The following op-ed by Senator Chris Brown (R-Atlantic) on Superstorm Sandy relief was published by the Press of Atlantic City on Oct. 19, 2018. It reads:
“Have you ever been mistreated? Then you know just what I’m talking about,” sang Eric Clapton, as he shared his blues in his song “Five Long Years.” Well, too many New Jersey families who weathered the full brunt of Superstorm Sandy for two days have been mistreated for six long years.
Senator Chris Brown speaks with local residents on the Atlantic City Boardwalk in 2017. (ChrisBrownNJ)
Sandy relief programs were supposedly designed to help families get back in their homes and on their feet. While the storm broke houses, the bureaucracy is breaking the will, patience and budgets of middle class families. It’s well past the time to bring closure to thousands of families who just want to move back into their homes and on with their lives.
The only thing worse than Superstorm Sandy has been the recovery, so it’s no surprise a recent poll revealed a third of Sandy victims are still not in their homes. Twelve percent have lost so much faith in the system they now consider themselves “permanently displaced.” I hear families say they wish they never applied for help.
It’s heartbreaking to listen to the stories from families, who have suffered through the complex application process that in too many cases included the state losing their paperwork, giving them conflicting or just plain bad advice, changing their project managers multiple times, and causing unexplained delays.
“I did everything the state and my project manager told me to do. I filed my paperwork in time and everything went smoothly,” Fran Baronowicz told me when I met with a group of Sandy victims. “After I finally moved into my house, the state, out of nowhere, sent me a bill for over $35,000, which is more than I make in a year.”
Many families, like Baronowicz, lost nearly everything in the storm, sank every last penny into rebuilding their homes, followed the guidance of their case managers, only to receive letters from the state requiring them to pay thousands of dollars back (often called a “clawback”) without a clear explanation of why and offering no method to appeal the state’s decision.
We need a fair and sensible process to address clawbacks, which is why I’ve joined with my colleagues from both sides of the aisle in sponsoring a bill to provide a process to assist families with clawbacks. Additionally, I’ve also asked the Murphy administration to find a way to provide relief to families administratively by making the process more consumer friendly.
As if trying to weather the bureaucracy wasn’t enough of a burden, contractor fraud is further taking a toll on families and wasting limited public dollars and draining personal savings.
Angel Eguaras, for example, chose one of the state-approved contractors to rebuild his home, but that contractor failed to complete the work according to the architect’s and engineer’s specifications.
“The masonry work by the contractor violated the building code. The defects are so numerous that I was told the masonry should be demolished and reconstructed,” Eguaras told me.
Instead of holding their contractor accountable, the state initially put the burden of going after the contractor on Eguaras. In an even more bizarre twist, some victims of contractor fraud are actually being sued by the unscrupulous contractors.
Unfortunately, many families still cannot move on with their lives because contractor complaints are not being resolved expeditiously, which is I why urged both the state attorney general and the Atlantic County prosecutor to expedite the investigation and resolution of contractor fraud cases. In response, the Attorney General’s Office assured me it will continue its work to have unscrupulous contractor suits against fraud victims dismissed.
I’ve also asked the Murphy administration to take a fresh look at the various Sandy recovery programs to resolve several outstanding issues local families continue to share with me. With the state having spent $2.7 billion of the $4.2 billion from the federal disaster recovery funds, there may be some flexibility in allocating the balance of these funds.
Thankfully, the Murphy administration took the initial step in re-allocating $3 million in funds to help families who have exhausted their temporary housing assistance, but their homes have not been completed in the anticipated timeline.
Of course, the state needs to do more, and working with local families and the NJ Organizing Project, an advocacy group for Sandy victims, I will continue my efforts to bring relief to families who are simply looking to move on with their lives. After six long years of mistreatment, families know what I’m talking about and we need to bring them closure.