Sandy’s Gone But Red Tape Still Snarls Rebuilding Efforts

Government agencies, insurers and banks among those targeted for blame in state legislative hearings

In their scoring, state officials gave Belmar less credit for its disaster history than inland areas like Morristown, Mahwah, and North Caldwell.
It’s been nearly a year since Hurricane Sandy pummeled New Jersey. Yet many residents still do not have the answers they need to rebuild their homes—from mortgage companies, from insurers, from the federal government, and from others associated with restoration efforts.

Why? Who’s to blame? Finding answers to those questions is proving difficult, given the multitude of agencies, including at the state level, involved in the effort. One private entity, in particular, has been the target of criticism in recent weeks.

Residents’ frustrations poured out in emotional speeches yesterday, with witnesses fighting back to tears, as they appeared before two legislative committees during a third public hearing held in the Statehouse Annex on efforts to rebuild after the storm.

Lawmakers shared in the frustration. Legislators were miffed that two prominent Christie administration officials they had invited to the joint hearing — Marc Fenzer, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, and Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable — failed to show, making it the second time that has happened during legislative hearings on the issue.

The two officials are deeply involved in state efforts to rebuild after the storm, and lawmakers hoped they might bring some clarity and transparency to the rebuilding efforts, an expressed aim of many of who attended the hearing.

“Both declined, which I find very disturbing,’’ said Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex), chairman of the Senate Environment and Energy Committee. Other members of the panel expressed similar thoughts, as did members of the Assembly Environment Committee.

“No one knows anything,’’ added Sen. James Whelan (D-Atlantic). “ No one knows what the rules are. There are tens of thousands of people banging their heads against the wall.’’

Many homeowners and business people echoed those concerns at the hearing.

“Nobody showed any kind of compassion, said Kathleen Fisher, whose home in Ventnor was flooded during the storm. She told the committee of her continuing inability to get information from the Federal Emergency Management Agency or from an out-of-state private contractor that was hired by the state to administer a $600 million Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Program.

“We get different answers from everyone we spoke with,’’ Fisher told the committee.

Joanne Gwin, a Toms River resident, returned to her home from vacation early in November after the storm to find two cars, her first floor, and all her possessions destroyed by flooding. “Today, we are no closer to moving back to our home than on Nov. 2,’’ she said.

Others criticized mortgage companies for offering divergent views on offering new loans to rebuild homes, accused insurance companies of low-balling policy holders on what their coverage supposedly offered, and expressed frustration over efforts to learn whether they qualified for grants from a private contractor overseeing rebuilding efforts.

The private contractor, Louisiana-based Hammerman & Gainer Inc., was hired by the state in May, but has yet to dispense any grant money, according to Smith. “Not one dollar of the $600 million has been distributed,’’ he said. “It speaks for itself.’’

Others on the committee, however, blamed the federal government, particularly the U.S. Housing and Urban Development.

“It’s very difficult dealing with HUD,’’ argued state Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), who represents a district along the Jersey Shore that was hit especially hard by Sandy. “HUD has slowed this process to a crawl,’’ Beck said, also blaming the agency for problems with restoration efforts along the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.

Staci Berger, executive director of the nonprofit Housing & Community Development Network of New Jersey, disagreed. Berger contended that not all of the problems with restoration efforts should be laid at HUD’s doorstep, arguing that the federal agency has given states much latitude in deciding how Sandy recovery funds should be spent.