By Steven Rodas
It took eight years for Carol and Jim Ferraioli to finally get back to their place in Port Monmouth.
Their home off Compton Creek, less than a mile from Sandy Hook Bay, was left badly damaged during Sandy. They had qualified for a state reconstruction grant to fix and raise the house. But after embarking on what was expected to be a massive restoration effort, their contractor — who was later charged with fraud — walked off the job, leaving the place balanced precariously on temporary pilings, where it remained for years in danger of collapse.
Tony Caira spent nearly a decade living in his damaged single-story bungalow in Waretown while he waited on financing to rebuild. Sharon Zappia is still paying for both a rental property and a home in Atlantic City she hasn’t been able to live in since 2012.
Ten years after Sandy, the road to recovery for some has remained rocky — a journey beset by roadblocks that have included fights over insurance payouts, threatened clawbacks from the state over aid money already spent, battles with unscrupulous contractors, crippling money problems for many, and a day-to-day bureaucratic maze of regulatory red tape that was never easy to navigate.
Some, exhausted by the process or tapped out financially, never returned to their homes or reopened their businesses, state officials say.
Daniel Kelly, executive director of the Governor’s Disaster Recovery Office, told a joint Assembly hearing earlier this month that in retrospect, the question wasn’t whether they could get aid to those who were impacted.
“We know we can,” he said.
But he said anyone who’s been through the post-Sandy recovery effort would say it was an experience they’d never want to go through again. “It’s a horrible process,” he acknowledged. “Even when it goes smoothly.”
Nothing went smoothly for the Ferraiolis.
The early hints of Halloween along Creek Road in the quiet suburban neighborhood where the couple lives seem to explode inside their home. Ghoulish ornaments surround their modest living room. A pair of striped witch’s legs poke out of a wreath on the front door with a matching one on the adjacent wall. A purple pumpkin container sits on the coffee table and a skeletal mermaid poses underneath the TV.
On this day in early October, they were marking a homecoming of sorts, delayed for years by the extent of the damage to their house and then by issues with a contractor who they said took their money without completing the job. While they had actually moved back in two years ago after having lived in a rental in town for most of the time since the storm, they had been forced to put off celebrating the marathon effort after COVID struck.
But a celebration it was, as about a dozen friends began to trickle in, not only to congratulate the couple for their perseverance in rebuilding, but to note the ten-year anniversary of a storm that had tested many of them in ways they never could have imagined.
Jim Ferraioli, 64, said about $100,000 in property and family possessions were lost that were not covered by insurance. It wasn’t until he began talking about the lost photos of his kids and other family members, however — a lifetime of memories taken by the storm in the flooding — that he became visibly emotional.
“Photos of my children when they were born, when they’re growing up. Photos of me and my family when we were growing up. They’re irreplaceable,” he said, thinking back to the sodden mess that became of those snapshots. “You can’t put a price on that.”
The flooding, though, was only part of the couple’s problems. They soon found themselves victims of a contractor who prosecutors said took hundreds of thousands of dollars from more than 30 people after he was paid to do major repairs to homes damaged by Superstorm Sandy, but did little or no work.
In the Ferraiolis’ case, they said they had given the contractor $64,000, but claimed he did little more than leave their wrongly lifted home on the verge of collapse. The contractor later pleaded guilty to state charges of money laundering and theft.
“I talk to people, and I hear the stories from them. Some say, ‘Oh yeah, I had a contractor and they messed up and they didn’t do this, and they took my money and I had to get a lawyer,’” remarked Ferraioli, in discussing the experience. He believed the state needs to make home contractors more accountable.
“It’s different with other types of contractors in New Jersey,” he noted. “We have electricians that are registered and licensed with the state. Plumbers, registered and licensed with the state. But you have a lot of contractors that are not under the same guidelines, so they get away with a lot more. They could do lousy work and say, ‘Well, tough.’”
A QUESTION OF INSURANCE
The two had been on vacation in Cabo San Lucas, the famed resort city on the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula, when Sandy hit New Jersey. They knew a storm was coming before they left for Mexico. But they had gotten through Hurricane Irene the year before and while their street had flooded, the water had only come to the bottom step of his deck.
“We figured, okay, this is another storm. How bad could it be?” recalled Jim.
It was bad.
While in Mexico, he got a terse text from his son.
“It said we have no house,” he said. “I tried to call, but the power was shut down so I couldn’t get through. I was trying to text them. I couldn’t get any information.”
When they finally returned home, they discovered at least four and a half feet of water had inundated the first floor of the house, with up to six feet in other parts. While Ferraioli had flood insurance, he said he had not understood the coverage.
It was a common refrain among others who lived through Sandy.
Union Beach Mayor Charles W. Cocuzza, whose town was among the most impacted by the storm, said his flood insurance policy provides for 100% replacement. But he knows if his home is destroyed and completely wiped out by flooding, he’s not going to be made whole.
“A lot of (what) people were told after Sandy here in Union Beach (was) ‘yeah the floodwaters didn’t destroy your house. The wind did it. The wind pushed the water. It was the wind that caused that, not the water,” he said. “And they will get away with it if you don’t appeal to them.”
Ferraioli said he had never lived in a flood zone before.
“So I didn’t know the little fine print when I bought the house,” he explained.
At issue was a separate homeowners insurance policy that Ferraioli had bought, which he believed covered the contents of the house. So when he got flood insurance as well, he opted for just property coverage, but not the content. He said he figured that was already under the homeowners policy. He said his insurance agent had pointed to a few feet off the floor and told him, “We cover from here up.”
Flood insurance coverage went from that point down.
When Sandy hit, however, everything was underwater, along with just about everything above and below that imaginary line. It all went to the curb.
“I got nothing for it. And I collect. I collect all kinds of stuff, like baseball cards, lithographs — all garbage. The furniture. Everything that was underwater,” Ferraioli said. “I lost a lot.”
But even an appeals process ties people up into yet more delays. Eventually, he said, people choke under the weight of their own finances.
Christine O’Brien, president of the Insurance Council of New Jersey — an advocacy group with members that include the largest and most prominent insurance companies in the state like NJM Group, Liberty Mutual and State Farm — said insurance carriers in New Jersey where major storms like Sandy are not as common as places like Florida and Louisiana were not initially prepared to assess the storm aftermath.
“Unfortunately, in New Jersey, unless you live on the coast, the majority of homeowners or renters don’t possess flood insurance,” O’Brien added. “They’ve not been told that they’re in a flood zone. But we learned from Sandy a lot of people in the path of that superstorm did not have flood (insurance). So unfortunately, that is a very hard lesson that New Jerseyans learned in terms of what your homeowner’s covers, and the value of affording yourself flood insurance.”
Asked about the hardships residents statewide faced and continue to reckon with, O’Brien said insurers provided resources amid Sandy to help residents navigate a process many were unfamiliar with or new to.
“Overall, I think the industry responded as best they could and got a good portion of people back into their homes or at least made whole as they were looking to relocate or rebuild within a fairly decent amount of time,” she said.
WITHOUT A PLAYBOOK
Tony Caira, 58, of Waretown, who lived in an 800-square-foot bungalow in the Ocean County community on Barnegat Bay, has endured a decade-long struggle to renovate.
When Sandy struck, he and his wife Nancy had evacuated to a friend’s home across town that was not as close to the water. But when they returned, they found the bungalow had sustained significant flooding and storm damage. The house had been inundated by three feet of water, the garage door had to be replaced and there were holes in walls that his dog, Gloria, would run through.
Then they got a quick education in engineering. Unlike so many others in the flood zones — maps designed by FEMA to show which areas have the highest risk of flooding — they were unable to elevate the bungalow.
“The house wasn’t structurally sound to do that,” Caira explained, pointing to the home’s flat roof and concrete floor getting in the way of elevating. “You can’t raise that. That’s gonna stay on the ground. We kind of learned a lot about building.”
At the same time, Caira said he did not have the money to demolish and rebuild their home, nor could they sell it because of the damage. They would spend years living in the damaged property, seeking help.
Ultimately, he said they received a $150,000 grant under the Homeowner Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program which was administered by the state Department of Community Affairs and funded by the federal government. Later, they were eligible for another $80,000 from the state through a supplemental funding program. The plan: knock down the place and start over.
Money was doled out based on the estimated cost of repairs and other funds the homeowners received such as insurance, FEMA and the Small Business Administration, the state said.
Caira admitted he would not have remained at the ruined home in Waretown if he could have left.
Living in an area that had experienced so much flooding would not have been his choice, he said, but to get the financial aid, he had to commit to rebuilding. So he stayed, despite having to “tap into my 401K” to help “build a house I wasn’t prepared to build.”
His wife, Nancy, who led efforts in Trenton to marshal resources for Sandy survivors, would not live to see those plans come to fruition. She died in November 2020 following complications from Marfan Syndrome, an inherited genetic connective tissue disorder.
Caira, a substitute teacher, left his ruined home to move in with a friend in Waretown more than a year ago, in January 2021. The bungalow was demolished April 2021 and construction began on a new house in January 2022, he said. He hopes to move in this month.
“I know she’d be blown away by it,” he said of his wife. “I just I wish she was here to see it with me. But I have I have a funny feeling that she’s still hanging around, you know …” he added.
Looking back, Caira wished there had been a playbook for people like him to deal with such disasters. “Everything was a brand-new kind of experience. I don’t even know how you would plan for that much of a catastrophe,” he said.
Abigail Perkiss, a history professor at Kean University and author of “Hurricane Sandy on New Jersey’s Forgotten Shore,” said Caira wasn’t alone in wanting more guidance.
Following more than 80 interviews — conducted largely by undergraduate students at Kean — with Sandy survivors from Keyport, Keansburg, Union Beach and Port Monmouth, it was among the common threads.
“They felt paralyzed because they didn’t know exactly where to start,” Perkiss said. “As a society, we don’t necessarily have that handbook, right? We don’t have a script for what to do in disaster management. And again and again, communities are left to kind of rewrite that as they go.”
While not exactly a playbook refined to manage natural disasters, O’Brien, of the Insurance Council of New Jersey, said that after Sandy the state passed a law in 2013 that requires homeowners’ insurers to provide policyholders a one-page summary of the policy explaining “notable coverages and exclusions under the policy” that are “written in a simple, clear, understandable, and easily readable way.”
As for Caira, he is proud of his new home, but still called the moment bittersweet.
“Christmas is coming. I have no desire to put any of my Christmas stuff up,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who has helped marshal billions in funding for Sandy relief, said while there’s been tremendous progress over the past decade, the recovery work is far from over.
“Families moved back into their homes and businesses reopened their doors. But the truth is, the federal agencies that respond to disasters failed New Jerseyans and far too many families still remain displaced — and that is unacceptable,” he said.
Amanda Devecka-Rinear, executive director of the New Jersey Organizing Project and the founding director of the New Jersey Resource Project, non-profit advocacy groups that help Sandy survivors, said ways must be found to help support people in the wake of any storm, here in New Jersey or nationally.
“People get discouraged. People give up. People get sick. It takes a lot to get through,” she said. “It shouldn’t be that way.”
A big issue right now are the clawbacks being sought for and state assistance funding that was overpaid to some storm survivors. The government wants some of that money back.
Most of those involved clawback notices over a “duplication of benefits.” It is not allowable for them to receive aid from more than one government source. Others were over the disbursement of funds for receiving what officials deemed an over-payment.
New Jersey Organization Project organizers said the problem is sometimes framed as Sandy victims receiving too much money when in reality, many had to seek aid from more than one source to survive and rebuild or lift their homes, which they were largely encouraged to do.
Joe Mangino of Stafford Township, the board president of the New Jersey Organizing Project, told the joint hearing of the Assembly’s Committee on Environment and Solid Waste and the Special Committee on Infrastructure and Natural Resources earlier this month that he lost a home, a business and a second job because of Sandy. Now, he complained, he has learned the state overpaid his contractor and wants to claw that money back.
“The contractor received an over-disbursement of funds. Why do I have to pay for it?” he asked
Officials in the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs said there are currently 1,887 homeowners who owe grant funds back totaling $76.2 million. Those grants are subject to federal laws and regulations, explained spokeswoman Lisa M. Ryan of the clawbacks, which are intended to ensure that recipients do not receive funds from multiple sources for the same purpose, in excess of what is allowable to repair or rebuild their home.
“Any funds a homeowner receives for repairs to their damaged residence must be considered in the grant award calculation in order to prevent a duplication of benefits or disbursements that exceed their unmet need,” said Ryan.
Last summer, the U.S. House voted to give the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development the power to waive the repayments (the Senate would need to pass legislation that includes the provision and President Joe Biden would then need to sign it). That followed congressional action from four months prior that paused the repayment deadline for everyone to 2025.
Since 2018, Gov. Phil Murphy has put a freeze on requiring repayment from homeowners who owe grant funds back to the rebuilding programs. The Murphy Administration has also been in continuous dialogue with New Jersey’s congressional delegation about finding a federal solution.
“I’ve frozen clawbacks and I’m proud of that,” Murphy said in mid-October. “(The) clawbacks were awful because folks overwhelmingly in good faith were taking proceeds to get themselves back on their feet only to find out later that somebody at some level miscalculated. I mean, come on. They’re already in enough pain. So I want a solution to this.”
The governor said he would not comment on pending state legislation that would also address the issue.
Matt Rusinski, a 43-year-old software engineer, said without the freeze he would have had to consider selling his home.
“I don’t have $50,000 to repay,” said Rusinski of the clawback letter he received.
A Polish immigrant who moved to Toms River when he was 12, Rusinski said his home was elevated already when Sandy hit but after the storm, work was required to refurbish and construct the first and third floors. His insurance company only paid out $14,000.
“I kind of got screwed because my insurance company deemed my first floor a basement, even though it isn’t,” he said. “It was a fully finished first floor.”
He said he received $150,000 in RREM grant money and another $20,000 low-interest loan from the Small Business Administration — money that was made available to home and business owners impacted by Sandy, according to Menendez’s office.
But around 2018, he was notified that he needed to pay back close to $60,000 due to a duplication of benefits and an over-disbursement of funds. He was told the work required for his home merited fewer funds than the full grant amount he received from the state. After appealing the amount due with the state that was lowered to $50,000, according to Rusinski.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s a giant weight hanging over my shoulders and I have to wake up and live with this on a daily basis.”
Others, like Sharon Zappia, are still waiting for more money to arrive. The insurance payout is long gone, a personal loan from a friend needs to be repaid soon, and on top of it she’s paying $2,500 a month for rent and a mortgage on a home she hasn’t been able to live in for 10 years, she said.
Zappia said she waited out the storm in her Atlantic City home because she couldn’t find shelter for her dog.
Much of the exterior of the home was badly damaged and when she walked down to the first floor she found dead ghost crabs and minnows floating among her belongings. An oil tank on the property also ruptured.
“The oil was everywhere, on the streets, on the steps to come into the house,” said Zappia, who is now 66 and sells real estate. “It was a mess. I had a lot of things that were destroyed. Christmas ornaments and items that were stored in the first floor that were destroyed. Things that I had since I married at 24 years old. It was scary but to be honest with you, nothing’s been as scary as the disaster recovery system.”
Like Rusinski, she was awarded $150,000 from the state’s RREM program and used it in part to lift her century-old home. But because of the age of the structure, the expenses soon mounted beyond what the grant covered.
After advocates fought for Sandy victims to receive additional supplemental funding, Zappia said she was awarded another $138,000 just over a year ago. But she said she still hasn’t seen a penny of it.
Documentation of the work is required, but even though she said she’s rigorously outlined the renovations and stayed in touch with state project managers and housing advisors, she continues to encounter delays.
She likened the process to a game of telephone. Speaking with one advisor, being foisted on another before a third comes into the picture and asks her some of the same questions as the first.
A finish line is not in sight.
“The disaster recovery system is broken and needs to be fixed for future victims,” Zappia said. “They shouldn’t be re-victimized by the very system that’s supposed to help them.”
Devecka-Rinear points to some of the same issues involving storm recovery now being encountered by victims of last year’s Hurricane Ida.
“It’s really like Groundhog Day,” she remarked. “Over and over again, we let people down after a disaster and it’s just unconscionable in our state, in New Jersey, in this country, in the United States, that we cannot do better — especially as we’re seeing more severe and more frequent storms.”