Joann Squeo leans up against the gray aluminum siding of the Keansburg home she grew up in, the home where she raised her kids, the home she was forced out of by superstorm Sandy and the home that she quite reasonably wondered if it was slipping out of her grasp forever.
“There’s a lot of memories here. … I wouldn’t know where to go,” she said in the backyard of her Forest Avenue home last month.
For the last 20 months, she was never more than a few miles from the house — living in area hotels at first, then back into the unfinished home and now a rental house in another section of Keansburg — but it might as well have been across the country. For the longest time, Squeo, 56, who lives with two adult children and her longtime partner, didn’t know where to turn for help. The Squeos spent every penny they had, and then racked up considerable credit card debt. They were victimized by the well-meaning and the malicious alike and rejected by the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program (RREM) on what the family says was a technicality.
A coalition led by the Monmouth County Long-Term Recovery Group is paying for Squeo’s home to be rebuilt. By the end of the summer, her first floor — which is just wall studs and concrete floors at the moment — will look like a home again, with the electricity and plumbing that nobody she hired seemed to be able to get right.
“Joann didn’t smile from the time I met her until she got notified that this was approved,” said her case manager, Lynn Townsend of Catholic Charities Diocese of Trenton. “Then she was either smiling or crying.
It’s not hyperbole to say that her family might still be living in an unsafe, dilapidated version of this home — rather than a professionally rebuilt one — if not for the assistance of a local, private charities and the grassroots networks they have developed and strengthened since superstorm Sandy.
County-level long-term recovery groups, or LTRGs, were set up with guidance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, after the hurricane. Most LTRGs have close ties to or started off under the umbrella of the local United Way, but some are spinning off as their role continues to expand as time passes.
A total of 47 families have had their homes rebuilt since the storm, at a cost of about $680,000, courtesy of the Monmouth County LTRG. However, more than half of those projects took place this spring. The Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group, has spent or committed to spend nearly $1 million to help 118 families survive some aspect of a housing crisis.
“We’re basically making the difference between somebody recovering and not recovering. We’re the last safety net,” said executive director Sue Marticek. “If they go through FEMA, their insurance company and they still don’t have the money to recover… then many of these people have to make really dramatic life changes.”
How it works
Every Monday morning, the Monmouth County LTRG meets in an old building at Camp Evans in Wall. Twenty-five people, on this particular day, representing various social service and charity organizations work through a host of questions. One client needs help with mold remediation. Who has leads on affordable two-bedroom apartments? Who knows where to go for demolition work?
“We, like other agencies, present cases of homeowners with unmet needs to the long term recovery group and they fund it, or they don’t fund it,” said Chad Carson, director of home rebuilding organizations St. Bernard Project and Sea Bright Rising. “So far they’ve funded 100 percent of our projects that we’ve presented.”
This is how LTRGs work, and it’s how Townsend pitched the Squeo family as worthy recipients.
Squeo came back like so many did after the hurricane to a flooded home. Decks from neighboring homes had detached and came to a rest in front yards. They lost all four cars, and they had no flood insurance.
But they set to doing what they could, like ripping up soggy carpets and throwing out waterlogged furniture. The Squeo family wasn’t alone.
“The whole street, everybody’s insides were outside,” she said.
But they soon found themselves out of their depths. Home rebuilding is not something the Squeos knew much about, and that left them vulnerable to both the incompetence of some volunteer groups and the avarice of post-disaster predators.
In March 2013, a volunteer group bungled the rebuild of her home so severely that a building inspector stopped all work. They had been using wood graded for interior walls on the exterior of the first floor of the home.
Then there were the individual contractors who came in. Squeo, serving as her own general contractor, was paying a few thousands dollars here for electrical work, a few thousand there for somebody else to do the flooring, and so on.
“I never had experience like that,” Squeo said, “so I didn’t really know what to expect. … I didn’t know if this was normal.”
Sheet rock was mounted on the ceiling to patch holes in the roof, she said. When that drywall became bowed and discolored after a rain shower, another piece was affixed beneath it.
Day after day, this was her life. In October, after calling 2-1-1, Squeo met with Townsend for the first time. The family was completely broke, but they had no choice but to hunker down in their uninhabitable home.
“This house was so unsafe,” Townsend recalls, “and they were living it with no heat, there was an extension cord they were running heaters off of.”
Catholic Charities, at Townsend’s behest, broke protocol and moved the family that night into a hotel room on the charity’s dime.
Public and private assistance
New Jersey will continue to be the primary provider of relief, according to a statement from the state’s Department of Community Affairs. As many of the original programs close to new applicants, the state plans to introduce new efforts to assist Sandy-affected families, like a voucher program for low-income renters and replenishing the depleted stock of multi-family housing.
“We anticipate continuing to assist people well into 2017 and very likely beyond,” DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said.
The state anticipates being able to award 6,400 more RREM grants, which can be worth up to $150,000 to qualified homeowners, through a third round of federal disaster funding. That would clear the waitlist of the state’s primary rebuilding program, although New Jersey agreed to take another look at all rejected and previously unreviewed RREM applications under pressure from housing and minority advocates.
Ryan said the state continues to be plugged in to what long-term recovery groups and charitable organizations are doing and how public and private can interact toward the same goal.
Grants from the state — the average RREM award in 2013 was $106,000 — combined with proceeds from flood insurance, if anything, might not cover the cost of rebuilding a home.
“We’re at a weird place in our recovery where the need is still being identified,” Carson, from Sea Bright Rising, said. “RREM has been a major stumbling block for people’s recovery, in terms of predictability. Now that people are coming off wait lists, the need is coming to the surface more. We’re finding out who’s going to need what.”
However, the ambiguity over “how much” is giving away to the ambiguity over “how” as the DCA announced earlier this month that RREM grantee will be choosing their own state-approved general contractor.
At the Bayshore Resource Center in Highlands, the office serves as a gathering place for different charities and agencies to meet clients for financial counseling or for help navigating the grant application process. Ben Haygood, director of the center, has crafted a flow chart of government programs and private assistance sources that looks like it belongs on a cork board on a television crime drama
Haygood said the elusive breakthrough for homeowner aid appears close, but then again maybe not.
“I’ve been saying that (it’s about to improve) for like three or four months now, but I don’t think it’s getting any better,” Haygood said..
Daniel Aldrich, an associate professor at Purdue University and expert on disaster recovery, notes that disasters of Sandy’s scale take years to rebuild from.
“The simplest definition of a real recovery is the belief that things are back to normal,” Aldrich said, “that the residents of a community don’t see there being disruptions in their daily life.”
Though Squeo and her family have many years of rebuilding their finances ahead, they look like they’re getting past their biggest daily disruption — when can they move home? Many aren’t quite there yet.
“These people went to bed expecting a bad storm and woke up with their lives turned upside down,” Marticek said. “It’s 20 months later and some of them don’t have a light at the end of the tunnel yet.”
Russ Zimmer: 732-557-5748, email@example.com
If you need help
Monmouth County Long-Term Recovery Group, 848-206-2554
Ocean County Long-Term Recovery Group, 732-569-3484