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Brigantine shop owner who met Obama still waiting for relief

Volunteers came to Donna Vanzant’s rescue, but she’s gotten back less than half of the $500,000 in damages she says she incurred.

President Barack Obama, left, embraces Donna Vanzant, right, during a tour of a neighborhood effected by superstorm Sandy, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012 in Brigantine, N.J. Vanzant is a owner of North Point Marina, which was damaged by the storm. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama, left, embraces Donna Vanzant, right, during a tour of a neighborhood effected by superstorm Sandy, Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012 in Brigantine, N.J. Vanzant is a owner of North Point Marina, which was damaged by the storm. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)Read moreAP

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BRIGANTINE, N.J. - In her little shop at North Point Marina, Donna Vanzant stocks clam rakes and boat anchors, tide charts and neon fishing lures, and an assortment of bug sprays that probably don't keep this island community's infamous greenhead flies at bay.

But the one thing you'd expect to see in the store, a photo of the most important political figure in the world giving her a heartfelt embrace, is nowhere to be found.

Sure, it was nice to meet President Obama after Superstorm Sandy pummeled the island's north end, she said. He offered words of encouragement, a shoulder to cry on and, most importantly, "immediate assistance" - but after his flotilla of black SUVs sped off toward their choppers on that blustery Halloween afternoon, Vanzant said, it was family, friends and volunteers who helped get the marina running.

"They say people often don't live to see their karma, but I've seen my karma," Vanzant, 54, said from behind the counter yesterday. "I've seen the good in people - folks who helped me out just because they could."

Obama hugging Vanzant is among the iconic images of the worst natural disaster to hit New Jersey in modern history. But six months after Sandy, the Brigantine shop owner remains frustrated while authorities trumpet statistics of good karma.

New Jersey Gov. Christie, who caught GOP flak for accompanying Obama to Brigantine that afternoon, said a little more than $3 billion has been paid to shore residents by insurers for Sandy-related damage since the storm hit, including more than $700 million in Small Business Administration disaster loans and $384 million in Federal Emergency Management Administration grants.

New Jersey's biggest seaside attractions - the boardwalks and beaches in Wildwood, Ocean City and Atlantic City - were unscathed, and those damaged in Monmouth and Ocean counties should be operational by the height of the summer.

"We've made a lot of progress in six months, a lot of progress," Christie said in a statement. "But what I will also tell you is we still have a long way to go."

The biggest positive from Obama's visit to Brigantine and other parts of the Jersey Shore, Vanzant said, is that FEMA leaders were with him and got an immediate view of the damage. About 360,000 homes or apartments were destroyed by the storm in New Jersey; on the 6-mile island that includes Brigantine, the northern end fared much worse than the south.

Vanzant didn't find out that FEMA doesn't cover businesses until Obama left. She's been left haggling over insurance money and applications for SBA loans that have stacked up to about 2 inches. She's gotten back less than half of the $500,000 in damages she says she incurred.

FEMA officials in Washington, D.C., referred all comments to their regional office in New York, but a spokesman there did not return phone calls for comment yesterday.

Earlier this week, Christie declared that Obama had "kept every promise that he made" in the six months after Sandy. When asked specifically about Brigantine and Vanzant, a Christie spokesman said he'd "rather not speak for the president." The White House did not return requests for comment.

Atlantic City bakery owner Frank Formica, chairman of the Atlantic County Board of Freeholders, said recovering from Sandy has been "a difficult learning process."

"There's still a lot of frustration down here," he said. "I haven't recovered a tenth of my business losses."

In Brigantine's north end, many homeowners already were lifting their homes off the ground yesterday, high atop newly driven pilings, in anticipation of what could be Sandy's biggest impact: new FEMA flood maps. Although nothing has been finalized, homes that sit in areas that FEMA officials have deemed "V zones" up and down the coast would have to be lifted or pay far higher flood-insurance premiums under the revised maps' regulations.

Earlier this week, in Long Beach Township, Ocean County, Christie had harsh words for homeowners who objected to the construction of a new dune system that could protect barrier islands but could block homeowners' views. Some elected officials believe that the dunes could shrink the total area of the V zone.

Formica worries that new flood maps could change the face of the shore and force some homeowners out of shore communities altogether.

At Vanzant's marina yesterday, two fishermen were getting ready to launch, the first she's seen head out so far in what's been an unusually cold spring. Boats are her business, and with so many lost in the storm, some ending up blocks away wedged between homes, and others sent straight to the junkyard to be totaled, it's going to be a difficult summer for her, no matter what.

Melissa Danko, of the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey, said initial estimates had thousands of boats lost or damaged from Sandy, but she said it would take a full year to get accurate numbers.

"There are definitely going to be boaters who are not ready to go back on the water," she said.

The iconic photo of Obama hugging a teary-eyed Vanzant back in October was on newspaper covers all over the world, but her only copy of the image sits out of sight among the piles of SBA-loan applications, on the cover of Time Kids magazine; a player from the Little League club she sponsors gave it to her. It's a little painful for her to look at it now, but Vanzant said her grandchildren will get a kick out of it someday.

"At the time, when he visited, I didn't understand how things worked. I thought there would be a quick fix. I think everybody here thought the same thing," she said, as workers were busy detailing boats and working on outboard engines outside. "You think that when the president comes to visit you, there's meaning to it. I try not to dwell on it at this point."

Vanzant said she can only hope for the same thing every other business owner at the shore hopes for: warm, sunny days from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

"We'll make it," she said. "We'll survive."