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Victims Share Lessons Learned Five Years After Sandy, but Is State Listening?

Many whose lives were upended by superstorm don't think New Jersey is any better prepared now than before storm hit

Hurricane Sandy

When the winds howled and the floodwaters rose as superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, it was unknown at the time just how difficult the recovery would be for many of those who were caught in the storm’s path.

But now, as the five-year anniversary of Sandy’s late-October 2012 landfall nears, a new report and the results of a comprehensive survey of storm victims provide a firsthand look at their challenges, shedding light on their experiences with insurance companies, building contractors, various government recovery programs, and even efforts to “claw back” some of the much-debated Sandy aid.

The survey results indicate more than 50 percent of Sandy victims who were polled said they have faced serious financial hardships, with some getting worse within just the last two years. A full 70 percent of the respondents also reported new physical ailments, mental-health problems, or existing conditions that have worsened. And more than 20 percent of the storm’s survivors are still not back in their homes, according to the report.

The report and the survey were compiled by the New Jersey Resource Project, a group founded by storm survivors in October 2014. The group is also making a series of recommendations as it marks the storm’s five-year anniversary, including calling for more assistance for storm victims, more help from the government to police fraudulent contractors, and an overhaul of the National Flood Insurance Program. Taking note of the recent hurricanes that have ravaged places like Puerto Rico and Texas, the report calls for more preparation work in New Jersey to ensure that the state is ready for future extreme weather and flooding events.

‘Shame on us if we don’t listen’

“Our communities learned these lessons the hard way,” said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, director of the New Jersey Resource Project. “We have solutions to help New Jersey families and make sure no one in any state has to go through what we have. Shame on us if we don’t listen.”

Sandy delivered a direct hit to New Jersey on October 29, 2012, bringing 80 mile-per-hour winds and a massive storm surge to counties at the Shore and to parts of northern New Jersey. In its aftermath, nearly 350,000 homes were damaged or outright destroyed, according to official estimates, and the storm caused more than $35 billion worth of damage after making landfall near Atlantic City.

Gov. Chris Christie, then in his first term in office, won praise and watched his poll numbers soar in the wake of the storm as he led the state’s initial recovery effort. But he’s also faced criticism from victims as the recovery effort has dragged on, especially from those who’ve had to wait years to get back to their storm-damaged homes.

More than 500 storm victims were surveyed for the new report, and 22 percent of those polled said they had yet to return to their homes even though they still intend to. Nearly 80 percent said they either didn’t have enough money to finish rebuilding, or that they had to borrow money from the federal government and credit cards, or were forced to tap personal savings and retirements accounts. Another 56 percent of those surveyed said they’ve had trouble covering their bills and even affording to buy food or gas.

‘I should not have almost lost my home’

The report includes several personal anecdotes, including the story of Belmar resident Krista Sperber, whose home was flooded with five feet of seawater for a full week, ruining the foundation. Despite having maximum flood-insurance coverage, Sperber said her insurance company was initially only willing to cover 10 percent of her damages. It took a lawsuit for her to finally resolve the insurance dispute, and a full three years to return home.

“I did nothing wrong, I had savings and a steady income,” Sperber says in the report. “I should not have almost lost my home due to the failures of the current flood-insurance program.”

The National Flood Insurance Program currently is deep in debt and operating under a temporary extension; in Congress, a debate has been raging for months about how to renew the program.

Several New Jersey lawmakers have been involved in a bipartisan effort to renew the NFIB with a series of reforms that would take into account the personal experiences of Sandy victims. They include placing limits on the profits that private companies can make while underwriting NFIB policies, capping annual premium increases faced by homeowners, and adopting a more preventive approach by incentivizing the use of the latest flood-mapping technologies. But it’s still unclear what will happen next.

Rising cost of flood insurance

The report makes several specific recommendations related to the flood-insurance issue, including urging policymakers to make sure that flood coverage remains affordable, and that mitigation efforts for both homeowners and communities are accessible and affordable. “The rising cost of flood insurance is crucial to address moving forward,” the report said.

Among other recommendations, the report looks at ways states like New Jersey can continue to be prepared to deal with the likelihood that there will be more dangerous storms bringing damaging floodwaters in the era of climate change. The report praises Connecticut and New York for their efforts to pursue mitigation projects — former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg put forward an ambitious storm-protection plan before leaving office in 2013 — but it faults New Jersey for adopting a largely “piecemeal” approach. Nearly 60 percent of those surveyed said they do not believe New Jersey is any better prepared now than it was before Sandy hit.

“New Jersey’s leaders did not bring together the multiple stakeholders needed to create an actionable plan for a sustainable New Jersey that can adapt to and prepare for future sea level rise and extreme weather,” the report said.

It also issues a challenge to the state’s next governor, who will take office early next year. “It is critical that New Jersey’s next governor create a coordinated, statewide approach to extreme weather and rising sea levels,” the report said. “Key constituencies, such as universities, experts, local governments, community members, and groups on the ground, must be part of the effort to evaluate the challenge and name solutions.”

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