When the eye of Sandy made landfall just north of Atlantic City five years ago this Sunday, Fran Baronowitz’s neighborhood — which was a few miles away in Ventnor — suddenly turned into a lake. Water bubbled up through the air ducts of her home, and the floors buckled so much that she had trouble opening the front door when she returned.
Baronowitz spent state grant money to fix and elevate her home six feet off the ground to protect it from future storms. After completing her repairs, she was finally ready to move on with her life. But then, in August of last year, she received a letter from the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. An audit had found she’d gotten too much money and had unknowingly used some of it to make small upgrades that weren’t allowed. Now, the state was asking her to return more than $35,000. She was stunned.
“It’s just unbelievable! I had no idea that this was going to happen,” she said. “I’ve got two little pensions and Social Security, but it’s not a lot of money. I can’t give anybody $35,000!”
Lots of people are in her situation. Altogether, the state and federal governments have asked around one thousand homeowners in New Jersey to return more than $5 million in aid.
This weekend marks five years since Sandy came ashore, severely damaging or destroying some 40,000 homes and leaving the state with a bill for tens of billions of dollars in repairs. And even now, it continues to exact a devastating financial toll on many residents of the coast. With Gov. Chris Christie’s term coming to an end, storm survivors, advocates, and environmentalists say it’s important that their concerns remain in the spotlight, and they’re hoping the state’s next governor makes a number of improvements to speed up recovery efforts already underway and make the state safer in the future. Despite all the time that’s passed since the storm, some people still haven’t been able to return home.
Angel Eguaras’ house — also in Ventnor — remains uninhabitable due to shoddy workmanship by his state-approved contractor, who has since stopped returning his calls. Eguaras is 80 years old. His wife has been sick, and they’ve had to move five times, from one rental to another. He says it sometimes seems like he’s been forgotten.
“I feel that I just fell through the cracks,” he said. “Out of sight, out of mind. We are weathering the storm, and hopefully we will emerge victorious from the struggle.”
State officials say that of the 7,600 residents receiving rebuilding grants, more than 1,000 remain displaced, but most of them expect to finish construction by early next year.
And they say that federal law requires them to ask homeowners to return portions of their funding in instances where it's determined there's a duplication of benefits or that the disbursements exceed the homeowners's needs.
"Ultimately, if funds do need to be recovered, homeowners are given three years to pay back any funding owed to the program, during which time there are no fixed monthly payments or accrual of interest, and DCA works with each homeowner to provide ongoing customer service to answer any relevant questions regarding the repayment process," NJ Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said in a statement, adding that just six percent of participants in the state's grant program have been asked to give money back.
Storm victim advocates like Amanda Devecka-Rinear with the New Jersey Organizing Project are calling for a number of changes, including making it easier for people to file claims against fraudulent contractors and a better appeals process for homeowners asked to pay the government back.
“All those folks need a hand getting across the finish line,” she said. “Could we as a state under new leadership say, 'That's it. Everyone is home by the six-year anniversary,' and really drive hard to get there? Certainly we deserve that, right? And the question is, will our new governor take that up and take that on?”
The Christie administration points to a number of signs of progress in its handling of the Sandy recovery. So far it’s spent more than $2-and-a-half billion of federal money on grants to help homeowners rebuild, assist small businesses, and provide rental assistance to displaced people. Nearly $40 million of that was spent on backup generators for hospitals, police, and fire stations to keep the lights on during future storms.
Speaking in Lavallette a few months after the storm, the governor said he’d remain focused on resiliency.
“Part of what we're trying to do in the aftermath of this tragedy is not to just build back to where we were, but to build back better and to use the federal funds that we're getting from the Congress to make sure that we make our infrastructure better here in this state to sustain future attacks by storms if they come,” he said.
New Jersey has paid for buyouts of more than 600 homes in vulnerable areas and has worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to build protective dunes and widen beaches along much of the state’s Atlantic coast. It also won $380 million in a federal design competition to build walls, dikes, and pumps to flood-proof places like Hoboken and towns in the Meadowlands region. And the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey says it’s invested nearly a billion dollars in projects like flood barriers to protect the PATH trains and the Holland Tunnel.
“Some of the public infrastructure has been hardened. There was some investment made in some of the big sewage treatment plants to make them less vulnerable to flooding. Some of the utilities took steps to reduce their exposure to wind and flooding, all of which are absolutely appropriate and good steps to take,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, an environmental group dedicated to protecting the shoreline. But while he’s willing to give credit where credit’s due, he still thinks it’s not enough. If another big storm were to hit tomorrow, he fears we wouldn’t be much better than we were during Sandy.
“I don't see a lot of real difference,” he explained. “Some of the houses are elevated, but I don't see much that really changed from the old way of doing things.”
Dillingham notes the example of Sea Bright, a coastal community in Monmouth County that was devastated when the storm surge pushed sand against a rock wall, essentially creating a ramp that sent waves crashing into the downtown business district. The town’s response has been to fortify that wall, but he says the focus should instead be on moving people out of harm’s way.
“The guiding attitude was ‘we can be stronger than the storm and we can go back and rebuild,’” he said. “And that's exactly what happened. That serves all the traditional New Jersey interests of real estate development and local property taxes. And it's not in the best long-term interests of us as a state or even the communities or the homeowners who are going to be right back where they were, just as vulnerable with no greater protection from the next inevitable storm.”
With sea-level rise and more frequent hurricanes, Dillingham thinks sheltering in place is not an effective strategy. Instead, he says New Jersey’s political leaders, starting with the next governor, will need to make difficult decisions to incorporate the lessons of Sandy and ensure this sort of damage never happens again.