ATLANTIC CITY - Hurricane Sandy victims told members of the New Jersey Legislature during a session here Thursday that they have grown weary of "Stronger Than the Storm" ads, and are exhausted by months of futile attempts to seek assistance in repairing and holding on to their storm-ravaged homes.
"I haven't seen one billboard or ad that tells people exactly how they can be stronger than the storm. . . . So many people still don't know where to go for help," said Staci Berger, executive director of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey. Berger testified before the Joint Senate and Assembly Environment Committee about the hundreds of Shore homeowners her agency has been trying to assist since the Oct. 29 storm.
The session was held at the Atlantic City Convention Center so legislators - among them State Sen. James Whelan (D., Atlantic) and Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R., Bergen) - could hear about the status of rebuilding efforts at the Shore.
And that status, nearly 10 months after the horrific storm created $38 billion in damage in New Jersey, is: Not so great.
Officials say thousands of New Jersey residents still have not been able to return to their homes, while thousands more joined the unemployment rolls as some businesses remain shuttered after the storm trounced the state. Others are on the brink of losing their properties to foreclosure because some banks and insurance companies refuse to offer assistance while residents get back on their feet.
Among them is Simone Dannecker, 43, of Union Beach, Monmouth County, who had to stop several times and compose herself as she described in detail the months of frustration and hopelessness that she and her family have experienced.
"We are just a typical, hardworking, blue-collar American family who asks for nothing," said Dannecker, who works as a bank teller 20 hours a week and said she spends at least another 20 hours filling out paperwork for at least seven aid programs that so far she has not qualified for.
Dannecker said a $25,000 insurance settlement paid immediately after the storm was inadequate to take care of major repairs on her flooded home. After paying another $25,000 to fix her house, her bank is refusing to modify her $320,000 mortgage on a property she says is now worth less than $150,000.
"All the other houses that were around us are just gone," Dannecker said, her voice trailing off. "I hope you can understand what all of this is doing to people emotionally."
Lee Ann Newland, 49, of Neptune, testified that a file of applications for help that she has filed - to no avail - weighs in at 10 pounds' worth of paperwork.
Newland said she was distressed to watch the "all is well" message by Gov. Christie and his family during the "Stronger Than the Storm" TV advertising blitz.
"Maybe people and local business owners who have gotten through this thing should be the stars of the ads instead of the governor," said Newland, who said she is struggling to pay the mortgage and taxes on a home to which the family still cannot return.
Christie's office did not respond to a request to send a representative to Thursday's hearing, said Senate Environmental Committee Chairman Bob Smith (D., Somerset).
A spokesman for Christie told the Associated Press that the "Stronger Than the Storm" message is part of an ad campaign geared at dispelling the idea that the New Jersey was not ready for its lucrative Shore tourism season.
Michael Drewniak said the ads "were about tourism - a $38 billion part of our economy, half at the Shore - and hardly a suggestion that everything is OK for everyone."