Nine months after the remnants of Hurricane Ida struck, killing at least 30 New Jerseyans and displacing thousands, flood survivors on Wednesday called on the federal government to get disaster aid out more quickly and learn from the struggles families are still facing from past tragedies, including Superstorm Sandy.
“As dramatic as the flood itself is, even worse is the storm after the storm, when the floodwaters are gone and you are left by yourself to pick up the pieces,” said Meghan Mertyris, an organizer with the New Jersey Organizing Project, a grassroots organization of storm survivors. “Disaster recovery doesn’t have to be like this.”
Congressmen Tom Malinowski, D-Hunterdon, and Andy Kim, D-Burlington, joined more than two dozen activists and survivors gathered on the Statehouse steps in Trenton on Wednesday — the first day of hurricane season — holding enlarged photos of inundated cars, city streets transformed into lakes and mountains of ruined belongings piled outside.
Shashuna Atwater lost 27 years’ worth of photos and coveted mementoes including diplomas and ultrasounds after Ida flooded her basement in Newark. She escaped the rancid smell and feces-filled water with her 10-year-old daughter but returned after a few days because they couldn’t afford to pay for a hotel. She applied for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency days after, and still hasn’t heard back.
“What happened? You guys had me thinking I was waiting for something, anything, and to just not respond at all?” Atwater said of FEMA. “I think that’s totally messed up. You kept me hanging for almost a year.”
Kim said families who need help communicating with FEMA should contact his office, so his constituent services staff “can take it on and be their advocate to knock and hammer on FEMA’s door every day and try to push the case forward.”
FEMA passed out $250 million in grants to close to 45,000 families to help pay for things like temporary housing, repairs, replacing lost items and medical care, according to data through the end of May.
Other activists criticized the speed at which certain grant money is moving. After Congress approved funds in September for Community Development Block Disaster Recovery to help rebuild homes and strengthen them against future storms, it took until March to announce New Jersey would receive $228 million. It’s unclear when the grant programs will open and families can apply.
“I’m disheartened when I sit here and hear about how we have money that has been appropriated but the money doesn’t seem to find its way to the human beings who are in need,” said Chief Vincent Mann of the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lenape Nation.
The New Jersey Organizing Project supports setting up a permanent community grant program with established rules to speed up the process and cut down on bureaucracy that occurs when agencies start from scratch after each new disaster.
“It’s like FEMA is on the ground and we’re going to help you, but the max we’ll give out is like $40,000, so hope your insurance helps,” said Amanda Devecka-Rinear, director of the New Jersey Organizing Project. “Oh, you didn’t have insurance or didn’t get enough from insurance? Wait a year, and then you can get a grant, which requires new plans and approvals, which is the slowest way to help disaster survivors you can possibly invent. And this happened 10 years ago to Sandy families.”
Matt Rosinsky said he is “still dealing with my recovery” after Superstorm Sandy damaged his Toms River home almost 10 years ago.
“I’m currently being asked to return funds to the very same state program that was there to help me get back into my home, claiming I got too much funding,” Rosinksy said. “I followed every guideline and protocol. I showed them $170,000 worth of invoices for my contractors. I have no way to repay $60,000 they are asking for.”
Rosinksy said the only way he can come up with $60,000 is by selling his home and using the equity to repay the government.
New Jersey’s congressional delegation has worked to cancel such clawbacks, and the Murphy administration announced a freeze on the recoupment process in 2018, saying the state would not attempt to collect repayment, but many Sandy survivors feel like they are left in limbo.
“That was one of the biggest problems in Sandy, just communicating what people could actually do,” Kim said. “The government wasn’t upfront and clear enough about clawbacks and are now penalizing people for following the instructions. There’s a lot we need to do to get better at getting money out the door and just communicating.”