More than six years after superstorm Sandy devastated New Jersey, the greatest natural disaster to hit the state continues to raise questions about everything from longstanding damage to homes to the recovery of the tourism industry.
The Assembly Consumer Affairs Committee on Monday quickly advanced without opposition three bills designed to deal with those Sandy-related issues. A fourth, which also cleared committee, looks forward to future storms and helps ensure the state keeps track of the total costs of preparation, damage, and recovery at all levels of government.
“It is important that the Legislature is focused on the work that we, as a state, still have left to do in order to get to a place of full recovery from Hurricane Sandy,” said Assemblyman John Armato (D-Atlantic), a co-sponsor of three of the measures. “That is why we have introduced a number of bills to continue to fight for our residents and business owners who are still struggling to rebuild their homes and communities.”
The bill most important to Sandy victims is A-4529, which would help those defrauded by contractors during rebuilding. It would require the state Department of Community Affairs to work with the Division of Consumer Affairs to develop standards for determining if fraud or theft by deception has occurred. It also would specify what documents are relevant in that determination. The DCA has set aside some of the $4.2 billion in federal Sandy recovery block-grant funds for this purpose, but it has proven difficult at times for individuals to meet division standards for proving fraud.
“There have been many cases of contractor fraud in Sandy rebuilding,” said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, director of the New Jersey Organizing Project that has been working to help victims recover from the October 2012 superstorm. Sandy damaged some 346,000 homes, mostly along the Shore. Devecka-Rinear noted that the DCA created a program to allow people to readjust grants to make up for “what the contractors stole,” but the state has required a “charging document” that proves fraud. It has been difficult for property owners to obtain this type of document quickly enough to help them finish construction.
“It can be really hard for families to get that charging document in a reasonable amount of time,” Devecka-Rinear explained. “Prosecutors are pursuing cases, but that’s slow moving … It can take people years and lots of effort to meet the standard to get their grant adjusted. This bill could help people more quickly get access to funds if they are stuck. Often people have engineering reports or other expert documents that demonstrate the faulty work of contractors or that work didn’t happen, or damage did happen.”
This change would help those who received grants from the state’s major housing funds: the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation, and Mitigation Program and the Low-to-Moderate Income Homeowners Rebuilding Program. Those programs provided grants to homeowners to cover rebuilding costs up to $150,000 not otherwise funded by insurance, Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance, Small Business Administration loans, or other sources. Together, the RREM and LMI programs have rebuilt some 6,420 Sandy-damaged homes.
Still struggling to recover
“Though a significant amount of time has passed, we fully recognize that far too many of our families and local businesses are still struggling to regain what was lost during the devastating superstorm,” said Assemblyman Vincent Mazzeo (D-Atlantic), another sponsor of the package, which he called “a great step forward in helping our residents rebuild.”
A second bill, A-4530, was prompted by the large number of homes that had water or mold damage due to the storm. It would generally ensure that buyers of such properties receive information about mold and its effects from real estate agents before purchasing a home that has suffered water damage.
The third measure in the package, A-4531, would require the state Division of Travel and Tourism to prepare a report on the recovery of the travel and tourism industry since Sandy. The division releases an annual report and has discussed the storm and its impacts, but this bill seeks a specific accounting of beach tourism and economic impacts, as well as the sustainability of the travel industry and recommendations for additional actions the state might take — including legislation — to strengthen tourism.
Additionally, the committee advanced a measure meant to provide greater accountability to the public and give more information to lawmakers about all the costs of future natural disasters to better inform decisions on mitigation and recovery. A-4536 would require the Department of Community Affairs to track natural disaster-related spending at all levels of government, from school district to the state. For example, school districts and municipalities would have to break out disaster-related spending in the user-friendly budgets they post on their websites and submit to the state.
“This particular piece of legislation is more about what we are going to do for the next natural disaster,” said Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-Middlesex), co-sponsor of the bill.
He said some estimates put the total cost of Sandy at $30 billion. But while New Jersey created the Sandy Recovery Program Dashboard, it only tracks how the state is spending federal Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds. Private insurance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and other sources also helped pay for storm cleanup and rebuilding. Some costs were not reimbursed and were borne by taxpayers.
Zwicker said that while all states suffer natural disasters, few keep track of their true costs. His bill would require the DCA to collect and report “in clear language” all spending related to disasters, including money spent on preparation, mitigation, response, and recovery. Having that information will help lawmakers and officials make better decisions about how to prepare for and minimize the effects of future storms.
“This information is crucial to us as policymakers,” Zwicker said. “This will allow us to then say, ‘Here is what we should be doing moving forward.’ Make no mistake about it, the earth is warming. The number of natural disasters is increasing. New Jersey needs to take the lead at a national level about what we are going to do for our Shore, for our people, for our communities.”
Zwicker’s bill and A-4529 were both referred to the Assembly Appropriations Committee for further action. The other two bills head directly to the floor of the Assembly for a vote by the full house.