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Hurricane Sandy, five years later: People living in cars and other realities of a slow-moving recovery

Five years later, some are still or recently were living out of their cars, wondering where all that money went. "I've been displaced," said Candace McCray, 33, of Toms River, forced from her rental home due to lingering mold issues from Sandy.

Kathy Culbertson, 51, of Ventnor Heights, stands, almost, in the ground floor of her house, which took in three feet of water during Sandy. Insurance wouldn’t cover, and repairs paid for by a state grant rendered the former in-law suite useless.
Kathy Culbertson, 51, of Ventnor Heights, stands, almost, in the ground floor of her house, which took in three feet of water during Sandy. Insurance wouldn’t cover, and repairs paid for by a state grant rendered the former in-law suite useless.Read moreAMY S. ROSENBERG / Staff

Sandy was the storm that landed in Brigantine, canceled Halloween 2012 in New Jersey, and sunk coastal residents into a nightmare of repetitive paperwork, confounding state bureaucracy, financial insecurity, and stress.

Billions in disaster-relief aid — in grants administered by the state as well as flood insurance payouts — came to the state after the hurricane. But five years later, thousands are still out of their homes. Some are even living in their cars.

So where did all that money go?

Interviews with survivors, advocates, and government officials show the pattern: Settlements from the National Flood Insurance Program were far less than needed, rehabilitating or rebuilding homes was much more expensive than hoped, the bureaucracy was bewildering, unscrupulous contractors took advantage of people's plight — and through it all they had to continue paying mortgages and rent.

By now, the bulk of the 7,600 homeowners who received some of the $2.6 billion in public disaster rebuilding grants so far disbursed by New Jersey are taking elevators or climbing up to repaired and raised houses, state grants cashed, flood insurance premiums reduced. The state says 5,562 of the homeowners are all done; 1,200 are not back home.

For others, like Kathy Culbertson Fisher, 51, of Ventnor, state-authorized repairs were head-scratching, rendering an entire floor of her house useless, dimensions skewed like a Dali painting. She's waiting for final inspections to lower $3,000 flood premiums, and for final payments from the state. "We started laughing a long time ago," she said. "If we don't, we'll go crazy."

"I've been displaced," said Candace McCray, 33, of Toms River, who was forced out of her rental home by mold. At a recent Sandy resource fair — the state's 13th such event — she was filling out affordable-housing applications.

"I've had a storage unit for over two years. Have you seen my car? Duffel bag, clothing. I stay where I can."

Sometimes, the only place she can stay is in that well-loaded car.

Some are so frustrated, they plan to leave, if they ever get their homes ready for market. "The grant is a joke and our mortgage company bought us flood insurance [that was] not FEMA-approved," Patti Varallo, whose tidy Ventnor Heights home is still not finished, wrote on Facebook. Since this year's storms, battle-scarred Sandy groups are commiserating with Houstonites on the social-media site.

"When I close the door here, I am never looking back!" Varallo vows.

But from a policy perspective, not looking back is a luxury, especially as Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands begin the recovery odyssey.

What can be learned from the maddening maze that resulted after nearly $4.2 billion in federal funds was shoehorned into a state administrative model that dates to the Ford administration?

And what about the lessons of a flood insurance program, run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency? That besieged  program initially received $8.6 billion in claims from New Jersey residents, but left many without the resources to rebuild.

As weather disasters increase nationwide, New Jersey's five-year-old storm stands as an example of just how perilous recovery can be — in so many ways.

With all that disaster-relief money, why are people still living out of their cars?

Critics say the state's early missteps hurt the most vulnerable, particularly renters and those already precarious financially.  Legal settlements refocused state aid on Sandy-impacted areas and the needs of low-income people, and addressed bureaucratic snafus — but not until 2014.

"The delay has meant there are people who were basically permanently displaced," said Adam Gordon, of the Cherry Hill-based Fair Share Housing Center, which won the landmark decision against the state.  People can't wait years to make decisions on where their families would end up."

Those still in need now are grasping at diminishing resources.

Janet Gattanella, who works in constituent services for the state's Department of Community Affairs, says her calls are more difficult than ever.

"It's become unmanageable," she said. "They need money to fill gaps that were unforeseen. We don't have any." Contractor fraud, she said, derailed many in their recoveries.

Michelle Griffith, 51, of Toms River, lost her footing after being forced from a Sandy-damaged rental in Queens, a small home seconds from the beach in Rockaway. She sought lower rents in Monmouth County, but a series of health setbacks and substandard apartments left the former executive secretary homeless for about three years, also living out of her car for a time.

"I went into a depression," she said, her constant companion Prince Milo, a 15-year-old Yorkshire terrier.  Her current lease is up in December. "I've been on waiting lists since 2014. The prices here are now like New York."

After several hours at the recent housing fair at Christ Episcopal Church in Toms River, she said she had good information, but "not much hope" for assistance in the near future for a long-term solution. "Still hopefully looking," she said.

What does the state say about its role in all this?

It was the state's job to disburse the billions that flowed in from the federal government to those Sandy homeowners who needed help beyond their means and insurance. The state initially turned to a Louisiana company, Hammerman & Gainer Inc., awarding a $68 million contract that was terminated in early 2014 amid massive complaints about endless hoops, lost paperwork, and delays.

Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs, says New Jersey "compares favorably" to New York in the pace of spending. "Recovering from a storm as destructive as Superstorm Sandy … takes time," she wrote in an emailed response to questions. "Congress recognized this when it gave New Jersey and other states battered by Sandy until 2022 to spend [Community Development Block Grant] Disaster Recovery funds."

In the state's signature — and stress-inducing — Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation, and Mitigation (RREM) program, nearly $925 million, about 92 percent, of allocated grants have been disbursed, she says. In addition to the 5,562 completed reconstructions, 840 homes are occupied while repairs are finished. Of the rest, she says about 900 of the 1,200 "anticipate completing construction by early 2018."

What about people who had insurance through the National Flood Insurance Program? 

Between the bureaucracy, the fly-by-night contractors, changing regulations, and, ultimately, much lower payouts than they expected, numerous survivors who thought their flood insurance would protect them are suffering from what they call Sandy Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The recovery process has left many of them emotionally drained, with pensions tapped and savings gone. They have lost money, peace of mind, sleep, and, at least in one case, a marriage.

Some say they are better off now than before the storm — proud owners of flood-resistant homes that literally stand tall in their communities. But getting to that point was not something many would want to repeat.

Amanda Devecke-Rinear, an author of the recent report by the New Jersey Resource Project, estimates up to 2,400 homeowners could still be out of their houses — despite having flood insurance.

So what was the hang-up with FEMA’s role in flood insurance?

FEMA administers the flood insurance program, though policies are sold through private companies. Initially, the federal agency received $8.6 billion in Sandy claims from New Jersey policyholders. But so many complained about getting lowball payments that FEMA notified all 144,400 flood insurance claimants that it would open a review for anyone who wanted it.

As of Monday, FEMA had settled 17,212 of those claims.  About 84 percent of homeowners received additional payments. About 16 percent received none.

In all, FEMA has proposed $240 million in additional payouts to New Jersey policyholders.  But others are still waiting — and frustrated.

Kevin Sullivan, a FEMA spokesman, said the review was "an extraordinary effort" and voluntarily initiated by the agency.  It even created a "third party" neutral review by those who weren't satisfied.

"We recognize this process has taken a significant amount of time – it's taken too long — and we are working diligently to resolve these claims," Sullivan said, noting that one of the delays has been in getting policyholders to supply all missing information.

Is money still available to residents?

The nearly $2.6 billion that has been disbursed comes out of $4.2 billion in Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds sent to New Jersey by Congress. A separate category for National Disaster Recovery Funds shows just $45,000 disbursed out of $15 million allocated for longer-term resiliency projects.

The gap on the state's transparency page between allocated and disbursed funds reflects long-term projects dealing with infrastructure, energy resiliency, flood mitigation, and multifamily affordable housing developments, said Ryan, the DCA spokeswoman.

Ryan defended the building pace of affordable multifamily rental projects: In four rounds of funding, the state has allocated over $650 million to 76 such projects, she said. There are 45 completed projects that created 3,381 mostly low-to-moderate rental units. Of the rest, 21 projects are under construction, she said, with 2,667 rental units in the pipeline.

She added that 2,326 homeowners who needed help with rentals during construction received a total of $27.6 million, first through a federal Social Services block grant, and in 2017, from Community Development grants worth $12.5 million.

Jim Rutala, a grants consultant in Atlantic County, said some funding programs require municipalities to apply. He recently submitted a request for money to elevate flood-prone houses from FEMA's annual Flood Mitigation Program on behalf of 47 families identified by Atlantic City, Ventnor, and Brigantine.

"What we found is that there are a lot of buckets of money that are still funding improvements that are needed from Sandy," he said.

Gordon, of Fair Share Housing, says money was properly targeted only after the successful legal action. "Initially, the state put about $170 million into that fund that overwhelmingly went to areas not impacted by the storm," he said. "Part of the fair housing settlement set up benchmarks:  52 percent has to go to Monmouth and Ocean; 20 percent to Atlantic. The vast majority of that money since then went to those three counties.

"If they had done the right thing from the start, more of that money would be spent."

Why should anyone care if a bunch of rich Shore homeowners got stuck with big bills?

First off, most of the homeowners in the flood insurance program are not rich.  Some of the hardest-hit homes during Sandy were modest structures in working-class communities along back bays and other tidal areas — not oceanfront.

"These are not wealthy people," says John Spodofora, mayor of Stafford Township, where the majority of waterfront homes  were severely damaged. "I am dealing with abandoned homes. I'm dealing with blight."

Stafford includes Manahawkin and is a gateway to wealthier oceanfront communities. Spodofora says only 65 percent of his community has been rebuilt.

Many people living in less well-to-do areas did not even have flood insurance.

Since the storm, many Sandy survivors have had to rent or live with relatives.  They say they've still had to pay mortgages on their uninhabitable properties — those who didn't get rental assistance had that expense, too.

U.S. Rep Tom MacArthur, who represents parts of Ocean County, says "it's atrocious" homeowners are still fighting for money. "These people have been suffering for five years."

Many Sandy survivors say they simply feel forgotten.

What is most infuriating to survivors?


Priscilla Robinson of the New Jersey Organizing Project, an advocacy group organized by Sandy survivors, said some people with little means are now facing what the group calls "clawbacks" — requests from the government to refund money it feels they were not due.

The New Jersey Resource Project said in a report released this month that about 20 percent of people who received up to $150,000 from the state's RREM grants were told they owe the state an average of $30,000. Nearly 90 percent said they were unable to pay back the money.

Ryan, the state spokeswoman, said the giveback is required by the terms of the federal funding. So far, 443 homeowners who completed final grant reconciliation were required to pay back a total of $8.1 million. Of these, 237 have made at least a partial payment; about $3.19 million has been recovered.

"DCA is attempting to recover ONLY funds that were not required to rebuild the home, duplicated another benefit that was received, or were used for ineligible expenses," she wrote in an email.

Could anyone have done better than Gov. Christie?

Christie's presidential ambitions were in high gear when Sandy struck. These crosswinds fueled a narrative for the governor that included a bipartisan embrace of President Obama. But they also may have led to curious allocations of money, such as  for an $18 million senior center to a favored developer in Belleville, Essex County, which suffered little Sandy impact. Christie hired two controversial contracting companies with ties to the Republican Governors Association, a launchpad for his presidential run. One, overseeing RREM, the state's main recovery grant program, was ultimately let go.

"He just used Sandy as a prop," said Jim Keady, the Monmouth County activist and Sandy victim famously told by Christie during a Sandy second anniversary event in Belmar to "sit down and shut up," after Keady stood up and shouted, "Do your job!"

"And he didn't finish the job," said Keady, now running for Congress in New Jersey's Fourth District.

Rutala, the grant consultant who has secured millions for towns, said the process simply takes time — decades, even. He has been instrumental in resiliency planning for Atlantic City, scoring tens of millions to rebuild damaged sections of the Boardwalk and seawall, restore historic floodgates, and create a city micro-grid impervious to future storms.

He thinks a more centralized recovery would help.

"I'm suggesting redeveloping neighborhoods so that they're resilient, and doing it in a comprehensive way, instead of house by house," he said. "There's just so much waste in that. "

Holly Leight, a former HUD director for New York and New Jersey,  said unrealistic expectations were rampant, often reinforced by officials. "Lack of clarity is, unfortunately, a hallmark of the informational scrum that occurs in the days, weeks, and months following most disasters," she wrote in a recent report. The reality is that a housing recovery program can take as long as 18 months just to be established.

"We must do better than this – 18 months is a laughable gold standard," she wrote.