After Hurricane Harvey battered Houston, Doug Quinn took the bed out of the back of the 1999 Dodge van he calls “Mona” and loaded it up with water, food and sanitary supplies to head southwest.
“I just wanted to turn my wheel toward Texas,” he said.
He drove to North Carolina, picked up a friend and 18 hours later, they turned into a poor neighborhood in Northeast Houston.
The scene brought Quinn back to the dawn of Hurricane Sandy’s destruction along the New Jersey waterfront, specifically his neighborhood in the Silverton section of Toms River.
“It was grim, people walking around like zombies,” he said of Texas.
He saw streets lined with water-ruined furniture and household possessions piled up on sidewalks. Photo albums, children’s toys, all of it, representing a lifetime of work and memories, wiped out in hours.
He also saw resilience and hope. And that broke his heart as much as the destruction.
“I wanted to tell them what was coming, but I just couldn’t,” he said. “I wanted to tell them the hurricane is the easy part. That their lives were going to miserable, pure hell for the next five years. That ‘recovery’ is like slow and grinding … it’s like watching a car crash in slow motion, over and over again.”
All that remains of his home on the Barnegat Bay are lawn chairs piled up in neat stacks and blue tarps covering other household furnishings exposed to the elements for years.
“It’s all toast now, I’m sure,” said the 53-year-old former Marine. “I had a storage unit in my yard but the town made me get rid of it.”
As next month’s fifth anniversary of Sandy approaches, Quinn remains one of the people still out of their primary home. Sometimes he sleeps in his van because, he says, staying in his apartment is depressing. It’s not home.
“It’s impossible to tell how many people are still out,” said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, head of the New Jersey Organizing Project, which was formed to advocate for Sandy victims.
“We estimated there were 50,000 homeowners and renters forced from their primary homes,” she said. “But the state only keeps track of the people in the RREM (Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation, and Mitigation) program.”
The state’s figures, as of the end of August, say that 2,190 homeowners of the 7,595 in the RREM program remain without certificates of occupancy for their homes.
Of the 315 families that applied for LMI (low- and moderate-income grants), 95 are without certificates of occupancy.
To put these figures into perspective, of the 50,000 families whose homes were substantially damaged in the storm, only 16 percent applied for state RREM and LMI grants.
“What happened to the rest? That’s a good question,” Devecka-Rinear said. “And nobody has the answer.”
Her group did a door-to-door survey of people’s Sandy experiences in the hard-hit areas. Of the 492 people who responded, she said, 19 percent remain out of their homes or have decided not to return home.
While it’s a small sample, the number doesn’t seem far-fetched. In Jon Thompson’s neighborhood, where the Toms River meets Barnegat Bay, unfinished houses and vacant lots with “for sale” signs easily make up 20 percent of the properties.
Thompson’s house is one of them.
He was in the RREM program and gave his contractor the second installment of the state’s $75,000 grant. The contractor used that money to finish other houses, then told Thompson he was broke.
“He just sat me down and informed me the money was gone,” said Thompson, sitting in the garage area of his unfinished home, surrounded by large planks of sheetrock he is now putting up himself.
Thompson, like many people, did repairs to his uninsured bungalow after the storm. He put in a new water and heating system and made the house livable, only to be told by the state it was “substantially damaged,” a designation that mandated homeowners to raise their houses in order to get flood insurance.
Since the storm, Thompson has moved eight times and is on his fifth different RREM representative.
“I’ve sent in the paperwork a thousand times,” he said. “Stuff gets lost, or they need more.”
“I’m 68; this isn’t how I want to spend my retirement,” he said. “Mentally and physically I can’t take it anymore. There are days when I don’t want to get out of bed.”
Next to Thompson’s property are two vacant lots, then a house, then a third lot for sale. Down the street a contractor left a modular home unprotected and mold set in. Only the elevating pilings remain where the house was supposed to sit.
“When you drive along these streets,” Quinn said, “you see a lot of new houses and things look put back together. But then you look close …”
In Quinn’s neighborhood, a house across street from his lot is raised but there are no stairs leading in and the garage door is nailed shut with plywood. Two doors down, a ranch home remains vacant, the work permits yellowed by age.
Quinn is still trying to find a contractor. He spent the first three years after Sandy fighting his insurance company, which paid him $90,000 on his $250,000 policy for his destroyed home, which was swamped with five-feet of bay water.
“I bought it for $300,000 a year-and-a-half before the storm,” he said. “The insurance company came in and told me the cracks and holes in the foundation existed before the storm. Luckily I had all my home inspection reports from when I bought it. Still, it cost me $43,000 in legal fees to get them to give me the full amount.”
These are the kinds of stories Quinn wanted to tell the people in Houston – but he didn’t have the heart.
“You know, at that point, people are on the edge,” he said. “I didn’t want to tell them what was coming. It might have pushed them over.”