‘The Long Road Home’ Report

New Jersey Organizing Project Releases Report Five Years After Sandy

Survey of Sandy-Affected Families Suggests State Has Fallen Short
Oct 25, 2017
File Photo by: Ryan Morrill

The final days of October will see a lot of reflecting around memories of the worst storm to hit our area in modern history. There are always some licking of wounds, tough times remembered and celebration of the human spirit. As the fifth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy is upon us, one group is continuing the conversation about full recovery and future resilience.

Some may be surprised at the findings of a report by the New Jersey Organizing Project called “The Long Road Home,” released this week, about how affected areas of the Jersey Shore are recovering. The purpose of the report was not only to determine where we are five years later, but also to understand, despite the massive recovery effort, where the state has fallen short. It is also intended to serve as a reminder for regions that were affected by this season’s devastating storms in the Southeast U.S. and Caribbean.

New Jersey Organizing Project was established two years after Sandy, with a campaign called “Finish the Job.” That campaign’s goal was to push Trenton to literally finish the job of helping residents of the Jersey Shore and South Jersey to rebuild their lives after Sandy.

The federal government allocated $50 billon to the region in Sandy recovery in 2013. One year later, much of New Jersey’s earmarks were still tied up in Trenton. NJOP’s founder, Amanda Devecka-Rinear, whose family lost a home on Cedar Bonnet Island, found that less than 10 percent of participants in the $1.1 billion HUD program known as Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation, or RREM, were back in their homes.

The bipartisan group has made considerable strides in building a network, changing institutions, and holding corporations and elected officials accountable in the last three years. Most notable is the legislation it has seen passed and transparency in Trenton to offer relief for those affected. Recently, NJOP has been working on campaigns for New Jersey to think forward to the next storm, building smarter and changing policies.

NJOP partnered with Rutgers University researchers, Volunteer Lawyers for Justice, and Stockton University’s Office of Service-Learning to survey 551 households in the Sandy-affected areas of Ventnor, Atlantic City and the Ortley Beach section of Toms River, as well as Little Egg Harbor and the Beach Haven West section of Stafford Township. The surveys were conducted in their homes, online and by phone. In the end, the responses of 492 households were deemed usable. Figuring in the family sizes, it represents several thousand people.

“The people who took the survey wanted to talk about how hard it has been. They wanted to connect and talk about the physical and mental stress issues they’ve had since the storm,” said Devecka-Rinear.

The things that stand out in the findings were the fact that 22 percent of survey respondents said they were still not back in their homes. A full 77 percent did not have enough money to finish rebuilding or had to borrow from retirement, SBA loans and creditors. And sadly, 70 percent claim they have developed some physical or mental health problem or worsening of a pre-existing problem since Sandy.

Ninety-eight percent of those surveyed had experienced flooding, but only 78 percent had flood insurance. The stories of problems with inefficient state programs and crooked contractors are still going on. And the tales of those who had flood insurance that hasn’t full covered the cost of rebuilding is all too familiar.

“I think what I was most struck by was the number of people who have had a hard time paying their bills – putting gas in the tank and buying food. And the health issues that they’re dealing with,” admitted Devecka-Rinear.

The report draws a stark picture for Sandy victims overall. The storm affected the livelihood of 45 percent. Thirty-two percent fell behind on their mortgage; 40 percent have seen their income drop. In many cases, the multiple programs available to victims worked counter to one another.

There are other issues that families still deal with that are less obvious, but no less difficult. Nearly 40 percent of the families reported that their children’s performance in schools has fallen as a result of difficulties. Nineteen percent reported new substance dependency in their family.

“As a state, we don’t have much in place normally to help people deal with depression, anxiety and addiction,” Devecka-Rinear explained, “much less with what people had gone through. All of the grants devoted to mental health are gone.

“It’s inspiring to see our community come together to raise money for Houston, Puerto Rico and Florida, but at the same time, someone down the street is having an incredibly hard time. And we’re not coming out to support them because we don’t always know about it,” she added.

Publicizing the report is a way to raise awareness of that.

“Hopefully, people will know they are not alone. And other community members will realize that we’re not finished with the long road home.”

One issue that the report makes very clear is that New Jersey is not better prepared for the coming effects of climate change, sea level rise and future storms. Fifty-seven percent of those surveyed felt we are in no better shape. NJOP’s research found that Connecticut and New York invested in preparation for the next event. Aside from accelerating beach replenishment and raising homes, New Jersey missed opportunities for federal grants to advance infrastructure. A Princeton-based group called Climate Central that conducts scientific research on climate change and informs the public of key findings on climate science, energy and sea level rise, has graded New Jersey with a D-minus on preparation. And even though FEMA has found that every $1 spent on mitigation saves $4 in the long run, New Jersey has invested very little.

The report also makes suggestions that elected officials might look into better preparation for the future. And there are facets of this report that aim to help the victims of the more-recent storms.

“All of the problems with the National Flood Insurance Program that we witnessed in Sandy – nothing has changed to help Harvey or Irma survivors,” Devecka-Rinear reported. “It’s really important that we push legislation to reform that program, so that it works for policy holders, not just the private insurance agencies that administer it.”

joncoen@thesandpaper.net

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