3/11/15 Protest by Locals at Christie Appearance in Iowa Aims to Refocus Attention on N.J. Sandy Victims Jon Coen Sandpaper

It was the Sunday of the thaw. The temperature had hit 50 for the first time in weeks and much of the LBI snow was starting to melt. Just back from a whirlwind trip, Joe Mangino gazed out toward the beach from his temporary residence in Surf City.
It would be a comforting scenario if Mangino and his family weren’t still displaced from their Beach Haven West home as a result of Superstorm Sandy and his recent trip hadn’t been following Gov. Chris Christie to Iowa to ask him to “Finish the Job” of recovery that he vowed to do for the New Jersey Shore after the storm.
Mangino, an ordained minister and owner of H2Joe Powerwashing, made national headlines Saturday, March 7 when he stood up while Christie was on stage at the Iowa Agricultural Summit and shouted, “I’m from New Jersey also!”
It was the latest in a campaign by the New Jersey Organizing Project to bring attention to the state’s failure to administer support to Sandy victims in a timely manner. New Jersey earmarked $1.1 billion in federal Sandy aid for the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program aimed to rebuild and raise homes. According to the Fair Share Housing Center’s annual report, 14,880 applied for a RREM grant. But of over 12,000 families who were deemed eligible, 2,000 of them withdrew and 10,800 are still lost in what most consider a quagmire. They claim all of this is happening while Christie travels around the country setting up a probable candidacy for the 2016 presidential election.
The idea was that if Christie was going to travel around the country and forget the situation of those who have struggled the longest back home, NJOP would go to Iowa to remind him. Mangino and NJOP Director and fourth-generation Cedar Bonnet Island resident Amanda Devecka-Rinear traveled to Iowa with Lisa Stevens of Little Egg Harbor Township. As planned, they joined forces with Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, which had issues with other topics at the summit.
“I was standing in line with three other protesters. All four of us had our tickets rejected,” said Stevens, “which is interesting since we had legit tickets.” She was unable to enter while Mangino and Devecka-Reinear slipped inside.
In front of a room full of media, Mangino yelled, “I will not shut up,” referencing Christie’s now famous “sit down and shut up” comment to activist Jim Keady in Belmar during a speech on the two-year anniversary of the storm. Mangino and Devecka-Rinear, holding a sign that read “Governor Christie: Thousands of Families Still Not Home After Sandy,” were promptly escorted from the summit. Their image became viral.
“We’re not just complaining. We’re offering ideas and suggestions,” Mangino explained.
Mangino’s case is somewhat of a famous one. Immediately following the storm, his family’s flooded and gutted home on William Cook Boulevard became the headquarters for armies of volunteers who began gutting over 800 damaged homes. Officials suggest these heroics saved local homeowners $4 million.
He spearheaded the nonprofit START (Stafford Teachers and Residents Together), which worked with other groups in helping to rebuild the region, and became a face of the community-based efforts of the Long Beach Island area. He has been the subject of several documentaries, sat on resiliency panel discussions in New York City and Washington, D.C., and has been speaking with state legislators about picking up Christie’s slack. There is hardly a local fundraiser that Joe Mangino does not volunteer at.
The Manginos – Joe, his wife Beckie, a teacher in the Stafford Township School District, and their daughters Sophia, 14, and Giada, 8 – stayed with friends for six months until they could move back into a half-finished home, all while weathering the next storm of insurance battles and state programs. The home was finally completed a year after the storm, but the house still had to be raised. Their RREM-approved contractor told them to move back out of their home again last November. No work has been done on their property yet.
“This is part of what’s wrong with the program. The contractor has his money guaranteed, but he has no incentive or penalty to stay on a timeline. And there’s a deadline that you have to be done with reconstruction or you’re no longer eligible,” Mangino added.
On Feb. 20, Mangino announced his intentions and set up a crowd sourcing account with a goal of $300. He raised $1,350 from supporters.
“The Go Fund Me really put the pressure on my shoulders. In no time flat, I blew away my goal. And then it felt like walking into the lion’s den.”
The current situation, however, is a far cry from when Mangino, a political independent, was invited to sit in the front row at several of Christie’s local town hall meetings in the months after the storm. Through START, he had a good relationship with the governor’s office. Christie even met with him briefly to hear concerns.
But after 2½ years and too many roadblocks to count, Mangino has become a pillar of NJOP, which protested at Christie’s State of the State address in January. The group recently renovated and took up a headquarters in a small building behind the Lighthouse Tavern in Waretown, which Jim Keady owns.
“If I had an opportunity in Iowa, I probably would have complimented Christie first on his initial response to Sandy. But then I would have hit him with where he’s fallen short,” said Mangino.
“I was literally sick to my stomach beforehand. This isn’t something I have done before. I wasn’t comfortable doing it, and I don’t want to have to do it again,” he admitted. “But I felt like I had to. The situation is desperate. One guy told me to shut up and go home … but we literally can’t go home.”
According to Adam Gordon, staff attorney for NJ Fair Share Housing Center, the RREM program has left many in the dark. “We get calls all the time from people who can’t get basic answers. They just want some direction. They filed their claim and filled out all the proper documents, and then find out the program changed the documents or changed the requirements. Many people are paying rent and mortgage. They can’t make plans for where their families are going to live. They don’t know if they should sign another six-month lease or if they’ll be back in their houses,” he said. “We’re a nonpartisan group, but I do think it’s a really critical issue whether Christie is running for president or not. It’s something that everyone needs to focus on.”
All Eyes on Iowa …
And Back on Jersey Shore
Mangino lost track of the amount of interviews he gave outside the summit, in Des Moines International Airport, and even on the flight home. While it is a local issue, the story has national significance as the latest in a series of news stories that show New Jersey’s dissatisfaction with Christie early in the election cycle.
“That’s not even my intention. I have a single focus. But if you’re someone looking at the candidate, his record on Sandy is one more thing you may want to question about this guy. He made a promise. I know politicians make promises all the time. But you know what? Somebody’s got to stick to something eventually.”
Folks that he spoke with in Iowa were aware of the devastation but not the ongoing saga.
“They saw the roller coaster in the ocean and then they saw the boardwalks get rebuilt so they thought everything was just peachy back here. They had no idea that only 400 families had been taken care of by our No.1 program.”
“I can’t begin to tell you how many people I spoke to who thought the Jersey Shore was all fixed and back together,” agreed Stevens.
The Manginos will be looking for another temporary home when their winter rental is up. There is currently another program that offers rent assistance for families raising their homes that they may have to research.
“$825 a month for three months,” explained Mangino. “And then you can file for an extension for another three months. $825 in New Jersey doesn’t get you much, but at least it’s something. But here’s the point. I’m not looking for a handout. If the program was run correctly, I would be back in my house and I wouldn’t need another government program.”
The rental assistance program is an example of the pressure that NJOP is applying to the state.
“NJOP is making the issue visible,” said Gordon at the NJ Fair Share Housing Center.
For the time being, Mangino’s well-timed outburst and the NJOP’s carefully planned campaign in Iowa have refocused the spotlight on Sandy survivors. The NJOP’s next meeting is Saturday, March 29 at the Lacey Township Library and all are welcome to attend.
And Mangino has to wonder if it’s only irony that his assigned contractor called him first thing on Monday morning, ready to raise the house.
joncoen@thesandpaper.net