May 23, 2019 | 78° F

Federal red tape slows Sandy recovery in NJ

Photo by Julian Chokkattu |

Volunteers from Johnson & Johnson help the Gateway Church of Christ with separating asphalt and concrete on top of a demolished house. The work they do offset the unmet needs faced by many homeowners after Sandy.

The sound of the ocean breezes through empty lots, where houses once lay in the borough of Union Beach, N.J. Rubble and flat land occupy spaces between rows of houses. Some streets have a few houses placed on cribbing.

And while reminiscent gray clouds pass above, a group of volunteers in an assembly line separate asphalt and concrete on top of a recently demolished house.

The volunteers, who are from Johnson & Johnson, paired up with the Gateway Church of Christ and United Way of Monmouth County to help homeowners who do not have the resources to do the work on their own, said Eric Levin, volunteer construction manager at United Way of Monmouth County.

The demolished house on Anderson Street in Union Beach, N.J., is one example of a homeowner not receiving enough money from insurance companies to rebuild a home.  

“What we do at United Way is we foster volunteer efforts to help with the rebuilding of homes post Sandy,” Levin said. “In Union Beach itself, there are over 2,000 homes either damaged or destroyed by Sandy, within the last two months there have been approximately 200 houses demolished.”

He said next week he is supposed to be getting more volunteers from Johnson & Johnson and some from KPMG and FedEx.

Mike Harrington, Levin’s counterpart from Ocean County, N.J., said there was not enough money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and homeowner’s insurance, and so the work they are doing is to offset the unmet needs that are not covered.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the estimated population of Union Beach, N.J. in 2012 was 6,211. In 2010, the borough had more than 2,269 housing units and the median household income from 2007 to 2011 was $65,654.

Edward Niskey, a resident of Union Beach, said when Sandy hit, he had already evacuated, but his neighbor’s house was gone and his house was flooded with nearly 5 feet of water. He was at one of the highest points in the community.

“If you look the other way … down toward the school, they were actually flooded. You can see all the houses being raised and all the empty lots,” he said. “There’s like 200 to 250 houses [like that.]”

Houses are raised to build new foundations, said Paul Huhn, owner and partner at M.O.I. Enterprises LLP. Huhn was working on a raised house on Edmunds Avenue.

“After the house goes in the air, we get what’s called the base flood elevation from FEMA,” he said. ”Once we get the BFE, we determine how high the house has to go. In many cases around here we have to put new footings in.”

But there have been multiple issues surrounding the base flood elevation numbers received from FEMA, which Robert Burlew, a floodplain administrator for Union Beach, thinks is working from the wrong map.

In the cramped office of the borough of Union Beach’s construction administrators, problems seem to arise one after the other.

Every minute or so, residents come in asking for permits, which Burlew said he cannot give, as construction workers are working with the wrong base flood elevations.

“Everyone’s now ‘let’s build higher, let’s build stronger.’ … If we didn’t know some of these things, we would have a lot of mistakes,” he said.

Burlew said initially the perception was a two to four year time span for recovery efforts in Union Beach. After attending a class in Atlantic City two weeks ago, he said experts who came from Florida said it would be between five to eight years.

“It’s going to be a long time for us because we just don’t have the staff and there’s not enough people that know flood management,” he said. “We’re already working seven days a week … and there’s not enough floodplain managers stepping up to the plate.”

He said Union beach lost 903 homes and there are 900 houses that have to be raised in the area. Currently they have taken down around 250 houses.

“The rest of them have to be raised or have to come down and there’s no money for them,” he said. “Until that money and that funding is back into that area, all these [houses] have to come out.”

Burlew said about 50 percent of houses in Union Beach have to be removed. Most residents who lost their homes are still living in Fort Monmouth, in cars, trailers, other people’s homes or with neighbors.

“This could have been avoided with better preparations and better planning,” he said. “No town out of the nine communities got hit like this because of the size of it. They have million dollar budgets, our budget is $66,000.”

Of the few staff that was there, a flustered Burlew said every one of them was from the county or from the state, and he was the only employee working for the borough.

“Right now, why don’t they just give me some help?” he said.

According to a report from the construction administrators of Union Beach for October 2013, the total estimated cost of work done is $28,986,791. The total number of homes demolished is 250. Ninety two homes are being raised and new home construction is at 88.

The word “funding” seems to roll off people’s tongues as much as Sandy. Cliff Gray, treasurer and deacon of the Gateway Church of Christ, believes that funding is the one thing that always limits the rebuilding process.

“In this town, 85 percent of the homes received some damage,” Gray said. “This is a community of 2,200 homes. A lot of people are staying at Fort Monmouth, and there are people living in apartments in the area, which is an additional burden because they’re paying rent and their mortgage.”

The Gateway Church of Christ, which began volunteering in Union Beach on Nov. 1, 2012, has brought in about $2.5 million worth of supplies and food. They have also received donations from a number of different organizations.

“We’ve been able to get building equipment from Home Depot, Lowes and Habitat for Humanity,” he said. “And then also the volunteers, that’s been a big portion of it. This past summer we hosted 16,400 volunteers that worked in the entire bay, shore region, which is about a 10-mile stretch of this area.”

But when asked about progress, Gray does not spread much optimism.

“The progress there is some progress, but honestly it’s a small amount, we’re projecting somewhere between five and seven years before we feel that it will get back to a point where we would expect it to be,” he said.

A part of the reason is waiting for grant funding, but another part of the problem is the insurance companies which have not been forthcoming to homeowners with money needed to rebuild, he said.

“There are many homeowners who are facing that issue where they received some money but it’s nowhere near enough to get them where they need to be,” he said.

And while the grant process takes a long time, the Gateway Church is focused on getting people back into their homes as fast as possible.

By Julian Chokkattu

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