As the one-year anniversary of superstorm Sandy neared in the fall of 2013, meetings inside the New Jersey Statehouse turned tense._
Some aides to Gov. Chris Christie were concerned that few houses damaged by the storm were being rebuilt. The officials were flooded with stories of computer errors, lost paperwork, inadequate staffing and problems with contractors. They were also struggling to navigate the federal bureaucracy.
“It was a disaster,” one senior official said.
Mr. Christie was praised for his initial response to Sandy, visiting hard-hit areas and promising victims that help was on the way. State officials were credited with helping most boardwalks and beaches reopen, and many businesses said the state helped them early and often.
But the housing rebuilding program is still far from finished, and the problems have hurt Mr. Christie’s popularity in parts of the state hammered by Sandy.
Lisa Stevens outside her Little Egg Harbor home, which also was damaged by Sandy. Photo: Will Figg for The Wall Street Journal
The main grant system for homeowners, the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program, or RREM, received more than 15,000 applicants when New Jersey launched it in May 2013 to distribute federal money to Sandy victims.
At the end of 2014, just 330 homes had completed their renovations through the program, according to the state’s reports to the federal government. Thousands more are in the pipeline, and it could be years before they are finished.
New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, introduced a bill Tuesday that would require the state’s department of community affairs to provide homeowners with a timeline of when they can expect to receive assistance through the reconstruction program.
State officials say they have taken steps to improve the system and that the pace has picked up. The program provides grants of up to $150,000 to homes damaged by Sandy.
Lisa Stevens, a 54-year-old Little Egg Harbor, N.J., resident, said she had a good experience with her state-appointed housing counselor, but the program’s rules have continued to change, requiring her to submit new paperwork and wait for new building designs.
Ms. Stevens in her home in Little Egg Harbor. She and other homeowners, frustrated by Sandy recovery efforts, went to Iowa on Saturday and interrupted New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during a forum there. Photo: Will Figg for The Wall Street Journal
“I consider myself an educated person. I don’t know how people in my community who are mostly seniors could figure this out,” said Ms. Stevens, whose 1,400-square-foot home faced a bay.
On Saturday, Ms. Stevens traveled to Iowa with a handful of other homeowners frustrated by the Sandy recovery efforts. They interrupted Mr. Christie’s appearance at the Iowa Agriculture Summit, a forum with other potential 2016 Republican candidates for president.
Bill Halbeisen, a 68-year-old retired school psychologist, said he applied right after the reconstruction program was announced, but has yet to receive any funding after his house in Beach Haven West was damaged by Sandy. He has lived in nine different temporary dwellings—including a houseboat—while waiting for his application to be approved and go through all the steps.
He plans to return to the houseboat in the spring while he waits for his $150,000 grant to help pay for a new home.
“You talk to one person, you get one answer. You talk to another, you get another answer,” Mr. Halbeisen said. “They aren’t good at getting back to you.”
Early in 2014, the administration removed Rich Constable, commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs, from most Sandy duties and replaced him with Melissa Orsen, an official in the lieutenant governor’s office, according to people familiar with the matter.
“All of the governments involved are going through a tough time to navigate the system,” Mr. Constable said in testimony to state legislators last year.
In New York, officials have cited a thorny federal bureaucracy, saying states aren’t qualified to implement such complicated programs and that federal authorities should hand over money more quickly. Many of these officials say the framework for disaster recovery should be changed.
Fewer than 1,000 homes are finished in New York City, with more than 10,000 applicants applying. Mayor Bill de Blasio has vowed to speed up the recovery.
Kevin Roberts, a spokesman for Mr. Christie, said the administration brought in additional staff for management and tried to streamline applications. He also acknowledged there have been a range of problems. The state is now giving some homeowners rental assistance while they try to rebuild through the RREM program.
The state now allows applicants to mail in documents rather than traveling to housing centers, some which were long drives for homeowners. It also started holding information sessions in communities damaged by Sandy. The centers are better staffed, according to the state, with more state workers taking over from contractors.
“We have tried to better the process as we’ve gone along,” Ms. Orsen said in an interview. “RREM has started taking off. We’ve made a lot of changes.”
Housing advocates and others involved in the recovery say it could take years for displaced residents to return to their homes.
Ms. Orsen was recently named head of the state’s economic development authority. Mr. Constable is expected to leave soon for a job in a private law firm. State officials haven’t said who will run the Sandy recovery programs.
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