In Brigantine, Sandy recovery at a standstill for some

Brigantine Mayor Philip Guenther (left) and City Engineer Edward Stinson stop to talk with Jim Barber, the former city manager. He has decided to "self insure" and does not plan to raise his house. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Brigantine Mayor Philip Guenther (left) and City Engineer Edward Stinson stop to talk with Jim Barber, the former city manager. He has decided to "self insure" and does not plan to raise his house. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: October 21, 2013

BRIGANTINE, N.J. - "I did everything I was supposed to do," Laurel Haeser is saying from inside her kitchen on Cummings Place in Brigantine.

"What I got was a letter that said it looks like we qualify, but they ran out of money. It said, 'Don't do anything else; you're on the list.' "

One year after Sandy made landfall not far from the narrow barrier island of Brigantine, this is just one variation on a theme along Cummings Place and, indeed, the entire deluged Jersey Shore: Laurel and Bill Haeser's officially sanctioned paralysis.

Don't do anything else? One year later? The prospect of elevating the house - literally lifting the existing house off its foundation and raising it eight, nine, ten feet to rest on a new concrete-block foundation 12 steps up - means leaving again for months, "the daughter's basement" scenario Bill wants to avoid.

But not raising invites prohibitive insurance premiums - not to mention more flooding - and a house with dubious sale prospects. It hurts to consider it all.

"The thought of being out of the home again . . . ," Laurel said. "It's scary. We're at their mercy. People who have been hurt so deeply."

For the Haesers and so many others, stalled at different stops along an excruciatingly local train to recovery, the stress, uncertainty, bureaucratic frustration, and blizzard of repetitive paperwork have only deepened the hold Sandy took over their lives nearly one year ago, two days before Halloween.

Sandy, a hurricane that made landfall near Brigantine as a post-tropical cyclone, muscled its way to historic proportions along the Jersey Shore on Oct. 29, settling in as the second-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, at $65 billion. Katrina clocks in at $125 billion. Sandy pummeled boardwalks, destroyed homes, and threatened the survival of modest vacation communities where houses had been passed down for generations.

More than 60,000 houses were damaged in New Jersey, most by the rush of seawater, some mansions but many more bungalows and ranchers ruined with successive high tides. Infrastructure and public buildings sustained nearly $2 billion in damage; businesses nearly $400 million. More than 260,000 people contacted FEMA after the storm. Tens of thousands remain displaced. As of this month, FEMA reports $5.6 billion in federal aid distributed, including $412.3 million to individuals.

One year later, very little feels settled.

Some people are stalled with indecision, sitting on insurance settlements in need of grants, homes down to studs, living off hot plates and borrowed dishwashers. Others walked away, ruined homes bank-owned, for sale, or in limbo. Who would buy?

Many are in the same boat as the McGarrigels, out of their home until June, approved for an elevation grant, but in the early innings of that process.

"It's just awful," Lois McGarrigel, 73, said. She and Harry, 85, a longtime assistant chief of the Atlantic City Beach Patrol, have lived in their small Cummings Place rancher for 41 years. "It was just wonderful to get home. Now we have to leave again."

Indeed, 3,500 people approved are hanging in the balance of these RREM grants, the pot of $600 million in federal money designated for up to $150,000 a household for Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation. The state had thought the money would help thousands more, but administrative and other costs have eaten it away.

Lisa Ryan, of the state's Department of Community Affairs, said a further 7,700 qualified for a grant, but were placed on a wait list for more aid. More than 2,800 were denied.

Nobody has received money, despite the state's fast-tracking a few to beat the one-year anniversary.

(On Sunday, Ryan said that the state had managed to disburse $900,000 at week's end to reimburse homeowners for work already done.)

By contrast, the state quickly doled out 14,500 grants of $10,000 for people promising to stay three years in their communities. Ryan acknowledged homeowners are asked to "jump through numerous federally mandated hoops" for RREM. To help, they assigned housing advisers.

In practice, residents say, the hoops become a gaggle of surveyors, architects, soil readers, historical, environmental and duplicate of benefit reviewers - spending (and billing) hours at their houses to justify grants that, when insurance and benefits are deducted, are less than hoped.

The RREM process has only deepened the desert-mirage feeling of the road back from Sandy, recovery taunting in the distance.

Of the maddening process of the RREM queue, one formerly optimistic Cummings resident said tersely, "It is disgusting."

"It's a very slow process," agrees Brigantine Mayor Philip Guenther. "It's a 12-step process."

One year after Sandy, and all anyone talks about is the 12-step process.

And while the psychological toll has been profound on this island, the 12-step program consuming them is not sobriety. It is, literally, the RREM process. For many, it will also be the number of steps to get into their elevated homes.

One day last week, Guenther and City Engineer Edward Stinson drove around the island, where an estimated 2,300 properties were damaged by Sandy, most in the north end, 20 percent of all homes.

At Fifth and Evans, the scene is typical. One house in the air, surrounded by damaged homes with no sign of any work done. "This guy flooded," Stinson says. "The guy next to him flooded; this one went up in the air."

Since Sandy, 48 elevation permits have been issued, a fraction of the need. The mayor points out homes in foreclosure (one across from his house), others to be demolished. Officials list 18 homes to be demolished, 12 more to be watched. Nearly all abandoned after Sandy, most in foreclosure.

About 10 percent of the 2,300 damaged homes were certified substantially damaged, which allows priority aid and qualifies them for FEMA's elevation aid. But that kicks in requirements and deadlines.

It is a real Catch-22 for people, Stinson says. "You can't get this funding unless you're substantially damaged," Stinson said. "But if you're substantially damaged, you won't necessarily get the funding."

Stinson says maybe 20 percent of the damaged homes have been fully remediated, protected in a future storm. Looming are final FEMA base flood elevations, which will set new insurance rates mandated by the Biggert-Waters Act.

"Biggert Waters - it's a hammer that's going to hurt people," Stinson says.

On Quay Avenue, former City Manager Jim Barber comes out of his home to greet them. Barber starts out confident - he was back home within a week. Without a mortgage, he has a Plan B: self-insuring.

But even the informed Barber was surprised to hear about the numbers contained in the "Risk Map" flashed by FEMA at a meeting to show the new insurance premiums.

It's a chart FEMA has refused to distribute, but it went viral as people snapped a photo of the slide at various meetings.

A copy of a cellphone photo of a FEMA PowerPoint presentation is still what Stinson and others refers to.

Even without the apocalyptic original scenario that placed homes into the Velocity high-risk zones, the current labels trigger premiums of up to $13,000 a year if a homeowner is below the FEMA base flood elevation.

"Wow, I'm glad I'm putting this money away," Barber said. "That's going to devastate this island. You'll see a mass exodus."

The toll is felt in other ways. On one block, Stinson and Guenther call hello to a teenager walking her dog. Her father, it turns out, was the town's fire chief during Sandy. James Holl, 51, was an unassuming, dedicated first responder who oversaw complex and creative rescues, used every boat on the island, including rowing launches, and who dropped dead of a heart attack June 2 in his yard.

Around the island, people can't help but think of him as a Sandy victim. "His leadership ability clearly stood out during the storm," said Guenther.

"The stress of Sandy certainly didn't help," Stinson said.

Around Cummings, the one house currently being elevated belongs to a couple from Philadelphia using their own money.

The summer home still has a Halloween skeleton in the window from 2012. "We don't want to have to go through this again," Maureen Borghise.

Next door, year-round resident Jim Cordivari, using insurance money, hired contractor Dave Hughes and began building a new house with proper elevation. But when he was approved June 11 for the RREM grants, he was told to stop, or he would not be reimbursed. He waits.

"The process has been like a nightmare," he said. "They wanted to check for asbestos, soil, paint. They told me to stop. I can't afford my mortgage."

To look for a long view, an overview, a resolution, one year after Sandy is futile. There is only a frustrating sense of not being back together, still.

You can feel it in the kitchen with the Haesers, an easygoing, affable couple a year ago. Bill retains his sharp wit, but his health has suffered.

Laurel has been the worrier all along, and the relief she felt after returning to the house seems buried under hour after hour of fear for their future, for Bill's health. "I feel like we're not strong enough to be dealing with that right now," she said. "It feels like it doesn't end."

Said Bill Haeser, "We'll just tread water."

609-823-0453 @amysrosenberg

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