These issues aren’t resolved simply by the passage of time.
Residents and business owners affected by Hurricane Sandy continue to struggle, even now, nearly five months after the late October storm caused massive destruction to New Jersey’s coastal communities.
They want to get back into their homes, know how to adequately prepare for the next storm down the road. They want to reopen, welcome back customers who are also still reeling following Sandy.
They want advice, answers.
For the past several months, government employees and top-level State officials have been on the road, making stops in Sandy-impacted areas and holding Mobile Cabinets designed to provide information and a bit of understanding. The cabinets, which feature a rotating group of departments and agencies like FEMA and New Jersey’s Department of Banking and Insurance, among others, meet with residents in an effort to provide the kind of accountability that’s only available in face-to-face interactions.
“There are still a lot of issues,” DOBI Investigator Patricia Fleming said during a recent cabinet stop in Stafford Township. “People want to meet face to face, they want to see a human being. Talking over the telephone is fine, but they come here prepared with papers and documents and they want help.”
More than a dozen mobile cabinet meetings have been held in a number of towns throughout Ocean, Monmouth and Cape May Counties. Some, like a cabinet meeting held in Union Beach and attended by Gov. Chris Christie, attract a large and curious crowd, and others, like Stafford’s low-key cabinet, see a steady stream of exasperated residents just looking for answers.
The need still exists, Fleming said, though in the several months since Sandy’s arrival the issues have evolved. There’s more understanding now. Residents and business owners aren’t looking for broad answers to their post-Sandy concerns any more, it’s specificity they’re seeking.
“Each location is different. I think they need is getting less as people understand more,” Fleming said. “People are getting help and I think issues are getting resolved but a lot of issues remain.”
Pat Damiani’s Beach Haven business was destroyed during Sandy. Polly’s Dock, which included a bait and tackle shop, 15 rental boats and other sea crafts, and, of course, the dock itself, was ruined by surging floodwaters. He hired a public adjuster to assess the damage, but he knows insurance won’t pay for everything.
For Damiani, the answer may be a Community Development Block Grant. The grants, which will be available as early as April, are part of the more than $60 billion Hurricane Sandy relief package approved by Congress in January. He’s heard of the grant program, but specific questions, like if he’s eligible to apply for funding and what the money can be used for, can only be answered by someone with direct knowledge of the program and application process.
“The situation is sad and today I’m overwhelmed,” he said. “But they gave me a card and a name. I’m going to call Monday and hopefully they can help.”
The mobile cabinets are also a venue to vent frustrations or even, if necessary, file a complaint with the appropriate department. At Stafford’s cabinet meeting, many attendees sat waiting for an opportunity to discuss insurance and flood elevations with an onsite FEMA representative. Issues ranged from the new Advisory Base Flood Elevation, of ABFE, maps, to flood insurance claim payouts, which have been delayed or whose monetary totals have fallen short of residents’ expectations.
Mary Humphries, armed with a manila folder of paperwork, waited patiently for an answer as to why her insurance premiums have risen 900 percent since she filed a claim for Sandy damage to her Long Beach Island home.
“It feels like retribution,” she said. “They won’t put anything in writing, they won’t tell me anything.”
Unlike her phone calls to insurance officials, which she said are met with attitude, and her messages, often unreturned, the cabinet meeting provided Humphries the opportunity to ask her questions directly, without having to be redirected or left waiting for a call back that may or may not come.
Fleming said she hopes that the residents who attend the mobile cabinets find the answers they need, or if not at least some level of satisfaction that their issues will eventually find resolution. And as communities continue to rebuild, the mobile cabinet will continue to make appearances, Fleming said.
“Wherever the need is we will be there,” she said. “They can’t get to Trenton, so we’ll bring Trenton to them.”