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Three Years after Sandy, Many Homeowners Displaced by Storm Remain in Limbo

Protesters camping out near State House say they’re still waiting for full amount of aid they need to complete repairs and rebuilding

Joe Karcz
Joe Karcz of Beach Haven West is still waiting for the bulk of the federal flood insurance money he says he is due to cover Sandy-related damage to his home.

After nearly three years of living in a trailer on the same street in Leonardo where her house was severely damaged by Hurricane Sandy, Kelly Brier doesn’t see why she should have to wait any longer to receive the state and federal funds that would finally allow her to repair her house and get on with her life.

But she said she is still fighting -- with the National Flood Insurance Program, with the provider of her homeowner’s insurance, and with the NJ Department of Community Affairs -- to get the money she needs to rebuild.

“I should not have to fight over how many screws were lost in my door frames, I should not have to fight over subfloors and framing material, and whether or not the Sheetrock should be replaced at four foot and down and whether the electric has to be get pulled out,” Brier told reporters at a Trenton demonstration held two days before the third anniversary of the monster storm.

Brier, 44, was one of a handful of storm victims who planned to camp out until Thursday at the World War II Memorial Park across the street from the State House to remind the public that some Sandy victims still aren’t back in their homes.

Brier, a former real-estate agent who said she now works full-time seeking funding to rebuild, tearfully showed reporters a picture of her daughter Nicole, now 5, meeting Gov. Chris Christie in the aftermath of the storm.

Christie told the girl that he would help her family recover, Brier said. But she said the governor’s promised assistance hasn’t materialized.

“We have been fighting since 2012 to get recovery and we are no closer than we were when we started gutting our house right after the storm,” Brier said. “The government has failed us.”

She said she is about $100,000 short of the money she needs to repair her house, after receiving $167,000 from the National Flood Insurance Program -- which raised its initial payment of $50,000 after Brier appealed. She conceded that the NFIP, a division of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, has not said it won’t pay the full $250,000 of her coverage, but is asking for more proof of value before any further payments.

“If I had $250,000 in flood insurance and my house is substantially damaged, I should get the entire two-fifty,” said Brier, who now lives with her daughter, her father and her stepmother in a house on the same street as her own storm-damaged home.

Like other demonstrators, Brier also blamed New Jersey’s Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program, which she said had “stagnated” the recovery process.

Joe Karcz, a resident of Beach Haven West, across the bay from Long Beach Island, said he, too, had the maximum $250,000 in federal flood insurance when he got 3½ feet of water in his house on Oct. 29, 2012, but so far has received only $60,000, which he said is far short of the cost of rebuilding or elevating the house.

He said he was covered by “at least $100,000” in homeowners’ insurance but received only $13,000 from that policy to replace most of the contents of his house. The only possessions that survived the storm were clothes that were on hangers, he said.

To pay for repairs, Karcz, 52, said he has dipped into his retirement fund and his children’s college savings, and borrowed about $90,000 from relatives. He said he expects to have only about $75,000 left in his pension fund when the process is done.

Wearing an orange T-shirt saying “Governor Christie, Finish the Job,” Karcz said he has moved six times since the storm, and that his sons, ages 9 and 12 at the time, “lost their childhood” as a result of the upheaval.

According to the coordinator of the Trenton protest, the New Jersey Organizing Project, only 25 percent of the families in the states’ biggest homeowner recovery program, RREM, are permanently back in their homes after the storm, while the state has paid out only about $600 million of $1.1 billion in federal funds allocated for storm victims through that program.

There were calls at the Trenton event for action to stop financial institutions foreclosing on homeowners displaced by Sandy; to hold accountable contractors who have taken advantage of people rebuilding their homes, and to do more to build coastal defenses against future storms.

Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman in the Sandy Recovery Division of the DCA, acknowledged that some people are still not back in their storm-damaged homes, and that state officials are also “frustrated.”

“We want to assure families affected by the storm that our singular focus at DCA is to get them back into their homes, and that we will work in good faith with any homeowner who is committed to the rebuilding of their storm-damaged home,” she said.

Most of the approximately 8,000 homeowners who are in the RREM program have accepted their grants, Ryan said. More than 7,600 have received at least one payment to rebuild, repair or elevate their homes, and about 2,000 of those have completed construction. Some $659 million has been paid out to homeowners so far, about half the projected total, Ryan said.

She said the department has held 28 information sessions in hard-hit communities such as Union Beach, Little Egg Harbor and Toms River and about 1,600 RREM homeowners have attended to check on the status of their applications.

In an effort to crack down on unscrupulous contractors, Ryan said, the DCA is working with the state Division of Consumer Affairs and the state Attorney General’s Office, both of which are advising homeowners on how to avoid becoming victims of fraud.

At the federal level, FEMA is reviewing the cases of about 17,000 Sandy victims – mostly in New Jersey and New York – who say they have been underpaid or defrauded, said Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for the agency.

Since beginning its review in the spring, FEMA has determined that about three-fifths of the cases under review have been eligible for an additional payment, and that those payments average about $15,000, Lemaitre said.

He said the agency is working “around the clock” to complete the reviews after closing its window for applications on Oct. 15. He declined to say when the reviews might be concluded.

Lemaitre said that many of the 142,000 homeowners who applied to FEMA for post-Sandy assistance “are happy with their payments” but that for those that remain, FEMA is committed to providing every Sandy victim with “every dollar that they are owed.”

In a statement issued yesterday, FEMA said it has paid out a total of $6.8 billion for Sandy recovery in New Jersey, about half of which has been to pay claims by holders of flood-insurance policies.

At the Trenton event, organizer Amanda Devecka-Rinear called on participants to make three-minute speeches to describe what they had lost in the storm and then to write their thoughts on luggage tags that they would attach to two wooden panels in the war memorial plaza.

Nancy Wirtz, who has been living in an apartment in Bayville after being forced to move out of her home at Forked River, listed her losses as home, belongings, security, peace, safety, and hope.

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