STAFFORD — If Joe Karcz had gone with his gut, he’d be home by now, instead of staring at his empty lagoon-front lot in Stafford Township.
A disabled construction worker, Karcz, whose home was badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy’s storm surge, first thought he’d rehab it on his own, but then decided to get the funding through what’s become a controversial state-administered federal housing recovery program.
That program came under attack on Thursday by dozens of Sandy victims who say they – like thousands of others – are still homeless because the state has mismanaged the multi-million dollar Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation Program, one of the initiatives that promised to help them with recovery.
“It’s to the point now that it’s a joke,” said Karcz, 52, as he stood on the sandy lot that used to hold his 1,260-square-foot four-bedroom ranch. “I’ll make sure I’ll be home for Thanksgiving.”
Nearly three years after the storm, Sandy victims are trying to turn up the heat on Gov. Chris Christie who they said has turned a deaf ear to their pleas for help. In their ongoing “Finish the job” campaign, members of the New Jersey Organizing Project laid out a list of demands.
“Why after 2 ½ years after Superstorm Sandy have thousands of families still not gotten home for good?” asked Joe Mangino, whose own home in Stafford still isn’t repaired.
Mangino was one of about 20 protesters who followed Christie to the Agriculture Summit in Iowa in March to confront him about their plight, after he refused to meet with them. Mangino said.
“He was the only one who wouldn’t meet with our group to find out how to fix this program,” Mangino said, while standing outside his still unfinished home in the Beach Haven West section of Stafford.
By that point, 110 days had passed with no work on his house, which had to be elevated, he said. After that Iowa confrontation, which garnered national attention, Mangino said he received a phone call from his builder that his home would be elevated the following week.
And it was. But three weeks ago, his construction manager was fired and no work has been done since then. Mangino said the June 4 target date of returning to him home is now gone.
“It’s high time for the RREM program to get straightened out and for families to get home,” Mangino said. “But the governor, he’s off doing other things. He hasn’t finished the job on Sandy. So while he’s busy touring the country, we’re here touring the Shore to highlight solutions to get families home.”
He said they want RREM money moving faster, transparency in how the money is spent, continued housing assistance for displaced residents and realistic recovery goals.
Christie spokesman Brian Murray said that the governor had pledged since before Sandy’s storm waters receded to help every affected family return to normal lives as quickly as possible.
“We knew from the start the rebuilding process would be longer than any of us would want and it will never be soon enough for any family waiting to get back into a home,” Murray said. “Still, we’ve made significant progress in speeding up our housing programs and moving people through the process, and this entire administration will continue to work in earnest to ensure every family’s recovery is seen through to completion.”
Of the 10,800 families in the RREM program, more than 1,000 homes have been completed, he said, noting the program is averaging 49 home completions a week.
The New Jersey Organizing Project arranged a bus tour to three hard-hit neighborhoods at the Shore on Thursday, but when the bus broke down on the trip from Little Egg Harbor to Union Beach, participants car-pooled to the final stop in Stafford.
Paul Jeffrey, president of the Ortley Beach Voters and Taxpayers Association, said Toms River, where thousands of homes were severely damaged or destroyed, has issued 1,670 demolition permits for 1,250 new homes, but only 500 are completed. Of the 515 elevation permits issued, only 113 have been completed, he said.
“The process is painfully slow. It’s a quagmire of paperwork, as many of you know,” Jeffrey said. “We don’t know where the money is.”
Jeffrey said he was in the RREM program to get money to elevate his home but withdrew after nine months out of frustration over conflicting construction information.