West Atlantic City residents feel forgotten by FEMA; concerned over motels reopening

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  Rebekah Zumwalt/file photo Rebekah Zumwalt/file photo

 EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP – Residents of West Atlantic City, whose neighborhood witnessed the worst of Hurricane Sandy’s wrath out of all of the other sections of the township, are still trying to make their way through the process of how to pick up the pieces.

Virginia McMahan, who has lived in West Plaza Place for 48 years, said she can no longer live in the home where she was born and raised thanks to the devastating storm that brought flood waters nearly chest deep into parts of her neighborhood and washed out the entire first floor of many homes.

“My house is caving in. My whole life –clothes, photos – all gone,” she said at a recent Township Committee meeting where she and a few other neighbors asked the committee for assistance in reaching Federal Emergency Management Administration personnel. FEMA, they said, had not been to their homes.

“I pray the insurance is going to come through, but I will need FEMA to assist me to lift my home,” she said, mentioning the FEMA grant of approximately $30,000 that is available to homeowners in the newly revised flood elevation map areas.

The proposed map, still in the preliminary stages, calls for homes in coastal areas to be raised by up to 12 feet. A meeting was scheduled between FEMA and local officials to discuss the details of the proposed maps for Wednesday, Jan. 9, according to Township Administrator Peter Miller.

McMahan said the FEMA representatives who were holding public meetings in other affected towns like Brigantine, where a larger number of residents were displaced, never held a meeting with the residents of West Atlantic City.

“They just gave a card to some of us with a phone number,” she said.

East Plaza Place resident Mike Bertino said the lack of direct communication from FEMA and the township administration has been frustrating for the West Atlantic City residents.

“There’s been miscommunication. The mayor of Brigantine held a meeting with those residents. We need to have a meeting with residents of West Atlantic City. We’re the ones affected. So we would like to have a dialogue,” Bertino said.

Richard Black of Bay Drive said he felt they were being ignored as they often are on matters.

“We seem to be the Louisiana Superdome of this,” Black said, conjuring the memory of New Orleans residents who were evacuated to the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina. “No one is paying attention to us.”

Committeeman and Deputy Mayor Paul Hodson said he would try to help the residents. “We’re on your side with FEMA,” Hodson said. “We need to keep at them because it’s only a matter of time before something else happens” and FEMA money is directed elsewhere for a disaster.

Miller said he is scheduled to speak with the township’s FEMA representative this Friday, Jan. 11 to address the West Atlantic City residents’ concerns about communication.

“In my initial conversations with him, he said the residents may be right. If no one was home when they were going door-to-door, they just went to the next house,” Miller said. “They may have missed some people, about ten to fifteen percent of the homes. I will ask him if they can do one final walk through to try to speak with every owner. But by now, everyone should have filed a claim with FEMA and with their insurance.”

McMahon said she feels the residents have little sympathy from the public because some of them did not evacuate immediately during the storm.

“The public has a very bad view of residents that did stay,” she said. “I did not expect Sandy to come into my home on the first (high tide) and she did. But when the second (tide) came, we had no reason to stay and we left.”

Hodson said he understands the angst the residents were facing.

“No one will say it’s easy to walk away from your home,” Hodson said. “What you are going through is no less traumatic than having a fire in your home. I understand the dilemma you’re going through.”

Part of the reason the residents there did not want to leave was fear of looting. McMahon said the occupants of the motels along the Black Horse Pike were likely to come and break in if no one was home before the storm.

“Those motels need to be shut down,” she said. “We were afraid of robbery: they are going to do more damage to you than anything else.

Russelle Patterson who lives on East Plaza Place said besides the proximity to those motels, she is very proud to live in West Atlantic City and is disappointed that they will be allowed to reopen once repairs are made.

The residents have raised concerns that the motel owners were opening for business without gaining approvals to do so, but only one motel has been allowed to reopen, Miller said.

The New Sea Breeze Motel was permitted to open its second floor only starting Saturday, Dec. 15 after the township building official approved the reopening, Miller said, and the motel owners had to have an engineer or architect certify that the flood waters did not compromise structural integrity. They also were required to have an electrician come in and add a second, separate electrical service to the top floor so that some rooms could be rented out again.

“Residents may be seeing lights on in the other motels because work is being done,” he said.

Patterson said she hoped the township would be able to prevent the motels from reopening again.

“This would have been a perfect opportunity for Egg Harbor Township to say, ‘This is it, they’re condemned.’ We had dreams of using that land for something great. But now we just have drug busts and prostitution.

“No one smelled four bodies decaying out there,” she continued, mentioning the still unresolved 2006 murder of four women whose bodies were found in the marshes behind the strip of motels there.

She said the tenants “wander over to our side and we were worried when we had to leave our homes. These motels have to go. They are embarrassing. There is mold, bedbugs,” she said. “Eventually something is going to happen there. This was our opportunity to get rid of this mess. You could have great things out there on this stretch of land.”

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