Survey tries to document lingering problems for Sandy survivors

Survey tries to document lingering problems for Sandy survivors by Michelle Brunetti Post

Thousands of New Jersey families still struggle to repair or lift their homes or businesses four years after Hurricane Sandy, but there is little data on the problems they face and how they are handling them.
That’s especially true for the almost 7,000 families who applied for help from a state-administered federal grant program and were turned down — sometimes mistakenly.
Two nonprofit groups are trying to fill in the blanks by conducting a survey called the Sandy Truth Project.

Volunteer Lawyers for Justice and the New Jersey Organizing Project created the survey with help from Rutgers University researchers.

They are asking people who suffered damages from Sandy to fill out a survey at newjerseyop.org/sandy-truth-project.html or call 973-645-1955 for a printed copy.

The effort launched in October when Stockton University student volunteers went door-to-door in Atlantic City asking people survey questions, said Jessica Limbacher, a staff attorney who leads VLJ’s Disaster Legal Response Program.

It was a week before the fourth anniversary of the storm, she said.

The state Department of Community Affairs has administered the $1.1 billion federal grant program for rebuilding and repairs called the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program.

About 40,000 primary homes were damaged by the storm, and the owners of about 15,000 of those applied for help from RREM. The program accepted 7,600.

Of those, only 4,300 had completed their repairs and construction after four years. Another 1,400 had returned to their homes anyway, living there while reconstruction continued.

Almost 7,000 homeowners who sought help didn’t get it, some after being inaccurately told they didn’t qualify.

Limbacher said the survey will try to find out what happened to that large contingent of people who faced significant damages but were left out of the assistance programs.

“We have about 250 surveys completed. Our goal is 500, so we’re about halfway there,” said Limbacher. “We are planning to wait a few more months to collect some more surveys.”

VLJ is a Newark based nonprofit that has been helping Sandy survivors with free legal advice and representation since right after the October 2012 storm, she said. It has a roster of about 2,000 lawyers willing to help, she said.

“They have been great. The problem now is, as you get farther out from the storm, the legal issues get more and more complicated,” said Limbacher. “It’s more difficult to find someone with the expertise and time and resources to take on a complex legal case.”

NJOP is a nonpartisan advocacy group founded by Sandy survivors in 2014 to help families go home and afford to stay there, and says is working to pass state legislation to prevent foreclosures on Sandy families and to hold contractors accountable.

Analysis will start once a large enough sample size has been collected, but from paging through those already received, Limbacher said, one issue jumped out at her: The number of people who say they still need help with mental-health issues four years after the natural disaster.

“There were a lot of great mental-health resources a year or two after Sandy, but now all the funding has run out,” Limbacher said. “People are saying they wish there were more resources now.”

The survey seeks to identify the main barriers to recovery and to push for solutions, Limbacher said.

It asks about issues such as problems with the state grant program and contractor disputes, as well the storm’s impact on finances and physical and mental health.

“We believe that having statistics will be a powerful tool in advocating for changes on behalf of Sandy victims,” Limbacher said.

Joe Mangino, co-founder of NJOP, said his group is seeing new problems emerge as the recovery drags on, “while the financial and health strains on families are evident.”

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