Union Beach was one of the New Jersey towns that was hardest hit by Superstorm Sandy two years ago. More than 300 families there are still displaced. And their dearest wish is to just to go home.
Officials including U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez and Cory Booker toured the region Wednesday to see how those residents are faring. Accompanied by HUD Secretary Julian Castro and U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, the senators were not pleased, declaring “something is wrong.”
Andrea Kassimatis and four family members have been living for 18 months in a 37-foot trailer next to her partially rebuilt home on Second Street in Union Beach.
Kassimatis, who received a $150,000 rebuilding grant from the state, said she only got a third of what her flood insurance policy was supposed to pay.
“We’re all on top of each other in there. Myself, my children, my fiancé, we’ve all become depressed. You’re so exhausted from paperwork, from phone calls, from denials, from appeals, from everything,” said Kassimatis, the mother of a 6-month-old. “It’s just unreal.”
The McQuarrie family is also living in a trailer on the front lawn of their Sandy-damaged home.
While they received insurance money, it wasn’t enough, Marie McQuarrie said. They are still waiting for grants to rebuild.
“We finally got off the wait list in May. Since then, we’re waiting until we get the money. We don’t even have an appointment yet. It’s not good. It’s getting to us,” she said. “My daughter is 10 years old, she wants to get home. She’s hoping by Christmas, but I don’t know.”
One after another, residents of the Sandy-scarred region told the officials that they are in limbo as they continue to wait for grants.
“We went through a closing on Friday with the [Homeowner Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation program] and it didn’t happen. They said we had to show receipts, so were going from stage three to stage B,” said Dorothy Gajewski, whose Poole Avenue home was destroyed in the storm. “We can’t understand it. I’m trying to keep my head up, and it’s very hard. I just want to go home.”
Menendez and Booker said transparency and accountability are needed in New Jersey’s distribution of federal Sandy aid for programs to help residents rebuild.
Residents need to know where they stand on the waiting list for grant money and when they might get it, Menendez said.
“Something is wrong when two-thirds of everybody who qualifies for the RREM program hasn’t received a penny and when 80 percent of the people still out of their home haven’t been able to start construction,” said New Jersey’s senior senator. “Something is wrong. That’s not acceptable.”
Pallone said lawmakers will work with the department of Housing and Urban Development officials to get state programs that are using federal Sandy recovery funds moving.“So people know what their rights are. Whether they’re on the waiting list. When they’re off the waiting list. What kind of money they’re going to get, when they’re going to get it,” said Pallone. “Transparency and a better bureaucracy that actually solves the problem.”
Menendez says the state should face consequences for missing deadlines, but would not detail the specifics, saying that still has to be determined.