BY: DANA DIFILIPPO
For almost two hours Thursday, government official after government official recounted at a legislative hearing the progress New Jersey has made in storm resiliency in the decade since Hurricane Sandy — the state’s deadliest, costliest storm — killed 38 and caused more than $30 billion in damage.
Eric Vaughn didn’t want to hear it.
“A lot of smooth talkers came up before me. A lot of smooth talkers,” he said, bristling at the mic as he testified before an Assembly panel. “But talk is cheap. What I need is action.”
A single father from Manville, Vaughn has been living with his 3- and 5-year-old sons in an RV in his driveway since Hurricane Ida, the second deadliest storm to hit New Jersey, flooded his home in August 2021.
“I’m no closer to being home than I was when this first happened. It’s a sham,” he said. “If you learned so many lessons from Sandy, why is it taking so much longer for Ida victims to get grant money? The process is broken, and I need help.”
With Sandy’s 10th anniversary in three weeks, the Assembly’s committees on environment, solid waste, infrastructure, and natural resources hosted the joint hearing to learn about where the state stands now on storm preparedness, recovery, and victim assistance.
But Vaughn was one of several hurricane survivors and environmental advocates who pushed back on officials’ claims that New Jersey has made so many strides since Sandy that the state is well-positioned for the inevitable next storm.
“I wish I could say that after Superstorm Sandy, we did all the things, we were resilient, and we were ready to go for the next storm — because we know the next storm is coming,” said Allison McLeod, policy director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “But unfortunately, I can’t say that.”
One step forward, two steps back
State officials recounted a wide-ranging list of things the state has done since Sandy, including buying — and demolishing — hundreds of homes in flood-prone areas to restore the natural habitat; elevating thousands more homes; investing billions in sand dunes and coastal protection projects; and upgrading utility infrastructure to reduce outages.
But environmentalists warned that the state continues making decisions that erode such progress. Dan Benson of Clean Ocean Action pointed to the state’s $5 billion plan to widen the turnpike’s extension to the Holland Tunnel, NJ Transit’s “slow” pace in electrifying its buses, and new fossil fuel projects.
“We have until 2030 to reduce global emissions by 50% or else the effects of climate change will be worse and they’ll be irreversible. The governor and his agencies recognize the urgency and need for action … but the state’s actions to date are not doing enough to minimize future harms,” Benson said.
McLeod pointed to the state’s inaction on long-stalled flood control rules. Updating rules would protect communities of color, which often bear the brunt of storm damage, she said.
“During Hurricane Ida in the city of Elizabeth, all four New Jerseyans that lost their lives were in affordable housing. That’s clearly a failure in policy, a failure in preparation,” McLeod said. “We shouldn’t continue to put vulnerable people in vulnerable places.”
Many of those who testified agreed bureaucratic hurdles, along with the glacial pace of government relief, kept help out of the hands of those who needed it, for far too long.
If you learned so many lessons from Sandy, why is it taking so much longer for Ida victims to get grant money? The process is broken, and I need help.
– Eric Vaughn, Hurricane Ida survivor
Joe Mangino told legislators it took him three years to return home after Sandy destroyed his home in Stafford Township. Now, seven years later, he’s still fighting the state, which overpaid a contractor who rebuilt his home — and wants Mangino to pay the overage back.
“Why do I have to pay for it when the state paid the contractor? That should not come out of my pocket, and that’s something I’m pretty damn adamant about,” he said.
Such “clawbacks” — authorities trying to recover wrongfully disbursed money — are a common complaint among her constituents, agreed Assemblywoman DiAnne Gove (R-Ocean), whose home also “sustained significant damage” during Sandy.
Mangino implored legislators to support a bill Gove sponsored that would establish procedures for recovery of Sandy relief overpayments, including a path for low- and moderate-income residents to have the debt pardoned.
“You could make the 10th anniversary for me a dream by having me sit next to the governor as he signs that bill forgiving clawbacks,” Mangino told the committee.
Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak (D-Middlesex), who chairs the natural resources committee, agreed “many unscrupulous people took advantage” of the billions of dollars paid out to help New Jersey recover from Sandy.
“Oversight is needed to make sure the money gets into the hands of those who need it and not those who are taking advantage of a serious disaster,” he said.
Getting relief to storm-impacted residents quickly should be a priority for policymakers to ensure residents don’t move out of New Jersey for states less ravaged by extreme weather, Karabinchak said.
Dan Kelly, executive director of the governor’s disaster recovery office, largely blamed federal authorities and their “pretty arcane rules” for assistance delays, saying the state still is waiting on $228 million in federal funding for Ida relief and doesn’t expect to receive it until at least Thanksgiving.
“We’ve had homeowners scream at us: ‘Go faster! Why are you taking so long?’” Kelly said. “We don’t totally control that process. Candidly, I think it’s a federal solution.”
Vaughn doesn’t expect that’ll happen. He’s had President Biden and Gov. Phil Murphy waving to flood survivors and television news crews in his town, pledging support. And he’s attended a few meetings with members of Congress to ask for help.
“I leave those meetings with less hope than I had going into the meeting,” he said.
That’s why he was in Trenton on Thursday.
“I’m sure all of you guys on the panel here have a home to go to, right? You have a nice, cozy, comfy home, no issues, no flood water,” he said. “My question to this committee is: What are you going to do?”