Sandy victims give state officials an earful

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Protesters hold up posters during Superstorm Sandy public hearing Protesters hold up posters during Superstorm Sandy public hearing GALLOWAY TWP. — A public hearing held Feb. 11 at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey Performing Arts Center provided state officials with “robust” feedback about the state’s recovery efforts so far.

More than 150 victims of Hurricane Sandy attended the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs Superstorm Sandy Public Hearing and Mobile Cabinet Meeting, which was scheduled to inform the public about how the state plans to spend more than $1.46 billion in federal recovery funds. Two more public hearings are scheduled this week in Essex and Monmouth counties.

After a 40-minute overview by top ranking officials from various government authorities about how the state plans to distribute its second round of federal aid for Sandy victims and impacted municipalities, more than 30 people relayed horror stories about how they not only lost their homes, but also how they were treated following the storm’s devastation.

The state has already received $1.83 billion to help residents and businesses recover. To be eligible for the new round of Sandy recovery funds, the state must hold public hearings on its proposed plan, which is available for review on the state website at www.nj.gov/dca/divisions/sandyrecovery/action/.

Few of those who testified spoke about the pending amendments to the first-round plan. Instead, they spoke about their wretched experiences in the aftermath of the storm.

State department commissioners, CEOs and other government officials listened intently as one by one, residents relayed their interactions with FEMA, HUD and the DCA. Few had a good word for how they were treated by state and federal employees. Many said they were rejected for grants over minor issues, and that state employees lacked compassion for their plights.

Dr. Herman Saatkamp welcomes panelists to Stockton College Dr. Herman Saatkamp welcomes panelists to Stockton College. Officials said the new funding amount would not meet all the need for infrastructure improvements, so it must present the federal government with a “detailed unmet need analysis.”

They are asking counties and municipalities to share in the cost of developing more “resilient” systems to protect against future disasters.

Senior advisor to the Board of Public Utilities Michael Winka said Sandy was one of the worst disasters ever experienced in New Jersey and that it revealed weaknesses in the energy distribution system.

The biggest emergency request in the storm’s aftermath was for generators, “but we need to look for longer-term solutions,” he said.

The commissioners asked the public for “robust feedback,” which is what they got in three-minute segments from more than 30 speakers. Their questions would be answered in writing, said Marc Ferzan, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding.

“All comments will be reviewed and included in the response to HUD,” Ferzan said.

Nevertheless, several testimonies were so compelling that officials tried to answer questions and even agreed to meet with victims individually after the hearing.

Jeff Tittel, director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the new plan for spending repeats “the same failed policies of the past, because you are relying on political science rather than science.”

Chuck Appleby of Seaside Park said he was fortunate to receive the maximum grant, but called the whole process incompetent.

“People need good policy to go through this process, and the state needs show some compassion,” he said.

Jane Peltonen of Brigantine reminded the commissioners of the location of her town.

"You know, that’s were Governor Christie and President Obama came after the storm. After more than a year, only one house has been raised,” she said.

Cynthia Carves of Tuckerton said she was rejected for the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program several times because she could not prove that she was a resident. She explained that she had only lived in Tuckerton for a few months, and because she is disabled, was not able to update her driver’s license or voter registration, but she did have paid utility bills and tax payments.

“That’s the only identification they will take for proof that I ever lived there,” she said.

Sharon Barker, president and COO of Housing and Community Development of New Jersey, read a litany of her clients’ negative experiences with the various agencies charged with facilitating recovery.

“Victims should not be victimized,” she said. “Communication is the key that has been lacking.”

Fair Share Housing attorney Kevin Walsh said that even the lawyers at his organization cannot figure out how to access grants and services for their clients.

“Let’s find a silver lining in this. If you made mistakes, correct them and let’s move on,” he said.

John Mullins of Margate asked for a one-stop contact number to simplify applications.

“There are too many layers of complexity in what should be a simple process,” he said.

Ferzan responded by saying the state is required to comply with federal regulations, which are cumbersome.

“If we do not comply with federal law, they will take the money back,” he said. “It’s frustrating. There has got to be a better way.”

Veteran Jayson Rampo relayed how he lost his home in the storm, became homeless and was later taken in by a near stranger.

“I had more stress with the storm than I did on the front lines in Afghanistan,” he said.

Before and during the hearing, representatives of various state agencies manned tables in the hallway outside the theater to offer assistance for Sandy-impacted residents and business owners.

The hearing ended 15 minutes past its scheduled closing time with shouts from several people in the crowd who wanted to speak after time ran out.


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