Robin Buck remembers how excited he was when he was first approved for a state grant to fix his flooded Long Branch, NJ, home.
“It’s like hitting the lottery!” he said. “I was telling everybody. It was the best thing that ever happened to me, and that’s the truth. They were going to lift my home, and they’re paying me to do so? That is great!”
After spending $43,000 on repairs to make his house livable, he signed his grant paperwork last fall, then disconnected the utilities, handed over his keys, and moved out in early November so his state-appointed contractor could raise his home to protect it from future storms. The whole process, he was told, would take less than 90 days.
After Thanksgiving, as temperatures began to drop, Buck made several phone calls and sent emails to his caseworker to ask who would be responsible for winterizing his home.
“They were like, ‘Oh yeah. We’re going to come right out. I’ll have a guy out there Friday. Don’t worry about nothing,’” he recalled. “So I never paid no mind to it. I thought everything was taken care of.”
But after months of delays, he grew increasingly worried. When he finally went back to check on his house last month, his worst fears had come true. The pipes had burst, and without electricity to run the sump pump, his basement had filled with several feet of water.
Two-and-a-half years after Sandy, the storm seems like ancient history to many people who don’t live near the coast or know someone who was personally affected. But for thousands of displaced residents like Robin Buck, the recovery is still a work in progress. To date, just 10 percent of homeowners in New Jersey’s largest grant program have finished construction and moved back into their homes. They’ve faced a variety of stumbling blocks, from contractor issues to battles with their insurance companies to state delays. And many of those problems continue to this day. State officials note that the pace of recovery has quickened in recent months, but all parties agree that it still has a long way to go.
“If you look at the top of the house — the roofline — you can see it bowed out,” Buck said, giving a tour of his damage a couple of weeks ago. “The house is sinking on the left-hand side. The chimney is actually pulling off the house.”
The scene inside was equally troubling.
“The waterline broke behind these appliances here, and it just destroyed the floor,” he said, pointing to damaged floorboards. “It destroyed my ceiling over top the kitchen. These were all brand-new cabinets. It’s destroying my cabinets.”
In the rear of the house, there was black mold growing around a windowsill. A couch in the living room was overturned and ready for the garbage after becoming sopping wet. And a leak in the roof had started causing damage to the upstairs bedroom.
Buck’s contractor, Seneca-SmartJack (a temporary business partnership between SCMC, LLC — the Seneca Nation’s construction management firm — and SmartJack, a local home-elevation company), no longer works for the state, but state officials say it will be responsible for the damage. Seneca didn’t respond to a voicemail seeking comment, while
SmartJack emailed a statement calling Buck’s situation unfortunate but disavowing responsibility.
Buck says it’s clear that his current problems were not caused by the storm, but by negligence.
“It’s frustrating because I spent the $43,000 that the insurance company gave me between flood insurance and homeowners insurance and fixed everything,” he said. “And to come back now and see that half of the work that was done is destroyed… It’s like, come on! Are we working with amateurs? What is going on? It just keeps getting worse and worse every day.”
Meanwhile, his family will have to leave their rental unit by the middle of next month, only adding to the pressure, as they search for a new place to live.
In Union Beach, Andrea Kassimatis is facing housing problems of her own. She and her family of five continue to live in a 37-foot long trailer, while they wait for their home to be rebuilt. Inside, the sink is full of dishes, there are baby toys on the floor and stuff piled on basically every inch of available space.
“It’s been very hard,” she said. We have three children in here plus myself and my fiancée, so it makes for a very, very tight living quarters.”
[related]Unlike Buck, Kassimatis’s biggest issue is not with her contractor, but with her mortgage. On top of the state Sandy aid she received, she had to take out a loan to finish her new house, but her original broker failed to complete the necessary paperwork. The construction, which would normally take no more than six months to complete, has instead dragged on for over a year, and work has been halted since last September, as she waits for the loan to be approved and the funds to come through.
Standing in the unfinished shell of her new home, she says it still needs about 45 days worth of work, and it has to be completed by the middle of July.
“If we don’t have our certificate of occupancy by then, then the state has the right to take the $150,000 back from us, which we don’t have. We gave it to the builder. It’s already in the house,” she explained. “We’re just very frustrated. We’re overwhelmed, and we’re scared that we’re not going to make the deadline.”
“We’re grateful that we’re together as a family, and we’re grateful that we have our health, but in the meantime, it’s just so frustrating because everybody thinks this whole debacle is over,” she added. “It’s far from over. I expected this town to be brand spanking new and looking shiny as can be by this point. I thought we’d be done talking about this already, and we’re not.”
Down in Seaside Heights, Lambros Vlachakis is happy to finally be back in his home, but to get there, he had to exhaust his retirement account, after his insurance company shortchanged him, saying his damage was due to “soil erosion” rather than flooding.
“The nest is gone, the eggs are gone, and the tree fell down,” he said. “It ate up every bit of our savings.”
He had planned on retiring from his job as a union electrician in December 2012, but Sandy changed all that. He’s one of many residents now considering legal action to recoup more of his losses.
“I’m not going to give up. I’m not going to go away!” he said. “You cannot let them forget you!”
Of the approximately 8,300 storm victims actively participating in RREM — New Jersey’s largest grant program — only about 900 have so far completed the reconstruction process and moved back into their homes, according to the latest state figures.
New Jersey Department of Community Affairs spokeswoman Lisa Ryan noted, however, that things are ramping up.
“With the warmer weather, we are now finishing approximately 40 homes a week in RREM and disbursing over $5 million a week based on our previous four week average,” she said, adding that more than 6,500 residents are now in the construction phase.
But such statistics don’t mean much at the end of the day, said Sue Marticek, who runs the Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group.
“Unfortunately — although that is a milestone that they are in it and have started the process, it really doesn’t matter unless you get them across the finish line,” she said.
She’s worried about the thousands of residents still displaced from their homes, two-and-a-half years after the storm.
“If people have family or friends they can stay with, and they’re not outlaying those additional costs — just paying their normal mortgage, taxes, and flood insurance, that’s one thing,” she said. “But when you add on that you’re also farther away, you have additional rental, additional utility costs, and additional travel expenses, it is a truly hard burden to overcome. So that’s probably why I don’t sleep well every night. I don’t see where people can continue to keep their heads above water if they keep outlaying that kind of money just to tread water until they can get through.”
Last month, to help address this issue, state officials began accepting applications for the Rental Assistance Program (RAP) to allow eligible homeowners in RREM and the LMI Homeowners Rebuilding Program who have signed a grant agreement and are displaced due to the construction, rehabilitation, or elevation of their home to receive up to $825 per month for up to six months of rental assistance.
Marticek says that while this is helpful, not all landlords are willing to participate, and some people — such as those without mortgages and homeowners not in the RREM program — will still fall through the cracks.
Robin Buck says that his biggest challenge at this point is finding an affordable, short-term lease in a coastal county as rents go up in advance of the summer tourist season. His current lease expires on May 15th, and he’s not sure where he and his family will go.