Post-Sandy: Victims regale panel with tales of red tape, aid denial

TRENTON – The post-Superstorm Sandy horror stories continued Monday as a joint Assembly/Senate Environment committee convened its third hearing into how victims are coping in the aftermath of the storm that hit New Jersey nearly one year ago.

Once again, state officials declined legislators’ invitation to testify. At previous hearings in Atlantic City and Jersey City, the bulk of testimony was provided by residents left frustrated with inflexible bureaucracies and contradictory regulations.

Residents once again told lawmakers of paying mortgages and taxes on structures they can’t live in, and of being denied insurance coverage over policy clauses they didn’t know existed or whose consequences they were unfamiliar with.

The committees had invited Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard E. Constable III and Marc Ferzan, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, to speak on the progress of recovery efforts.
Sen. Bob Smith, chair of the upper-chamber panel, said “I find it to be very disturbing’’ that neither official showed up.  

And Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula said someone in the chain of command should have been present.

The ones who were present were yet more victims of the superstorm, some of whom have appeared previously before the committees.

Kathy Fisher, a hair salon owner in Ventnor City, told the lawmakers of discovering they might not have insurance coverage because of ground-level first floors and downgrades, conditions she said no one previously indicated would be a problem.

“Nobody showed any kind of compassion for any of us,” she said. “I can’t get any answers from anybody.’’

She said that individuals from FEMA, her mortgage company and a contracting firm hired to administer programs distributing aid funds gave her different, contradictory answers.

Hammerman and Gainer was chosen by the state to oversee the $600 million Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program.

Fisher said she had heard that the workers at the other end of the phone or across from a desk are quickly and unthoroughly trained, a comment seconded by Assemblywoman Grace Spencer, who said they have heard similar stories at the other hearings.

Sen. Jennifer Beck pointed out – as she has previously – that one major problem is that the national flood insurance program is low-balling everybody on assessments and deprecation, and the lawmakers need to pressure them to do the right thing.

“People thought they were going to be protected, they thought their credit was going to be protected,’’ she said, and – as she has in the past – pledged personal assistance to homeowners who testified today. “It’s horrendous,’’ Beck said.

And Simone Dannecker of Union Beach, after telling lawmakers of her battles with agencies that are supposed to help her, said at one point, “Where’s Mr. Constable? Is he held accountable for anything? If his position becomes available I’d love to take it for half the pay.”

She said “homes are rotting away’’ in one of the towns hardest hit by Sandy, and residents are at risk of future health problems.

Smith said that one of the reasons these hearings are being held – and he said there might be another in South Jersey at some point – is to get the word out about what is happening to residents.

Angelita Liaguno-Dorr, owner of Jakeabob’s Bay restaurant in Union Beach, told of having a $300,000 policy to cover what the insurance company calls an interruption in business, yet she was offered only $9,000. “I can’t do anything with $9,000,’’ she said.

“We are out.  We don’t have the resources.”

She described New Jersey as a state in trouble and being run by lobbyists.

Spencer said it is nearly one year since Sandy hit and it is unacceptable that these people are still without homes or answers.

She and Beck said Hammerman and Gainer should not be receiving a dime so long as these kinds of situations exist.

“They are moving so slowly,’’ Beck said of HUD and other agencies, “that people are not getting help.”

“I think the biggest frustration,’’ Sen. James Whelan said, “is that nobody knows what the rules are.’’

Previous stories:

Post-Sandy trauma lingers

Buono highlights victims she says administration left stranded

Post-Sandy: Victims regale panel with tales of red tape, aid denial