Ravaged by Ida, they struggle now to pay bills

Thousands seek help in Elizabeth after losing cars, homes and soon paychecks
Credit: (NJ Spotlight News)
Sept. 8, 2021: Francisco Vargas, who lives at the Willow Court apartments in Elizabeth, sits outside the Dunn Sports Center with a bag of donations he received. 

Francisco Vargas has been living in a hotel for the past week after what was Hurricane Ida left water damage in his second-floor apartment in Elizabeth. He doesn’t know when he will be able to return to his two-bedroom unit where he has lived for nearly four years with his family.

This week, Vargas, along with more than 1,000 others, converged at Dunn Sports Center inside Elizabeth High School to get help at a resource fair. There representatives from state and federal agencies distributed clothing, food, school backpacks as well as helped fill out federal aid applications for those who were impacted by Ida. But many said although the event was helpful, they still fear their belongings, including cars, that were lost to rising floodwaters won’t be replaced.

“We are out on the street, living in a hotel; they don’t give us food and we don’t have a car,’’ said Vargas, who is staying at a local Marriott hotel with five other family members, as he sat outside the high school with a black bag filled with donations of clothes. “We are just looking for some help until we can return home.”

Several of the people who went to the sports center on Wednesday said they didn’t have either flood insurance or rental insurance. Many who lost cars said they also didn’t have full coverage on their vehicles, which meant their claims would likely leave them with a net loss.

‘I need my car’

That possibility was worrisome for 68-year-old Reynaldo Semeria, of Lafayette Street, who depended on his 2005 Toyota to take him to his job repairing appliances throughout the state. Semeria, who is battling cancer, said he was returning home from work when his car was quickly overtaken by floodwaters. He said he escaped the vehicle through a window.

“I just want some credit for my car,’’ said Semeria, who called his insurance company, which determined he could not get any funds for his vehicle. “I need my car; that is how I work and make a living.”

Six counties in New Jersey have been included as part of the major disaster declaration due to Hurricane Ida, but many others also hard-hit have been excluded, including Union County where Elizabeth is located.

Credit: (NJ Spotlight News)
Sept. 8, 2021: People wait in line to apply for assistance at the Dunn Sports Center, Elizabeth High School for their losses in Tropical Storm Ida.

Earlier this week, officials from the Office of Emergency Management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency toured Hudson, Essex, Mercer, Union, Burlington, Monmouth and Morris counties.

Once a county is included in a disaster declaration, that designation allows residents and business owners to become eligible for several federal programs, including low-cost loans for property losses not covered by insurance, as well as temporary shelter and funds for home repairs.

Mayor Bollwage talks to Biden

Elizabeth City Mayor Christian Bollwage, in a post on Instagram, said he met with President Joe Biden and Gov. Phil Murphy on Tuesday to discuss why Union County was not included in the disaster declaration. Bollwage said that he was assured that Union County should receive approval in coming days. He urged residents to submit their damages to the state at nj.gov/ida.

But information some residents received Wednesday at the sports center wasn’t encouraging. Ferney Villa, 72, was looking for some funds to replace his 2004 Mazda, but had no luck at the sports center, where he was told that because he only had liability insurance, he would most likely not receive any money for his car. Villa, who has lived in the city for more than 40 years, said he planned to call companies that pay for old cars. Even if he received $500, Villa said it would help.

Credit: (NJ Spotlight News)
Sept. 8, 2021: People gathered in the Dunn Sports Center at Elizabeth High School to apply for aid to help with the losses from Tropical Storm Ida.

Freddy Jaramillo, who arrived at the high school late in the afternoon about an hour before the event was scheduled to end, looked at the long line and wondered whether he should get on it. Jaramillo, 65, lives on Sayre Street and said that on the night the storm arrived the nearby Elizabeth River sent several inches of water toward his backyard and into his home. He said he lost a refrigerator.

Jaramillo’s house insurance does not cover flood damage, he said.

“All that I had in the yard, I lost,’’ he said, noting he had kitchen appliances in the yard, where he cooks in the summer.

‘All I want is some help’

Jaramillo said he has lived in his house for 16 years and never experienced such flooding, which is why he never thought of getting flood insurance. Jaramillo works for a cleaning company that does work at a local nursing home, but said due to COVID-19, he has not been working these last few weeks.

“All I want is some help, and only want to recover what I lost,’’ he said.

Joanna Muños said she lost everything in her first-floor apartment at 600 Willow Court, where the Elizabeth River sent about 8 feet to 10 feet of water into several apartments, killing four people in the complex. She said when the water had reached her waist, she headed upstairs to the third floor of the building with her three children, including a 5-year-old whom she carried.

“We went upstairs and that is where we spent the night in a neighbor’s apartment,’’ she said. “I heard people screaming, and the firefighters trying to help.”

She said that she has been staying at a hotel, which she was told she had to leave next week.

Muños said on Wednesday that she filled out several applications for help from FEMA and rental assistance. She said now she waits.

“They told us our apartments won’t be ready for at least a year, so where am I going to go with my three children?’’ she asked. “I’m so sad, and so desperate, and it’s frustrating not to get answers right away.”

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