money, then that state funding would have to be repaid.
If a policyholder in the rebuilding program receives additional flood insurance proceeds, either through the claims review or a legal settlement with FEMA, the state will not try to recoup that money, said a spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs, which administers the building program. The state has informed FEMA that it does not want to be included as a payee on any flood insurance check, and, if either FEMA or a homeowner sends the state a check with additional flood insurance money, it will be returned to the sender, said the spokeswoman, Lisa Ryan.
Another concern has been the impact on a property’s damage assessment. If a homeowner’s damages are considered more than half of what the home is assessed for, the house is classified as “substantially damaged” – a designation that requires homeowners to comply with FEMA flood zones and height requirements when they rebuild and, in many cases, to elevate their houses.
Homeowners worried that a successful appeal of their payout, then, would result in a reclassification of their home.
U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., has said that he received assurance from the head of the National Flood Insurance Program, Roy Wright, that any supplemental payments received through the claims review process would not affect a property’s damage assessment.
Given the initial confusion, New Jersey’s congressional delegation called on FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate last month to extend the deadline to request a review by three months.
“Extending the deadline to Dec. 15 would give Sandy victims the time necessary to understand this complex process and decide whether or not it is in their best interest to participate,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to Fugate.
The deadline remains unchanged, Lemaitre said in an interview last week. He added, “We’re going to remain laser-focused from now until then to make sure those who feel they were underpaid at least register with us.”
Lemaitre said FEMA has been working with media throughout the region, put out public service announcements in both Spanish and English, collaborated with lawmakers to get the word out and participated in town hall meetings with local officials. He noted that critics of the National Flood Insurance Program, including the group Stop FEMA Now, have also been encouraging people to sign up.
FEMA has tried to make the claims process easy to navigate, said Lemaitre. Policyholders will be assigned an adjuster who will stay with them throughout the process, rather than be bounced from person to person. The agency has also created a neutral third-party arbitration system for those who disagree with their claim decision, said Lemaitre.
The agency’s main goal, he said, is to restore trust in the insurance program. Officials want to remove any doubt, he said, in the minds of policyholders that they were paid less than they were due, he said.
“We owe it to our policyholders that they get every dollar they deserve under their policies,” said Lemaitre.
TOMS RIVER — Ninety percent of the superstorm Sandy victims who have sought assistance with reopening their flood insurance claims seem to be owed some money, the head of Ocean County’s Long-Term Recovery Group said Thursday.
“Many are owed substantial amounts of money,” the group’s Executive Director, Sue Marticek, said at the monthly meeting of the long-term recovery group. “It could be that game-changer that determines whether people get home or not.”
Marticek’s group has been holding clinics throughout the state aimed at helping residents decide whether to reopen their flood insurance claim through FEMA. The long-term recovery group has so far reviewed 150 cases, and 90 percent of them appear to be owed money, Marticek said.
She said the group has been using monies from the Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund to pay for homeowners’ flood claims to be reviewed by an insurance expert. The expert’s opinion and notes are then forwarded along to FEMA, she said.
ASBURY PARK PRESS
Sandy victims may be leaving millions on the table
In March, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced that 142,000 Sandy victims would get a second chance at making a flood insurance claim if they felt they had been cheated by their flood insurance provider. About 73,000 of those victims live in New Jersey.
FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said that so far, 17,642 people have contacted FEMA’s call center or downloaded an online application to request a review. Of that number, 12,340 have been deemed eligible for further review, and 11,476 claims have had their eligibility confirmed and have entered the review process.
ASBURY PARK PRESS
NJ delegation to HUD: Don’t pursue Sandy victims’ money
Activists have expressed concern that many Sandy victims who could be eligible for additional payments if they reopened their claims have so far been unwilling to do so.
Some homeowners have expressed concern that any additional proceeds they might receive would be clawed back by the state or the federal government and could potentially cut their awards under the state’s Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program, the largest rebuilding program for homeowners. New Jersey has indicated it will not pursue any new insurance money that overlaps with a RREM grant.
The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has not given a definitive answer about whether it will attempt to claw back any duplicate funds.
The RREM program is funded through federal Community Development Block Grant monies allocated by HUD. The state’s Congressional delegation is hoping that HUD won’t seek reimbursement from homeowners who receive additional insurance proceeds.
Other homeowners fear that accepting more insurance money could push their home into the “substantially damaged” category, forcing them to elevate the structure.
FEMA considers a home substantially damaged if the total cost of repairs exceeds 50 percent of the house’s pre-Sandy market value.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., has said that FEMA officials have assured him that properties will not be moved into the substantially damaged category if homeowners receive more flood insurance proceeds. But many remain skeptical.
ASBURY PARK PRESS
Up in the air: 1,000 days after Sandy
Almost all of the state’s Congressional delegation, along with the long-term recovery group and other Sandy advocates, have asked for FEMA to extend the deadline for reopening a flood claim by two months, to Dec. 15.
“I think there is the opportunity for us to bring in extra tens of millions of dollars into this recovery if we can get this extension,” Marticek said.
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.
Under the newly designed process, policyholders had to request a review, but many people are weary about interacting with FEMA again.
ASBURY PARK PRESS
5 ways new Sandy transparency law changed
By 5 p.m. Wednesday, a couple dozen homeowners had filtered through the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group’s hands-on claims review workshop in Middletown. Several expressed reticence about dusting off all their old Sandy claims paperwork.
“It’s like they (FEMA) are making it up as they go along,” said Brian Tober, of Monmouth Beach, who has reapplied but wanted some advice. “But they’ve been through this with us once already. This should be easy.”
Only about 10,000 Sandy claims — for the whole region — will be reviewed or have already been, according to figures from FEMA through the end of July. FEMA set a deadline of September 15 for policyholders to challenge any Sandy flood claim.
Menendez attributes much of the uncertainty to two questions:
But the Menendez letter says that “hundreds of homeowners have now waited over 110 days and still do not have their results, let alone a check in hand.” FEMA had pledged that the process would take a maximum of 90 days from start to finish.
More than a 1,000 sued their insurers, but many more tried to rebuild with a combination of the insurance money and government grants. For many, they were never able to make up the insurance shortfall.
“We know firsthand that people are short funding for their (reconstruction) projects and this may be the last, best opportunity for them to get funding,” said Sue Marticek, executive director of the recovery group.
If you filed a flood insurance (NFIP) claim after Superstorm Sandy, & you were not satisfied with the amount of money you received from your insurance company you can request a review of your flood insurance claim through FEMA.
If you need help in understanding or navigating the review process you can get FREE assistance from trusted community advocates who are on hand to provide one on one assistance. If you’re interested in learning more about the NFIP review process and what you need to do to opt-in for a review, please call the Long Term Recovery Group.
732-569-3484 ext. 24
We strongly encourage homeowners to ask for a review as there may be additional funds that are rightfully yours.
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.”