STAFFORD –A Democratic hopeful for his party’s nomination for Governor of New Jersey in 2017 took a bus tour Saturday with a group of impacted homeowners to sections of Manahawkin still recovering from Superstorm Sandy.
State Assemblyman John Wisniewski’s (D-19) office contacted the New Jersey Operating Project (NJOP), a local grassroots advocacy and lobbying group, after meeting two members at a Town Hall-style meeting at Stockton University last month, said NJOP co-founder, Joe Mangino.
He and co-founder Amanda Devecka-Rinear set up the meeting at Mangino’s house, followed by the bus tour.
The NJOP is a regional network of people standing up for South Jersey and the Shore after Sandy by working together to pass policies that make life better, change institutions, hold corporations accountable and ensure elected officials stand with their constituents, according to its Website.
Wisniewski sat in Mangino’s living room in Beach Haven West with about a dozen other NJOP members discussing health care, pensions and the local economy.
But most importantly, Wisniewski he wanted to hear about their post-Sandy experiences and ideas for moving forward.
The candidate listened as people told him their stories of trying to, or finally, getting back home while dealing with all the financial, physical and mental hardships, let alone the infinite levels of state and federal bureaucracy after the storm.
On the top of their list was that many had recently received “clawback” letters from the state’s Department of Consumers Affairs (DCA) demanding the return of grant money they were awarded through the federally funded Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program.
According to the DCA, when a homeowner prepares to close out of the RREM program, DCA completes a final review of their grant to make sure all work eligible for grant funds has been documented and included in the grant award calculation.
If not, the unused or unaccounted for funds must be returned.
The NJOP and other advocates feel in many cases the clawback happens because paperwork is missing from the audits or guidelines have not been followed properly by the state.
“I spent the last four years fighting to get my life back to normal. And when I finally did, this letter shows up,” said one Little Egg Harbor resident who asked not to be identified.
Julie Suarez, also of Little Egg Harbor said she initially was told her family needed to return $52,000 to the state. But the detailed spreadsheet that came with the letter did not come close her family’s actual costs.
After an appeal, the amount was cut in about half and she was offered a payment plan. “I’m struggling to make my mortgage and they want $715 a month. I don’t have it,” she said.
Wisniewski was given a folder with copies of several of the letters the group’s members had received.
Before boarding the shuttle bus, Wisniewski said the clawbacks should be eliminated. “They cause more hardship and misery than the money they are worth. People shouldn’t be punished for trying to get back home,” he said.
The shuttle bus, provided by the owners of Old Causeway and Mud City Crab House restaurants in Manahawkin, drove out to East Point, on to Cedar Bonnet Island and then past Mud City (Mallard Island).
Wisniewski sat up front with Mangino and Dan Quinn, who he met with Suarez at Stockton, acting as tour guides.
Quinn said while many of the homes in Beach Haven West that were damaged or destroyed have been raised or new ones built up on pilings, there were still many sitting on ground level slabs.
With climate change and rising sea levels, those homes will just be caught up in the same cycle next time, he said.
There needs to be resiliency planning and infrastructure changes to mitigate the damage caused by future storms, Quinn told Wisniewski.
Several of those ground level homes are also still empty, Quinn said. “There were lots of elderly people who retired here and blue-collar workers,” he said.
After Sandy, their insurance did not cover the cost of the damage. Plus, they did not have the money to rebuild or wait out the long process of getting RREM money, so they “walked away,” he said.
That has had a direct impact on the local small business owners as the area changes from a year-round community to summer homes, said Mangino.
Suarez said the same is true in her Mystic Island neighborhood in Little Egg Harbor Township. “There are at least eight empty houses within a two-minute walk of my house,” she said.
She also advocated for strong mitigation and resiliency programs.
Suarez said she read a study by the Rutgers Jacques Cousteau Coastal Research Center in Tuckerton that has predicted Mystic Island will be underwater by 2030, under current conditions.
“Then what am I supposed to do?” she asked.
At Devecka-Rinear’s home on Cedar Bonnet Island, Wisniewski saw first-hand how bad the situation could easily and quickly become much worse.
It was high tide and the bay water was only about a foot below the top of her bulkhead.
“This is only after a day of heavy rain, you can imagine what could happen with the next major storm,” she said.
Using a depth marker in front of her house for a reference, she pointed out the water came to about 6.5 feet above the street during Sandy.
Circling back to Mangino’s house via Bay Avenue, Wisniewski saw that most of the “Mud City” coastal marsh was submerged and the residential streets beyond were flooded at the high tide.
At the end of the tour, Wisniewski said in addition to eliminating the clawbacks, what he learned was there needs to be the development of comprehensive mitigation plans, including the buyouts of homes in flood-prone areas and affordable ways to raise homes.
Also, resiliency actions for the infrastructure such as power and roads. We can’t just have a patchwork of ideas, we need an overall plan, he said.
Most importantly, the state needs to recognize climate change is real, said Wisniewski. “It has been ignored or denied for the past seven years and that can’t go on,” he said.
Most of those on the bus signed Wisniewski’s petition to get on the June Democratic primary ballot, but Mangino said the NJOP was not making a formal endorsement at this time based on a single meeting with only a few of the hundreds of NJOP members present.
“I personally liked his ideas for health care and fixing the state’s pension fund,” he said.
Mangino also believes the Assemblyman realizes that there needs to be a statewide plan of resiliency and mitigation to address climate change and future storms.
The NJOP website is at www.newjerseyop.org.
Wisniewski’s campaign site is at wiz2017.com.
Both have Facebook and Twitter pages.