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Voices of Sandy: Even with flood insurance, these Jersey residents struggle to get back home

Precise numbers are scarce, but two state rebuilding programs show that about 1,375 homeowners of 7,900 who applied for grants are still not back home.

Five years on, 1,300 Hurricane Sandy survivors are still not back in their homes. Here, Tom Flounders walks the empty North Wildwood lot where his home used to be.
Five years on, 1,300 Hurricane Sandy survivors are still not back in their homes. Here, Tom Flounders walks the empty North Wildwood lot where his home used to be.Read moreFrank Kummer

There's no exact number of how many New Jersey homeowners are still trying to make their Sandy-damaged homes livable.  But their ranks are estimated  by the New Jersey Resource Project at up to 2,400. Meet a few survivors who thought they were protected by the National Flood Insurance Program. Some are still waiting to go home, others are still recovering from what it took to get there.

‘Do I get angry?’

Tom Flounders walks out of a shallow bowl of grass and earth where his North Wildwood home once stood. The retired police officer relays how Hurricane Sandy's surge squeezed like a pincer formation from ocean and bay, forcing him to flee.

He never thought that five years later, he still wouldn't be back in the home where he and his late wife raised five children.

"It should be a lot easier for people," says Flounders, who has been living with his daughter.  "It really should be easier."

He tells of never-ending paperwork, bureaucracy, the contractor he says tried to rip him off, attending meeting after meeting, but getting nowhere.

Flounders thought his flood insurance would cover the loss of his home and he'd be back on his feet in no time. He's still waiting.

After his home had to be razed, Flounders assumed he would receive about $182,000 — the appraised value.  For decades, he had paid into the National Flood Insurance Program, which is funded by premiums and backed by the U.S. government.

Instead, Flounders was offered just $62,000. He applied for grants, eventually securing a total of $83,000.

One estimate to rebuild and elevate his house came in at $340,000.  Then a builder who moved from North Carolina to Ocean City in 2015 to work on Sandy claims offered to do it for less.  But when the company hadn't even broken ground after receiving $46,000 and demanding another $45,000, Flounders went to police.

This month, the New Jersey Attorney General's Office filed a civil complaint against the company, accusing it of ripping off Flounders and 17 other Sandy victims.

None of this means Flounders has been made whole.

"Do I get angry? Yes," he says. "But I have to keep a positive attitude."

‘Still in limbo’

Bob Geoghegan's home on a Toms River lagoon was inundated with 40 inches of water.  His slab cracked in half. The house dropped out of level.  An engineer told him to fill the crack with epoxy.

"The appraisers gave me approximately $70,000," Geoghegan says.  "But all the estimates I had to renovate came in at $200,000."

Geoghegan, who works for Ocean County, gutted the home and replaced insulation and drywall on his own to save money.  Later, he was told the home needed to be elevated, meaning much of his work had to be ripped out. The first crew took off without finishing the job.

"It was a complete waste of time and money," he says.

The home was elevated, but without a certificate of occupancy,  Geoghegan can't move in.  He sleeps at his brother's house.

"I'm still in limbo," he says. "This whole thing has been a bureaucratic nightmare. The stress is just incredible."

‘Inept idiots’

Diane Mazzacca calls FEMA "these inept idiots" after insurance adjusters granted her just $44,000 for a 1,400-square-foot home that had to be gutted and elevated. Mazzacca, 57, and her husband have moved back into the Manahawkin home that once held four feet of black floodwater.

Mazzacca estimates they've spent $200,000 out of pocket. Her husband Gary, 63, has been working a lot of overtime to pay for it.  She wonders how they'll be able to retire.

"We took out loans, credit card debt, you name it," Mazzacca says.

The kicker: Her house is eight feet higher now, but she still must pay for flood insurance because the home is in a federal flood zone.

14 moves in 5 years

"I got $60,000 out of a $250,000 policy," said Joe Karcz, 54, whose Beach Haven West home was destroyed by Sandy. "How am I going to build a house with $60,000?"

Karcz took $75,000 from pension savings to rebuild, but his home still isn't finished.  On top of it, he took a tax hit because of an early withdrawal penalty.

"I've moved 14 times in five years," he says.

FEMA demanded he return $12,000 in rental assistance it paid him because the agency couldn't verify one of the leases.  Karcz says that's because the real estate agency went bankrupt.  He's negotiated the figure to $4,000.

"All l know is I've been royally screwed. And now I'm broke."

His case is currently under review by FEMA.

‘It was unbelievable’

Maurice Corkery, a Delaware County resident, could be a post-Sandy success story, though he wouldn't pitch it that way.  Still, he's back in his home.

"It was the worst thing that ever happened to me," Corkery said of the storm damage. "When I drove down there that day, it was unbelievable. It flooded the first floor. The water came up so fast, the siding was lifted up from the bottom.

"My house was a total loss. I could see structural damage. I could see the windows were crooked. My foundation was cracked," Corkery says.  "It was a nightmare to start with."

But an adjuster initially told him the damage "was not that bad."

After a fight to get more money, Corkery bought a modular home and propped it up, 14 feet in the air.

Corkery was eventually able to wrangle $130,000 from flood insurance.  He wasn't eligible for state aid.

"The whole thing, with the purchase of the house, ended up costing $250,000," Corkery said.

So he paid about $120,000 out of pocket.

"I didn't have to do what I did. But … basically I'm happy. I did what I did for my family because they love it here."