Sandy relief funds locked in limbo

On Ship Bottom, Long Beach Island, homes were flooded a year ago, but structurally intact. Many residents have been able to recover.
On Ship Bottom, Long Beach Island, homes were flooded a year ago, but structurally intact. Many residents have been able to recover. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 28, 2013

ATLANTIC CITY - One year after the hurricane wrapped in a cold front devastated the Jersey coast, much of the money donated in Sandy's name and then funneled to local Long Term Recovery Groups remains unspent.

"As far as helping people directly with those funds, we haven't done a lot of that yet," said Bob Hodnett, who chairs the Monmouth County Long Term Recovery Group, which received $3.6 million from three fund-raising giants: the Robin Hood Foundation, the Red Cross, and Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief, chaired by first lady Mary Pat Christie.

"I want to spend the money," said the equally blunt Henry Wise, a Salvation Army official who heads the Atlantic County Long Term Recovery Group, which has $1.1 million, including $300,000 from Robin Hood and $586,000 from the Red Cross. The group does not maintain an office and is still setting up a dedicated phone line. Wise says the organization has been unable to connect with enough clients.

"There's a strong possibility Robin Hood will say, 'You're just not using it, and we'll take it back,' " said Wise, who used college students to help canvass for victims. "I'm fearful of that."

Millions of dollars have been awarded to these so-called Long Term Recovery Groups, comprising nonprofit and religious organizations dedicated to housing recovery and set up post-Sandy in Shore counties and Atlantic City.

Most are organized by local nonprofit and social-service groups, with some missionary groups parachuting in.

The ingathering of Sandy donations was vast.

The Robin Hood Foundation, which raised money during a 12-12-12 concert that opened with Bruce Springsteen, turned around its $73 million like a subway turnstile, aiming for immediate needs.

Mary Pat Christie's N.J. Sandy Relief, which snagged Bon Jovi and peers for seven-figure donations, deliberately took its time and expected $25 million of $36 million to be allotted by Oct. 31.

The Red Cross, chastised last week by the New York attorney general for sitting on donations, has assigned $60 million to Long Term Recovery Groups, out of a total of nearly $300 million.

But donations flowing out of the fund-raising giants have not ensured a quick path to the next stop: actual Sandy victims.

In some cases, work started on homes with money from Mary Pat Christie's fund has screeched to a halt as Sandy victims applying to Gov. Christie's signature $600 million grant program, RREM - Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation, and Mitigation - were told to stop all other work, pending the outcome of their applications.

This latest stall deepened the sense of impotence. "We have to wait until they're done with RREM," Wise said, referring to the process of victims' applying for grants of up to $150,000 of the state-administered federal money. "Our construction committee got extremely upset with me."

On Friday, Gov. Christie called the RREM program, with its layers of approvals and review, "the poster child of the post-Katrina hangover." He acknowledged bumps along the way, including inept counselors who have since been fired.

"We're saddled with the program the way the federal government has designed it," he said.

New Jersey Department of Community Affairs spokesman Lisa Ryan said that a little less than "half a billion" of federal aid money had been obligated out of the $1.8 billion earmarked for housing recovery. RREM is an additional $600 million, of which $20 million to $30 million is to be obligated by month's end.

The federal aid is burdened by a caution born of free spending post-Katrina. By one year, roughly 50 percent of federal aid had been handed out. Just 15 percent of Sandy aid has been, according to the latest one-year estimate from the Congressional Budget Office.

On Friday, Gov. Christie's office blamed the slowness on "congressional dithering" and "government red tape in the post-Hurricane Katrina era" and said 29,000 of the 40,000 most severely damaged households were "in the process" of getting help.

Patty Smith, spokeswoman for Robin Hood, said the foundation was withholding $11 million from groups that have not spent initial allotments.

Eileen Lofrese, spokeswoman for Mary Pat Christie's fund, could not say how much of the allotted money had been spent by recipients. She agreed that the Long Term groups were now being held up by government grant red tape.

"There's almost a stall," she said. "People were asking to be put on hold until they find out how much they will be getting, and if they accept funding from the Long Term Relief Group, will that jeopardize their chances."

Because the recovery groups were designed for "unmet needs," their funding was typically pegged to immediate emergencies or was dependent on a victim's working through other sources of help first. That requires documentation and access to a central tracking network.

Some groups just seem unable to connect with clients.

Craig Snow of the Tennessee-based Hope Force International, a missionary disaster-response group, has spent the last year as head of the Atlantic City Long Term Recovery Group. He has repeatedly voiced frustration and puzzlement over not connecting with local Sandy victims, all the while racking up at least $1.4 million in donations ($200,000 from Robin Hood, $586,000 from Red Cross, and $600,000 from Mary Pat, which is supposed to help 300 clients).

Snow could not be reached at the group's New York Avenue office, but posted a video bemoaning the group's ineffectiveness. "I'm still amazed at the amount of people in Atlantic City that don't know about us," he said. "We have grants that have been given to us that we're sitting on ready to deliver to them."

Snow, who is leaving at the end of next month, to be replaced by local educator Clarence Alston, complained about a lack of volunteers, which he blamed on the "Stronger than the Storm" campaign. Other groups had no such issue.

"We have active 40-plus cases where we're involved with helping them with their repairs," Snow says in the Sept. 23 video. "Most of those active cases are waiting. Waiting for volunteers. I had seven volunteers last week. I don't have any volunteers this week. I don't have any volunteers next week."

The Rev. Collins Days of the Second Baptist Church in Atlantic City, who chairs the group, said progress has been made in recent months to connect with victims, many of whom did not meet traditional criteria, maybe undocumented immigrants, renters, doubling up, or mistrustful.

The Ocean County Long Term Recovery Group stood out for its ability to gather a database of clients, hire a productive staff, and have 193 active cases, with an additional 700 in the pipeline. The group received $4.6 million in donations.

Bridgett Holmes, hired in July to oversee case management, said the organization had success with a group known as World Renew, which blistered through the county with four Elks Club events and left them with 1,000 client names. The group is hiring additional case managers.

All of the clients "came because in some way or another they had not been made whole," Holmes said.

The lesson in all of this may be that Long Term really means just that.

The Rev. John Scotland of Brigantine, whose group BrigStrong spent a Robin Hood grant of $400,000 on immediate relief, noted that he just took students to New Orleans, a trip first canceled because of Sandy. They worked on the Katrina-damaged home of the daughter of blues singer Professor Longhair. "She has been out of her house for eight years," he said.

609-823-0453 @amysrosenberg

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