More help is coming for NJ Ida victims. Groups helping survivors call 16-month wait ‘criminal.’
By Karen YI
New Jersey’s Department of Human Services says it began making case managers available to Hurricane Ida survivors in January — more than 16 months after a devastating storm that led to tens of thousands of state residents applying for federal emergency aid.
Storm victim advocates say they’re still working with families who’ve been pushed into foreclosure, debt and unsafe living conditions but believe much of that could have been avoided if survivors were connected with comprehensive help sooner. They point to examples of other disasters where case managers were available within a few months.
“This is the most abysmal, criminal failure that I’ve ever seen in a disaster case management program in my entire career,” said Keith Adams, executive director of opens in a new windowNew Jersey Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, or NJ VOAD, which coordinates a network of more than 100 disaster recovery organizations. “This has a real cost to people’s lives.”
A looming deadline underscores the urgency: Storm victims only have until Sunday, March 5 to apply for extended federal rental assistance. Gothamist previously reported opens in a new windowfewer than 200 residents in New Jersey had received that aid as of late last year. In some cases, assistance organizations said survivors didn’t know the aid existed — the sort of challenge case managers could help address.
Adams estimated that after a opens in a new windowmajor disaster declaration, case workers provided by states and funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency help about 10% of affected residents with key services like rental assistance, legal help or health care services. They make it possible for struggling survivors to maneuver the tangled ecosystem of federal and state aid programs, nonprofit services and private insurance markets.
The network of nonprofits Adams coordinates began laying the groundwork under the expectation that case managers would arrive in a few months. That meant identifying families in need, helping them gut their homes for rebuilding, raising money and recruiting volunteers.
But despite the widespread impact of the storm, he is considering returning a donor check for the first time in his career because he didn’t have families lined up who needed the help.
“Our whole system kind of hinges on having case managers,” Adams said. “Not only are these survivors getting cheated out of government programs but it’s also causing them to lose from donated money and donated labor.”
Eva Loayza-McBride, a spokesperson for the Department of Human Services, disputed any characterization of the timeline as a “delay” and said the state moved ahead once it secured the federal grant.
“The vendor was awarded and we issued a contract and they started the hiring process,” she said. The state hired opens in a new windowDisaster Services Corporation-Society of St. Vincent de Paul, a Catholic lay organization focused on disaster recovery assistance, to provide the case managers.
Residents of New York — where Ida killed opens in a new window18 people and where about 41,000 families have already received federal disaster assistance — had access to case workers by mid-2022, according to that state’s Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services. FEMA said it awarded New York $16 million for its case management program in February 2022. Case managers were hired and began outreach in July, according to the state.
In New Jersey — where Ida killed opens in a new window30 people and where about 45,000 people have received federal aid — the timetable lagged behind that by several months. FEMA officials say they received New Jersey’s application in November 2021, asked the state for more information over a two-and-a-half-month period, informed Congress and opens in a new windowmade a $15 million award to hire case managers in April.
New Jersey put out a request for bids in July and hired its vendor in September 2022, Loayza-McBride said. State officials said they needed time to put out a request for bids, evaluate them and then award a contract. From there, once an organization was selected, the organization needed to staff up and train workers, they said.
Loayza-McBride said 20 case managers have been hired, and DHS would continue to assess whether more are needed. Disaster Services Corporation CEO Elizabeth Disco-Shearer referred questions to the state.
Adams, who has spent more than 40 years involved with disaster recovery and emergency management, said when Hurricane Sandy hit New Jersey just over a decade ago, case managers were on the ground in six months.
Maryann Morris, whose opens in a new windowManville home was inundated during Ida, said she received a call from a case worker for the first time late last week. The worker offered her clothing and furniture, which Morris said she no longer needed 17 months after the storm.
But Morris said the case worker made no mention of the Sunday deadline to apply for FEMA’s extended rental assistance program. The program makes rental assistance available for up to 18 months. More than 10,700 New Jersey residents received initial aid for two months, but as of December of last year, only 181 had received the extended aid.
Morris, who had previously been denied for additional rental assistance, said FEMA finally approved her $23,000 payment last month.
“I’m worried for all the Hurricane Ida victims that didn’t push like I did that are entitled to that money,” she said.
Maria Lopez Nuñez, deputy director of organizing and advocacy at the opens in a new windowIronbound Community Corporation in Newark, said she’s worked with storm survivors who were permanently displaced, or had to go deep into debt because of damage to their homes.
“Everything helps, but for a lot of people it’s too little, too late,” she said.
Meghan Mertyris, the Hurricane Ida recovery lead at the opens in a new windowNew Jersey Organizing Project, described it as a “ridiculously long timetable.” She said she hadn’t been aware that case managers had started.
“[Survivors] can’t live in limbo for one-and-a-half years. A critical opportunity has been missed not having the case managers out,” she said.
Mertyris said there are families facing foreclosure who could have avoided it if case managers had been available shortly after the storm. She said her organization helps as many people as it can, but some survivors can still fall through the cracks.
“Navigating our recovery system is a full-time job,” Mertyris said. “The average person doesn’t have that kind of flexibility in their schedule, nor that time to spend advocating for themselves.”
Sue Marticek, executive director of opens in a new windowCompass 82, a disaster recovery nonprofit, said her organization was hired as a subcontractor for the case management vendor, Disaster Services Corporation. But Compass 82 pulled out of the agreement last month because it was taking too long to get people help, she said.
Marticek said ongoing negotiations between federal and state officials over spending decisions left nonprofits like hers in a holding pattern, waiting to understand what would be reimbursed and what wouldn’t.
She said federal and state officials need to do better and prioritize bringing timely help to residents, especially as the climate crisis threatens to bring stronger and more frequent storms.
“We have people who are going bankrupt. We have people who are going into foreclosure,” said Marticek, who has worked in disaster recovery for 23 years. “We have people who have moved back home into homes that are still damaged. Some of them have mold, but they have no other places to turn because for 17 months we haven’t been able to put together a cohesive disaster case management program.”