3/11/15 The story behind Christie’s Iowa protesters Mark Di Ionno Star Ledger

opens in a new window3/11/15 The story behind Christie’s Iowa protesters Mark Di Ionno Star Ledger

In her last job, Amanda Devecka-Rinear’s office was in an historic brick Georgian mansion on DuPont Circle in Washington D.C., with rooftop views of Embassy Row.

Her office now is in a fishing shack on Cedar Bonnet Island, with back porch views of Barnegat Bay and kitchen views of a boarded-up house across the sand-packed street.

Devecka-Rinear’s last job was as an organizer for a grassroots activism group called National People’s Action. She traveled around country protesting government policies and corporate interests that the group saw as squashing the little guy. She fought on Capitol Hill and around the country for things such as fair taxes, better education and affordable healthcare.

Her new job is fighting for the Jersey Shore, as co-founder of the fledgling New Jersey Organizing Project.

Joe Mangino is a biologist, a wedding officiate, and has a power-washing business. Before Hurricane Sandy, his idea of community involvement was coaching softball, field hockey, or “whatever my daughters wanted to play.”

We wanted to meet in his office but his staff said he didn’t have time. We want answers.” Amanda Devecka-Rinear.
But the storm washed out his neighborhood on Beach Haven West. The destruction seemed insurmountable, until a group of about 20 teachers who worked with Mangino’s wife, Rebecca, at a Stafford Township elementary school showed up and helped the Manginos gut their home.
The work went fast, and the group, including the Manginos, moved on to the next house and then the next. After two weeks, Mangino and Mike Dunlea, a teacher, gave the group a name – Stafford Teachers and Residents Together (START). They still do labor, lending a hand rebuilding or even moving Sandy victims from rental to rental or finally back home.

Devecka-Rinear and Mangino, two people from disparate backgrounds, helped form the New Jersey Organizing Project last fall to bring attention to the problems in the state’s Sandy recovery program.

They did just that last weekend, when they followed Gov. Chris Christie to the Iowa Agriculture Summit in Des Moines.

opens in a new windowView full sizePolice remove Hurricane Sandy victims Joe Mangino and Amanda Devecka-Rinear as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie speaks during the Iowa Agriculture Summit, Sat., March 7, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa.(AP Photo | Charlie Neibergall) 
In this Associated Press news photo, Mangino is seen shouting, and Devecka-Rinear holds a sign that reads: “Governor Christie Thousands of Families Still not Home after Sandy,” as two police officers move in to escort them out.Mangino is among thethousands of people still not home. After fixing his house to make it livable, he was told he had to elevate it. He enrolled in the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program and still lives in a rental in Surf City. Of the 10,800 families in the RREM program, only 328 are back in their homes, according to a report released last month by the Fair Share Housing Center. The state says the number of completed homes is 650.

Christie had a little fun with the Iowa protest moment saying, “My people follow me everywhere … I’m magnetic … They can’t stay away from me.”

But if the New Jersey Organizing Project has its way, something else will stick to Christie – the fact that the Sandy recovery is far from finished. What some see as heckling, they see as asking for answers.

“We wanted to meet him in his office, but his staff said he didn’t have time for us,” said Lisa Stevens, whose house on Mystic Island on Great Bay was flooded and who also made the trip to Iowa. “So we thought we’d bring the questions to him. We want answers.”

To be fair, the governor doesn’t have all the answers. He can only answer for the state’s recovery efforts and problems.

He can’t answer for FEMA, or the insurance companies that hold the FEMA-backed flood policies.

He can’t answer for the contractors who take deposits and disappear or overcharge.

He can’t answer for the overworked and understaffed municipal code workers who can’t get to all the required rebuilding inspections fast enough, and he can’t answer for officials who nitpick over minutia, as if the greatest natural disaster in modern New Jersey history never happened.

He also can’t answer for towns that demand residents build one-foot, or two-feet or three-feet higher than FEMA regulations after their houses were already rehabbed or raised.

Still …

There are well-documented problems with the state programs and anecdotal evidence that state-hired contractors in the state’s RREM program are charging more than other contractors. There are starts and stops and waiting lists and expiration dates that require more and more rounds of paperwork.

“You can’t be a 9-to-5 guy and keep up with it,” Mangino said. “If you have a full-time job, you can’t keep up with it. It’s such a mess right now, and there’s no end in sight for a lot of people.”

It is out of that frustration that the New Jersey Organizing Project was born.

For Devecka-Rinear, the moments of clarity came last year after she moved back to her Cedar Bonnet Island, to the house built by her great-grandfather in 1928 and battered by Hurricane Sandy. Her father’s house next door was destroyed when the storm threw a large boat into it. She had to look no farther than her kitchen window to see how “uneven the recovery was.”

Across the street is the house of a long-time neighbor, still empty, with plywood nailed to the windows and doors and the roof collapsing. Next door, a house is raised and completed; around the corner, more vacant and wrecked properties.

“Talking to seniors and year-round residents I saw they were stuck,” she said. “There was financial hardship and great loss. It was really stark. I saw that the community I adored was really struggling.”

These one-on-one conversations expanded further into Ocean County and in the fall of last year, two weeks before the Sandy anniversary, a group of nine people met in the Manahawkin Library to form the New Jersey Organizing Project.

“Every one of those people were in the state RREM program,” Devecka-Rinear said, “except me and Jim Keady. Everybody was hopping mad. The program was dragging and no one was getting answers.”

Two weeks later at the two-year Sandy anniversary event in Belmar, Keady got up to question the Christie and was told to “sit down and shut up” by the governor and the news video went viral. In that exchange, the governor defended himself as a guy who “did the work.”

To be fair, again, the clean-up of Sandy debris was remarkable, as was the restoration of tourist towns, like Belmar and Seaside Heights. But for many people on the interior bays, in towns like Beach Haven West and Mystic Island and Union Beach, the process drags on.

So fledgling New Jersey Organizing Project is pushing; it has either had or scheduled meetings with legislators to demand a speedier recovery.

“We want to know what it’s going to take to finish the job,” Devecka-Rinear said. “That is our mantra: Finish the job.”

One thing it might take is more of what happened in Iowa.

On Monday morning at 8:01, two days after he was all over the news from Iowa, Joe Mangino got a call from his RREM contractor, saying the work to raise his house would start next month.

Mark Di Ionno may be reached at mdiionno@starledger.com. Follow The Star-Ledger on Twitter @StarLedger and find us on Facebook.