NJOP Leader Urges Citizens to Unite to Push Sandy Recovery Forward

Cedar Bonnet Island Native Builds Grass-Roots Resolve
By VICTORIA FORD | Dec 12, 2014
Photo by: Ryan Morrill Amanda Devecka-Rinear

On the second anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, fourth-generation Cedar Bonnet Island resident Amanda Devecka-Rinear was one of three activists who caused a stir during a televised speech by Gov. Chris Christie in Belmar, demanding he “finish the job” of Sandy recovery and release much-needed funding to those still struggling to rebuild.

The governor’s now-notorious admonition to heckler Jim Keady of Spring Lake, to “sit down and shut up,” was the inspiration for the slogan adopted by Devecka-Rinear’s newly formed New Jersey Organizing Project: “Stand up. Speak out.” NJOP’s “Finish the Job” campaign urges the Christie administration to address reported inefficiencies in the state’s Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program and to disperse the federal grant funds. Of the total $1.1 billion allocated, by mid-November only $226 million had been awarded; of nearly 15,000 homeowners applying for the RREM relief, to date a reported 113 homes have been completed.

The NJOP goal is, by connecting and activating key players, to achieve community solutions that put people first and, ultimately, to effect system-level change. The mission is not limited to any one specific issue. Its political view is independent. Its work is volunteer-powered. What its members share is a firm belief in democracy; in holding the people in power accountable for their words, actions and responsibilities; and the willingness to fight for what they believe in.

Since August, Devecka-Rinear has been gathering a critical mass – researching, conducting interviews with community leaders, gauging interest in the project and frustration levels with the Sandy recovery process, and seeking input on the South Jersey/shore region’s strengths and challenges.

Devecka-Rinear defines community leaders as people who have worked to improve the community or stand up for themselves or their neighbors in some way – everyone from elected officials to clergy to educators and union leaders. “There’s a way in which each of us stands up at different times in our community, and part of my work is to find and connect those people so that we can stand together.”

So far she has completed 50 interviews of a planned 100. Many of those she has already met have put her in touch with other likeminded people. NJOP is currently building a founding committee, so far with a core group of 10, mostly from Ocean and Monmouth counties. That’s a number Devecka-Rinear would like to double, adding more members from farther south in the state.

From the interviewees, Devecka-Rinear has culled many and varied community issues and concerns, including the protection of natural resources and environmental stewardship (Barnegat Bay, clam fisheries, dune structure); infrastructure; jobs, small business and the local economy; climate change; immigrant issues; and the restoration of religious faith in the wake of disaster.

The action in Belmar had multiple objectives, she explained: to send a message to the governor; to put the numbers out there (one poster read, “Gov. Christie, you are sitting on $800 million in Sandy recovery money”); to bring Sandy recovery problems back into public view; and to encourage people who are still struggling.

“Thousands of people feel like they’re fighting individual wars alone,” she said.

Devecka-Rinear attended with Lisa Wilson and Jim Keady, who owns the Lighthouse Tavern in Waretown and is a former Asbury Park elected official. Of the verbal altercation between Keady and Christie, Devecka-Rinear said, “In some ways it was a huge success in terms of changing the conversation, to say, ‘two years later we’re not rebuilt, and here’s what we really need to do.’”

Though the organization is still in its formative stage, she said the group decided the anniversary was the right time to jump in while it was fresh on people’s minds. The weekend before the governor’s visit, a nucleus of about six members gathered in the basement of the Stafford branch of the Ocean County Library and agreed: “All right. We’re going to take action.”

An important component of the Finish the Job campaign is an online petition, which already has 600 electronic signatures. The petition will be delivered to the statehouse in January.

While a petition alone is not a solution, it is “a good piece of an overall campaign,” Devecka-Rinear said, “one tool in an entire toolbox of how you can change things.” It’s also a way to sign up for the email list to stay informed about future actions. A petition indicates a foundation of support for a particular idea, she said, which is essential. The purpose of an organization such as NJOP, after all, is “to create an arena in which folks can act on their values.”

Beach Haven West

Gains a Voice

Two of NJOP’s core volunteers are Sandi Mackay and Bill Halbeisen, both Beach Haven West residents in varying stages of post-Sandy recovery. Mackay, a retired Southern Regional School District math teacher, was out of her house for 10 months, was able to re-inhabit it for 13 months, and now she’s out again while it gets raised. Halbeisen is a retired Southern Regional school psychologist who splits his time between a houseboat and a winter rental at the Sea Horse Motel in Brant Beach.

“I’ve traveled the whole state, gone to all the governor’s town hall meetings,” Halbeisen said. “I voted for the clown twice. I feel like I’ve been on a Boy Scout camping trip for two years. I’ve lived in eight places in two frickin’ years. You think I’m a little pissed off?”

He applied to RREM and was rejected; he appealed, then was approved, then was put on a waiting list for months, then moved to a “funded” list for months. He chose to have his house demolished and rebuilt, so now he is waiting to be assigned a project manager to communicate and coordinate with RREM and the builder.

“They keep you spinning around in circles,” he said.

Mackay’s take on the process?

“It is a massive, full-time job,” she said. It requires hours on the phone, scanning this, sending that – never with complete certainty or clarity about what needs to be done, given that the RREM program has changed four times since its inception.

“They change the rules all the time,” agreed Halbeisen.

“The biggest problem,” according to Mackay, “is you seek answers to questions and, depending on who you speak to, you get one answer, then compare it to someone else’s, and it’s different. That’s the biggest hassle. … You don’t find out until ‘Oops! Oh, I needed that? Oh, no, I didn’t?’ Or ‘Oh, that form got changed?’”

“I’ve got 40 pounds of manila files,” Halbeisen added.

Mackay and Halbeisen said they got on board with NJOP because they want to “pay it forward,” and they’re optimistic that, in the long run, the community will be better and stronger than it was before.

“If your struggles can turn around and help somebody else, then maybe the frustration and the head banging will have something positive, besides your own case,” Mackay said.

Halbeisen, too, said he hopes he can clarify issues for people who are confused and overwhelmed.

“I feel like, in the overall scheme of things, I’ve just rounded third base, and I see home plate. And if anything gets in the way, the spikes are going to go,” he said.

Mackay added: “And I’ve got the baseball bat.”

Stoking Energy

For Common Goal

A campaign is kind of like a living thing, always evolving; with Finish the Job, the energy that drives the campaign is a combination of frustration and love, Devecka-Rinear said. People love their homes and their communities, and they’re angry at the slow progress. They want to fight to remain in the area – but an individual can do only so much.

“It’s only when we work together for a common agenda that we can make the kind of great leaps we need to rebuild our community,” she said.

What kinds of “great leaps,” exactly? For one thing, getting Sandy survivors the money they have coming to them, and getting them back home. Another is overcoming the lengthy waiting periods between grant awards and the start of the actual work. Another is getting every eligible family in the RREM program moving forward, which means people who are on the waiting list and those who have gotten hopelessly lost in the system.

Then there’s the matter of temporary assistance and interim housing. “We need additional funding streams,” Devecka-Rinear said. Many cannot afford to pay a mortgage, insurance and taxes on a vacant property in addition to paying rent and utilities while they’re displaced. Some are draining their savings or pulling from their retirement accounts, she said. A common question on the Facebook community page, “Sandy Two Years Later – How Are We Doing?,” is how to survive financially in the meantime.

Ocean County Long-Term Recovery is one resource that connects homeowners with disaster case managers who can help obtain additional funds through nonprofits and other channels. Some storm victims don’t know such a resource exists, while others are somewhat skeptical about looking into it because they worry it’s just another government agency and they don’t want another headache right now. Others mistake it for mere counseling.

All of which goes to show that the more people connect and communicate their needs and experiences, the more everyone can learn from each other.

As yet, much information about big-picture Sandy recovery progress is nowhere to be found – about where families are and how many people are recovered, Devecka-Rinear said. “No one is tracking that. It would be great to do some kind of community survey, to figure that out.”

For the campaign to reach its conclusion, she said, “we would have to have everyone we’re hearing right now, struggling, say, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s great now.’ Or at least ‘It’s a lot better.’”

So where does NJOP hope to see the South Jersey/shore region in 10 to 15 years?

The first step is to stabilize the communities, then take a breath and reevaluate, Devecka-Rinear said. Look at ways the population may have changed, or is changing. Are the people with the least resources struggling the most to rebuild? Are we losing year-round residents, the ones who support small businesses, the folks who work in the bay, or seniors? “I don’t think we want to lose parts of our community. You hear stories about people who have walked away.”

Looking to the more distant future, Devecka-Rinear said an important question will be “What do we need to change, build or shift, as we expect more and more extreme weather?” Dune construction? More marshes? The answer most likely lies with the true experts – those who live here and know best what they need. Those who have ideas about how to preserve and protect our communities and the environment need to be heard.

“I know when people stand together, they change things. I’ve been part of that, year after year, and we’ve seen that in our history. That is a constant motivator,” she said. But it’s the people she meets and the stories they tell her, their resilience, that she finds the most inspiring.

“It’s an honor to even get to do this,” she said.

To get involved, contact Devecka-Rinear at 609-246-3229 or amanda@newjerseyop.org. Connect with the New Jersey Organizing Project on Facebook; the petition can be found at finishthejobnj.org.

victoria@thesandpaper.net

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