TRENTON — The group that gathered on the steps of the Trenton Statehouse came from communities all across New Jersey — some rural, some urban, some wealthy, some working class.
They gathered to mark the start of hurricane season, and shared similar stories. Each one found their home severely damaged by the remnants of Hurricanes Ida or Sandy, and learned subsequent government aid was difficult — if not impossible — to obtain.
Their demonstration on the steps of the Statehouse was held by the New Jersey Organizing Project, a group that advocates on behalf of victims of both storms. The organization urged lawmakers on Thursday to enact programs that would allow storm-impacted homeowners and renters to rebuild faster, to receive more grants for recovery, to get extended mortgage forbearance, and reform a piecemeal system of disaster support that leaves some homeowners deep in debt.
There are “similarities between what happened to Sandy families and what happened with Ida,” said Joe Mangino, a resident of the Beach Haven West section of Stafford who helped found the New Jersey Organizing Project.
“We both need the same resources,” he said, but “we can’t get it (support) when we need it. It takes two or more years before they (storm victims) actually see any money.”
The New Jersey Organizing Project says one bill before the state Legislature could bring some relief. The Ida Mortgage Forbearance Bill (S3640 or A5292) would give Ida-impacted families up to a 18 months-long pause in making mortgage payments, in order to help them rebuild and recover.
Such a program would help people like Eric Vaughn of Manville, Somerset County, who has lived in a RV with his sons since his home flooded in Ida.
“Every morning I wake up, I look outside my RV and I see the remnants of my broken house,” he said. “The forbearance bill would actually give us 18 months of necessary relief from a mortgage payment. There are many families who are paying the mortgage and rent, still paying for house that they can’t live in.”
Victims of Sandy had similar mortgage forbearance help in the years after the superstorm.
Another bill supported by the group, the Ida Disaster Appropriations Bill, would provide $100 million for Ida victims who have expenses not covered by state and federal disaster relief programs or private insurance.
Shashuna Atwater’s family was forced to shoulder the cost of cleanup after the basement in her Newark apartment filled with three feet of sewage and rainwater during Ida. Her landlord told her he could not pay for the cleanup, because the apartment was not in a flood zone and was not covered by flood insurance, she recalled. Instead, he told Atwater to contact the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, for financial assistance, she said.
“We had to leave for two days, but couldn’t afford a hotel or enough money to pay somewhere else and still pay the rent here,” Atwater said.
The costs of the hotel, replacing damaged items and the cleanup all fell to Atwater and her husband, she said. She said she called FEMA for help, but never heard back.
“I feel like the $100 million (Ida Disaster) Appropriations Bill needs to be passed today,” Atwater said.
Mangino, cofounder and president of the New Jersey Organizing Project also wants to see a more comprehensive system of supports created for storm victims.
“We know the storms are coming,” he said. “We know disasters hit and we know what people need. And it’d be a big help, if there was a sense of urgency.”
Even those who were able to rebuild sometimes face having to repay thousands of dollars in disaster recovery funds, through so-called clawbacks, according to the Organizing Project. The group members are pushing state legislators to approve the Sandy Disaster Appropriations Bill, which would set aside $22 million in grants to forgive “clawbacks” faced by roughly 2,000 Sandy-impacted homeowners, according to the organization.
“We have a broken disaster recovery system,” said Leanna Jones of Milford, a municipality along the Delaware River in Hunterdon County. “It doesn’t work the way it should. We shouldn’t be penalized for that broken system with (government aid) clawbacks, foreclosure, threats of foreclosure and seemingly endless recovery debts. We aren’t asking for the moon. We’re asking for common-sense solutions so we can finally get home and whole.”
Amanda Oglesby is an Ocean County native who covers Brick, Barnegat and Lacey townships as well as the environment. She has worked for the Press for more than a decade. Reach her at @OglesbyAPP, [email protected] or 732-557-5701.