Touting tourism gains and distribution of rebuilding grants, Gov. Christie delivered a clear message last week on the state’s progress since Hurricane Sandy.
“We have recovered from Sandy,” he told business leaders at a Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey luncheon. “We’ve done it faster than Louisiana or Mississippi recovering from Katrina.”
But gauging the state’s recovery 3 1/2 years after the October 2012 storm depends on whom you ask – and how recovery is measured.
Christie noted last week that 4,000 families still are out of their homes. But he promoted recovery grants awarded through a state program and growth in tourism revenue, describing last summer as the best “for revenue in New Jersey history.”
New Jersey hotels recorded all-time highs in occupancy tax collections in July and August, said Brian Tyrrell, associate professor of hospitality and tourism management studies at Stockton University.
Trends in hotel stays tend to track similarly with day trips, Tyrrell said. In terms of tourism, he said, “we certainly have recovered.” The only Shore county whose hotel tax collections are down since 2012 is Atlantic County, with an 11 percent decrease – a period in which Atlantic City lost four casinos, he said.
But Sandy’s impact is noticeable. In the “vast majority” of New Jersey counties, hotel tax collections have climbed by double digits since 2012, compared with smaller or flat gains at the Shore, Tyrrell said – “explainable by Sandy, for sure.”
Meanwhile, thousands of homeowners, as Christie acknowledged, still are rebuilding.
Most homeowners in the state’s main rebuilding grant program have not finished construction. Of the 7,800 people in the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program, 3,150 have completed projects. “Nearly all” of the remaining 4,650 have started, according to Lisa Ryan, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Community Affairs.
The number of people still not home is “a pretty big number,” said Joe Mangino, cofounder of the New Jersey Organizing Project, a group that has criticized the state’s administration of the RREM program.
Mangino noted that the numbers don’t account for displaced residents not in the RREM program. The project’s executive director, Amanda Devecka-Rinear, said Christie’s statement that the state had recovered was “false and a complete insult to the thousands of families who are still struggling.”
All eligible applicants in the RREM program have signed grant-award agreements, and 97 percent have received at least one payment, Ryan said.
The state has disbursed $780 million to homeowners and expects to disburse another $220 million. New Jersey has spent federal Community Development Block Grant money – which funds the RREM program – faster than Louisiana did, said David Abramson, an associate professor at the New York University College of Global Public Health who is affiliated with the Tulane Center for Studies of Displaced Populations, a network of researchers studying long-term effects of Hurricane Katrina.
But disbursement of funds isn’t the only way to measure recovery. Abramson has conducted child and family health studies of households affected by Katrina and Sandy.
Three years after Katrina, 34 percent of Louisiana and Mississippi parents in Abramson’s study reported that their children were dealing with mental-health issues – as did 50 percent of New Jersey parents in the study three years after Sandy, Abramson said.
“These are really enduring issues,” Abramson said. “It’s hard to have a single metric” that assesses whether a state has completely recovered, he said.
The most vulnerable people had losses from Sandy “that were never recouped,” said Stephanie Hoopes, director of the United Way ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) Project, who authored a 2013 Rutgers study assessing the impact of Sandy and unmet recovery needs. Low-wage workers, for instance, lost $833 million in wages due to closed businesses, and federal emergency assistance was limited.
A Monmouth University survey in October 2015 of New Jersey residents hard hit by Sandy found that 41 percent said they needed money to help pay for rebuilding or elevation of damaged homes.
“Some houses, people just walked away from,” Ventnor Mayor Mike Bagnell said. He said his city was “about 80 to 85 percent recovered.”
“There’s still a lot of houses waiting to be raised. We’re still waiting on some approvals to repair some damaged infrastructure,” Bagnell said. The tax base took a hit from declining property values, and “we’re getting killed with tax appeals.”
Ventnor is planning a property revaluation, which Bagnell said he hopes will cut back on appeals. And he anticipates that new construction will boost the tax base.
“We will get back,” Bagnell said.
In Longport, homes have been elevated and jetties rebuilt. “Everything is the way it was, in my opinion, prior to Sandy,” Mayor Nicholas Russo said.
The recovery process hasn’t been just about repairing the damage, but also preparing for a future storm, Russo said. The jetties, for instance, were rebuilt with rocks four times bigger than before. The borough, after learning during Sandy that its fire trucks didn’t work in flood water, reevaluated its equipment needs.
Russo is convinced that such measures will prove necessary. “This is going to happen again in our lifetime, I’m sure,” he said.