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.
Nearly one-third of families displaced by the storm either still aren’t home or don’t ever expect to be, according to a new Monmouth University poll.
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.”
Grace could be 30 by the time the Murrays’ SBA loan is paid off.
So even as memories of the storm itself fade and our communities are looking more familiar, one thing is clear: Sandy is not close to finished with us.
NJ program has spent $653 million on home construction
The Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program earned a less than stellar reputation from Sandy victims, who found their home projects were slow to start, or forgotten, or never really finished.
But the program lately has become more effective: Of the 1,959 homes rebuilt through the program, more than 1,600 of those have been completed this year.
RREM has made some tweaks to improve communication with homeowners and to release a larger share of their grant money quickly, according to Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs, which has been running much of the housing recovery.
“Of the more than 8,000 Sandy-impacted homeowners active in the RREM Program, more than 7,650 have signed their grant award and more than 7,600 RREM homeowners have received at least one payment to rebuild, reconstruct or elevate their homes,” she told the Asbury Park Press.
Local officials say that the recovery is only as consistent as the public assistance and flood insurance payouts that support it.
“Union Beach’s recovery process remains as steady as the government funding process, which is providing much of our success in getting our community back on track,” said Bob Burlew, the construction official for the hard-hit Bayshore borough Union Beach. Three years later, the borough estimates it’s only 40 percent recovered from Sandy.
Seaside Heights Administrator Christopher Vaz said his oceanfront borough is still missing about $200 million in ratables that have not yet returned after the storm.
“I think the rebuilding is definitely much slower than we thought it would be,” Vaz said. “There are some people that are finally rebuilding now, and there are others who are still stuck in the mud.”
In the Ortley Beach section of Toms River, which was so badly damaged by Sandy that some residents and members of the media dubbed it the storm’s “ground zero,” the recovery has been frustratingly slow.
Paul Jeffrey, president of the Ortley Beach Voters and Taxpayers Association, said he thinks about 50 percent of the 2,600 homes in Ortley have been repaired. Property values remain much lower than before the storm hit, he said.
The slow pace of repair is evident throughout the Shore: In addition to Union Beach’s 40 percent recovery rate; Brick officials estimate about 50 percent of the 1,470 homes destroyed or substantially damaged by Sandy are in the process of being repaired. Similarly, Stafford officials estimate that about 50 percent of their town has been recovered.
But there have been success stories:
- The last displaced year-round family in Belmar returned home last week.
- In Middletown, 90 percent of the homes on the substantially damaged list have completed repairs.
- Manasquan, where it was estimated three out of every five homes were damaged in the storm, is about 75 percent repaired.
- Hard-hit Tuckerton and Berkeley estimate that at 65 percent of homeowners in their towns have completed repairs.
FEMA promises to do right by flood insurance policyholders
For most homeowners, the key to recovering from Sandy comes down to money.
Rebuilding grants, like RREM, were supposed to complement insurance proceeds — not the other way around.
The Murrays are one of 29,000 policyholders who have asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency to take another look at the flood insurance claims they filed after Sandy. They got $50,000 out of the maximum $250,000, which necessitated the SBA loan.
Homeowners and officials at all levels of government have chastised FEMA’s National Flood Insurance Program for failing to pay enough on flood policies. FEMA finally responded with a system to review Sandy claims that may have been underpaid. That program closed to new applicants two weeks ago.
New Jerseyans received an average of less than $50,000 from their flood insurers, according to FEMA’s own numbers, well below what their counterparts in New York received for Sandy as well as what policyholders in the Gulf Coast received after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.
Low flood insurance payments are the biggest obstacle to the Jersey Shore’s recovery, said Sue Marticek, executive director of the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group.
“They never got the insurance money that was owed to them at the beginning of the storm,” Marticek said. “The grant from the state was never supposed to be your full budget. We are trying to rebuild an entire coastline 6, 8, 10 feet in the air with a budget of $200,000. It’s not possible.”
The money isn’t yet real for most in the claims review, as the turnaround time between being awarded an additional flood payment and actually receiving it has been far longer than the 90 days that were promised.
Unpredictable rules rankle homeowners and builders
Rules that govern new construction need to be predictable, but that didn’t prove to be true when thousands of New Jerseyans were forced to rebuild (and elevate) their homes simultaneously, according to building experts.
“In an ideal world that would be the case, and certainly that’s the intent, but you have several moving parts here,” said Dennis Toft, a member of the law firm Chiesa Shahinian & Giantomasi and an expert in flood prevention regulation. “You’ve got the president of the United States issuing executive orders on global warming, to FEMA adopting new maps, to municipalities layering new rules on top of that.”
Jack Purvis, a Wall architect, said most of what’s in flux is a result of federal and state changes.
“(Today) most of the towns have pretty well finalized what they’ll allow you to do — that came out pretty quick,” said Purvis, a past president of the New Jersey chapter of the American Institute of Architects. “The changes that are occurring now are being the developed by FEMA, and what the state is approving.”
The Coastal A flood designation is the latest example of rules being changed on the fly.
Mayors of coastal towns like Toms River, Berkeley, Lavallette and Brick have rallied to fight Coastal A regulations, which they say threaten to derail recovery for large sections of the waterfront. Homes in the new zone must be built to withstand the impact of breaking waves at 1 1/2 to 3 feet.
“The state by choice decided to implement stricter coastal standards,” Lavallette Mayor Walter G. LaCicero said. “We need to push back against that regulation. It’s an unnecessary burden that’s being place on the homeowner.”
Purvis said the Coastal A designation, which was adopted in September, could make a typical house lifting project $30,000 to $40,000 more expensive.
Essential nonprofits endangered by disappearing cash
Sandy victims found community groups to be more helpful in their recovery than any level of government, the Monmouth poll shows.
Yet these same organizations are in danger of scaling back or closing altogether because their funding has run dry.
James Cooney, CEO of Ocean Mental Health Services, said grant funds for his agency are running short just when residents need its services the most. Since Sandy struck, the agency is seeing increasing numbers of people who have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Cooney said.
A joint study by Rutgers and New York University, released in the summer, showed 27 percent of New Jersey residents whose homes suffered damage are experiencing moderate or severe mental health distress, while 14 percent are suffering PTSD symptoms. Though he insists services will continue, Cooney noted that FEMA funding only lasts three years.
“They should be extended,” Cooney said of grant funds. ” The emotional impact of Hurricane Sandy is going to continue.”
Marticek said the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group has enough funding to survive through June, but with a reduced staff.
“We’re only cutting back because the money is not there, not because the need is not there,” said Marticek, whose group is an umbrella organization of more than 80 nonprofits that has worked to provide money and volunteer labor that helps fill gaps between a homeowners’ resources and the actual cost of rebuilding. “I think that’s going to be the hardest part for the people who work here. They know the need is still there.”
The Monmouth County Long Term Recovery Group held its last general meeting Wednesday. This isn’t a “Mission Accomplished” proclamation, said executive director Eric Nedelkoff, but solely a result of expiring grants.
“There is still hundreds of homeowners here in Monmouth County who need help, and that’s just in the RREM program,” he said. “(Closing is) strictly a matter of the major grants that we received (running out) – those organizations are coming to end also.”
The long-term recovery group will remain active until the end of the year, when it expects to exhaust the last of its unmet needs funds: More than $3 million will have been spent on construction and rental assistance.