Post-Sandy trauma lingers for homeowners struggling to rebuild, lawmakers told

JERSEY CITY – Legislators heard more horror stories Monday from residents who lost homes to Superstorm Sandy and are at their wits’ ends dealing with bureaucracy.

Mary and Anthony Chetulis of  Union Beach’s story summarized what many are going through: the double whammy of losing their homes to a hurricane and battling inflexible agencies in the months after. 

She told a joint Assembly and Senate Environment Committee hearing held at City Hall here Monday that a few weeks after Sandy struck, the insurance company, deeming her property structurally unsound, approved $72,000 for demolition.

But just a few months later, she was told she needed a structural engineer, but the house was already razed. She said the insurance company told her she was at fault for having it demolished.

She told the lawmakers of being caught in the middle as the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the insurance company blame each other while she goes without a house.

Mediation is not an option because it’s only for homeowners insurance, not flood insurance, she said.

Loan modification is not an option because they don’t have a structure, and renting an apartment became a problem because they have a mortgage, she told the lawmakers.

She explained to them that it has been one piece of red tape after another for nearly a year.

After four appeals, she was approved for $120,000 to rebuild, she said.  The house she lost to Sandy was a three-bedroom house worth about $230,000, she said; they will build a two-bedroom house. As a result of ongoing battles with her mortgage company, she said they are forced to eat into their retirement.

This was typical of the stories told Monday to Sens. Bob Smith, Jennifer Beck and Sandra Cunningham, and Assembly members Grace Spencer, Holly Schepisi, Reed Gusciora, Charles Mainor and Ruben Ramos.

Beck offered to get personally involved in her case, and said one of the problems is that the national flood insurance program is unresponsive to the federal government. She said legislation has been introduced to give the state Department of Banking and Insurance jurisdiction over these claims.

“There have been a lot of complaints about the flood insurance program,’’ Beck said.  “It’s painful.’’

Beck told the couple that if flood insurance “low-balled’’ her there could be grant money for the unmet need.  “The grant will help get you closer than you would have been,’’ Beck said. She warned, though, it is a lengthy process.

To a degree, New Jersey is a victim of what happened in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, when billions of dollars in aid “disappeared’’ and homes were not rebuilt, Beck said. As a result, the paperwork and the bureaucracy in New Jersey are in place to avoid such misuses, but they are slowing down the process of getting the aid to those who need it.

This was the second such post-Sandy hearing the joint legislative committee held.  The first was in Atlantic City during the summer.

But the stories of frustrated homeless victims battling faceless bureaucracies are the same.

Drew Curtis of the Ironbound Community Development Program told the lawmakers of the raw sewage dumped into Newark Bay after Sandy struck the city of Newark.

Angel Mejia of Newark told the legislators of being forced out of his flooded house and of trying to pay the mortgage in a still-damaged house that he can’t live in.

And Arnold Cohen of the Housing and Community Development Network of New Jersey said it is not just homeowners, but renters, who have been victimized by Sandy.

“We have not seen real progress,” he told the lawmakers. “Rents have skyrocketed.  More people are looking, there is less supply because it’s been destroyed by Sandy; homeowners have become renters.”

He told the lawmakers that people are having trouble finding housing with the vouchers at the rate the government is paying, and he urged the state to work with non-profits to help people find housing, to possibly use federal funds such as Community Development Block Grant money.

Other lawmakers, after hearing people’s stories, offered their assistance as well.

Spencer said one of the purposes of this second hearing was to ensure that  non-Shore, Sandy-ravaged communities such as Hoboken or Moonachie are not forgotten.

Cunningham, as did other legislators, cited improved communications as a necessity for handling future storms. Post-Sandy trauma lingers for homeowners struggling to rebuild, lawmakers told