Storm victims upset at officials' absence from hearings

Simone Dannecker (left), with her daughter Nicole at their Union Beach house, testified before lawmakers in Trenton on Monday that "It's sickening. Nobody gets results. You're just another statistic, just another phone call." WAYNE PARRY / Associated Press
Simone Dannecker (left), with her daughter Nicole at their Union Beach house, testified before lawmakers in Trenton on Monday that "It's sickening. Nobody gets results. You're just another statistic, just another phone call." WAYNE PARRY / Associated Press
Posted: October 02, 2013

TRENTON For the third time, top state officials - including a so-called Hurricane Sandy czar - failed to attend a bipartisan legislative hearing on the progress of recovery efforts from still-homeless storm victims and others.

Storm victims Monday said the officials' absence added insult to injury when they testified during the third joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly Environment and Energy Committees at the Statehouse Annex. Hearings were held in Atlantic City in August and in Jersey City last month.

"Where are the people who are supposed to be holding these insurance companies and banks accountable? . . . Nobody is holding them accountable," said Gigi Liaguno-Dorr, whose family owned Jakeabob's, a bay-front restaurant in Union Beach that employed 74 people before it was swept away by Sandy.

"This isn't political, Republican or Democrat . . . This is a situation we're in. Nobody has any answers how to fix this. It's very frustrating," Liaguno-Dorr said. "I feel like people are just trying to get my vote in the election, but no one is really doing anything. They just want my vote."

Invited to all three hearings were Community Affairs Commissioner Richard E. Constable III and Marc Ferzan, executive director of the Governor's Office of Recovery and Rebuilding.

Neither attended the hearings, said Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex), who cochaired the sessions.

Constable's spokeswoman, Lisa Ryan - who answers reporters' questions via e-mail - wrote that the commissioner's schedule on Monday "did not permit him to attend today's hearing" but did not elaborate.

Also via e-mail, Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Gov. Christie, did not say why Ferzan did not attend the session, hosted by a panel that included Democratic and Republican members of the state Assembly and Senate.

"If Democrats want to play a genuine, constructive role, we honestly appreciate the input. But if they are looking to use the suffering of individuals for partisan political reasons, then they should be ashamed of themselves," Drewniak wrote. "There's nothing constructive or helpful about that, and people will see right through it."

Drewniak wrote that the governor's office was also disappointed with the National Flood Insurance Program, which he said was the source of most of the complaints.

"In the areas where the state has jurisdiction - homeowners, personal auto and commercial claims - the New Jersey insurance industry response has been good," Drewniak wrote.

Of the 458,000 nonflood claims filed, carriers have settled 96 percent, paying out about $3.6 billion, he said.

Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D., Essex), who cochaired the hearings with Smith, said the sessions were held to help legislators from both sides of the fence understand the "insurance and mortgage company quagmire" that many storm victims find themselves in.

"Commissioner Constable's absence at this hearing only supports the emotional accounts of frustration and indifference we have heard from residents. There are questions of accountability and in the grant program which have been raised that deserve answers," Spencer said.

Liaguno-Dorr and other storm victims said that relief money had only just begun to trickle in and that what they had received was not nearly enough to cover rebuilding their homes and businesses destroyed Oct. 29 when the storm ravaged the New Jersey Shore.

"I am from one of the hardest-hit towns, and a year later, we still have no answers . . . no money," Liaguno-Dorr said. "I lost my business, people lost their homes, and nobody has any answers for us. We have a state that's in trouble . . . We're broken."

Officials say Liaguno-Dorr is among tens of thousands of Sandy victims still unable to return to their properties or reopen their businesses as the one-year anniversary of the storm approaches.

Simone Dannecker, who testified tearfully at the Atlantic City hearing on her family's difficulties getting aid for their Union Beach home, which she and her husband fixed on their own, said she suspects Sandy storm aid was being more closely scrutinized following reports of widespread fraud following Hurricane Katrina.

"We're being punished for that," she said. "Nobody is being held accountable for their actions in this state. It's sickening. Nobody gets results. You're just another statistic, just another phone call."

Kathleen Fisher of Ventnor, whose $350,000 home was flooded, said she is most upset that government, insurance, and banking workers that are supposed to be helping storm victims wade through the muck of bureaucratic red tape have been unhelpful, uncompassionate, and downright surly.

"We're treated like criminals, like we're trying to get something for nothing when we're just trying to get the help from the insurance company we thought was due us," said Fisher, adding that she had been turned down for numerous loans, grants, and other assistance.

Legislators said Fisher was not alone in her assistance rejection: Of the 13,000 applications received for a relocation assistance program, only 3,400 were deemed eligible.

Once rejected by a program, applicants are told to appeal, another arduous process that involves even more paperwork, said Joanne Gwin of Toms River. Gwin got a check for $101,000 on a $250,000 flood insurance policy with no explanation as to why.

"Why can't the insurance companies write us a check for the policy we paid for?" Gwin asked. "We have a need for that money, and we only received 40 percent of what we need to rebuild our home."

Even the legislators say they are frustrated by the red tape.

"We understand that storm victims in this state feel like they are paying for the mistakes made after Katrina," said joint committee member Sen. Jennifer Beck (R., Monmouth). "We've got to work with these people to find answers to questions no one seems to have answers for."


jurgo@phillynews.com

609-652-8382

@JacquelineUrgo

www.inquirer.com/downashore

This article includes information from the Associated Press.

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