On Saturday, Oct. 29, the fourth anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, 130 people who either were directly affected or otherwise support the recovery cause attended a gathering at the Lighthouse Tavern in Waretown to raise money and to reflect on progress made and progress yet to make. Planned and led by the New Jersey Organizing Project, the event raised $8,000, which will support the community-funded Sandy Truth Project, the first of its kind, a community-based participatory post-Sandy survey.
Through the storm itself and the flood insurance and bureaucratic disasters that followed it, as NJOP founder Amanda Devecka-Rinear put it, “families and communities have fought for respect, dignity, and to make recovery programs work.” The party provided an opportunity to connect with others facing similar circumstances “and to recognize the fighting spirit of our communities,” she said.
Many donors bought tickets for those who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend. “We didn’t turn anybody away, and we were able to give away around 30 tickets.”
The most pressing matter at present is the foreclosure bill in the state Legislature that would buy time for those in danger of losing their homes as a result of Sandy-related financial straits.
Based on what the bill looks like today, according to Devecka-Rinear, its passage would allow for people in the RREM program, or people who received rental assistance from FEMA after Sandy, to apply for a forbearance on their mortgage. This is good news, especially for those who lost their primary homes and didn’t end up in RREM, or those located outside the nine counties that qualified for RREM and such programs, she said. It’s also good news for people already in foreclosure – the bill stops the clock for a few months to catch up – and for those not yet in foreclosure but struggling every month to pay the bills. Some breathing room might make it possible to finish rebuilding projects.
But to those who stand to benefit, what would the legislation really mean?
“I’ll have a life again,” says Tricia McAvoy of Brick. She has experienced “one problem after another” for four years, including post-traumatic stress because her neighborhood was not under evacuation orders, and she and her father, husband and two kids were trapped in and later rescued from the house, which is situated 15 feet from a bulkhead. Today she can’t go inside the house alone; the memories are too vivid.
“I’ll never forget the sound of the gurgling,” she said. “That was the water coming in.”
NJOP members Colleen Forest and Chuck Griffin, both from Little Egg Harbor, are at different stages of the process but share a common resolve: “I’m not going to stop until my neighborhood is restored,” Forest said. Forest moved back into her home about a month ago, while Griffin has seen no physical reconstruction work started yet because he got tangled up with a fraudulent contractor.
At this point, the toll on mental health is a concern for many. Forest, for example, had thought she was over the worst of the psychological trauma of coping with the grief and loss, but being back in her house now she finds the anxiety has returned. Some have a whole new wave of fear washing over them, haunted as they are by the past while standing in the shadow of an unknowable future.
Devecka-Rinear said she is confident the Senate and Assembly will pass the foreclosure bill; the real variable is the governor, who in January conditionally vetoed similar legislation. “I just hope he understands that he’ll be directly responsible for families losing their homes to banks if he vetoes it again,” she said.
Two days prior to the party, NJOP members had testified before the state Oversight and Regulatory Committee, where the chair committed to write legislation to address the critical problems and needs. While the governor keeps saying the state has recovered, Devecka-Rinear argues less than 50 percent of the families in the state’s RREM program are not finished with their construction or elevation projects.
And yet, “every day, residents find the strength and courage to keep pushing to get home.” As a galvanizing entity, NJOP and the coastal region it serves has “continued to stand together and fight to get families home and make sure they can afford to stay,” she said.
In addition to troubling financial and health issues, RREM has been sending recoupment or “clawback” letters to participants, requiring them to pay back thousands of dollars with no clear explanation or appeal process. The message from NJOP: “Don’t panic. We need to tackle this together.”
Moreover, New Jersey is the only coastal state in the country without a plan for sea level rise. “We’re concerned that we’re no more prepared for rising water and extreme weather now than we were before Sandy,” Devecka-Rinear said. “That puts millions of homes, jobs and families in jeopardy.”
So, plenty remains to be fixed and figured out.
The takeaway, from NJOP’s perspective: “We are the ones who are going to create change in our communities, and we’re going to do that by acting together. For folks that are still struggling to get home – know it’s not your fault. The recovery has failed many, many people just like you. Know that you’re not forgotten. We’re standing with you.”
— Victoria Ford