Slowly, N.J. recovering from Irene

Waves crashed against Steel Pier in Atlantic City as Hurricane Irene approached last Aug. 27.
Waves crashed against Steel Pier in Atlantic City as Hurricane Irene approached last Aug. 27. (ALEX BRANDON / AP, File)

Residents are frustrated even though FEMA has OKd more than $175M.

Posted: August 27, 2012

GARFIELD, N.J. - Gov. Christie's warning a year ago to "get the hell off the beach!" was followed by the costliest natural disaster in the state's history, causing more than $1 billion in damage and killing 11 residents.

Tropical Storm Irene made landfall along the Jersey Shore on Aug. 28, triggering widespread flooding - primarily in the northern part of the state - and prolonged power outages affecting nearly two million customers.

The recovery has been slow for many homeowners despite the Federal Emergency Management Agency's approving more than $175 million toward nearly 50,000 requests. And residents who saw possessions that took a lifetime to accumulate floating away with the trash are frustrated.

Frank Maneri of Garfield, Bergen County, said he's still struggling with repair bills for a home he owns several blocks from the Passaic River. FEMA denied his request for assistance, he said, because the damaged property was not his primary residence. The two-family home was uninhabitable for months while he made repairs on his own, he said.

"What ticks me off is we couldn't get any money just to make repairs," Maneri said, adding that he depended on the rental income. "I wasn't looking to make money on the deal, just to repair things."

A year ago, there were tales of dramatic water rescues and neighbors helping neighbors who had lost everything. Today, there are stories of denied government assistance, benefits abuses, and "For Sale" signs sprouting on lawns once piled high with waterlogged debris.

"All these people that got flooded out, it didn't matter if they were in apartments in Paterson or a $700,000 house in Wayne, they were impacted," said Assemblyman Scott Rumana (R., Passaic), who is active on flooding issues and represents an area of North Jersey hard-hit by the storm. "At a time when the economy has been in the toilet, nobody in this region is in good shape."

Officials from FEMA, as well as state and local agencies, say the scope of need following the storm has been greater than the funds available, and not everyone who requested help has been deemed eligible. The state has been able to secure from FEMA only about 10 percent of the $400 million in requests it has received since the storm.

In addition to its assistance to homeowners, FEMA also has approved nearly $100 million for eligible state, county and municipal projects, $40 million for hazard mitigation grants, which include home buyouts, and about $118 million for about 3,000 disaster-related home and business loans, said Mary Goepfert, spokeswoman for New Jersey's Office of Emergency Management.

A state program that receives a federal match has bought 162 properties from homeowners in flood-prone areas so far. But requests for such buyouts and assistance elevating homes has outpaced the dollars available to help, according to the state's Department of Environmental Protection, which received $30 million worth of requests following the storm.

The storm also was an opportunity for abuses.

In Paterson, where President Obama visited flood victims following Irene, a City Council investigation found rampant abuse of overtime payments by officials during Irene. The mayor, several department heads, and rank-and-file police officers racked up thousands of dollars in overtime despite being ineligible for it as salaried employees, according to the council's investigation.

A review by the state's Human Services Department found that nearly one in five New Jersey households that received emergency food stamps following Irene were ineligible for the benefits, the result of a mixture of mistakes, confusion, and fraud.

The National Weather Service revised Irene downward from its original hurricane designation to a tropical storm when it made landfall in New Jersey. But widespread post-storm flooding wreaked additional havoc on already saturated ground, contributing to August 2011 being the wettest on record. The misery and the damage were compounded by Tropical Storm Lee immediately following Irene, as well as a surprise October snowstorm.

Residents struggling in the late August heat went without power for days or longer. A year later, no rate increases have been implemented, according to the state's Board of Public Utilities, but at least one utility has sought to raise fees partly based on repair costs from the storm.

"We don't get a credit when there's a mild winter, so they shouldn't get credit when there is a big storm," said Stefanie Brand, director of the Division of the Rate Counsel, which advocates for ratepayers. Brand said she supported utility companies' recouping some storm-related costs, but not too far in excess of a formula already in place.

A review by the BPU, ordered by Christie, said New Jersey's utility companies needed to take immediate action to improve their performance during storm outages.

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