By Erin O'NeillThe Star-Ledger
TRENTON — Joanne Gwin wants to go home, but nearly one year after Hurricane Sandy she still has little certainty about when she’ll be able to return.
Handed a less-than-expected flood insurance settlement on her Toms River property, stalled in her pursuit of grant money to rebuild and boxed out of other financial options, Gwin told a panel of state lawmakers in Trenton today that her only option now is to wait.
“We wait to find out how much, if any, of the grant money we will receive. We wait to knock down the existing mold-covered structure, which continues to deteriorate with each passing day,” she said. “We wait to go home.”
Gwin testified at the third joint meeting of the Assembly and Senate environment committees convened to take testimony from homeowners, business owners and environmental and housing advocates about the recovery from Sandy. Residents — like in previous hearings in Atlantic City and Jersey City — described the months since the Oct. 29 storm as a bewildering maze of paperwork, regulations and bureaucracy.
“Nobody showed any kind of compassion to any of us,” said Kathleen Fisher, whose home in Ventnor flooded with several feet of water. “We’ve been treated like criminals, basically, like we’re trying to get something for nothing when we’re just trying to get the insurance money that we initially thought was due us.”
Fisher, among others, also said they were disappointed with the slow pace of a major grant initiative: the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program that provides up to $150,000. State officials have said that residents have not yet received funding through that program.
Fisher said she has been unable to get answers on the status of her application. “Our hands are tied,” she said. “We’ve done what we could, as much as we could, physically and financially. Other than that we’re just waiting on answers.”
State officials said the grant program is complex for a reason: to prevent repeating the mistakes that occurred in the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina.
“I call it the Katrina hangover,” said Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie. “We have received a lot of federal funding, but it does come with strings and a rigorous application process.”
Marc Ferzan, the executive director of the governor’s office of recovery and rebuilding, and Richard Constable, the commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs, were invited to attend yesterday’s hearing. But neither showed up, drawing criticism from the panel of state lawmakers. State Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) said he found their absence “very disturbing.”
Drewniak said “Christie is acutely aware of the successes and the problems, and we continue to devote huge numbers of people and energy daily to the task of getting everyone we possibly can back in their homes and businesses as soon as humanly possible.”
As the anniversary of the storm approaches, Gigi Liaguno-Dorr said there’s growing frustration in communities pummeled by the storm.
Jakeabob’s Bay, Liaguno-Door’s restaurant in Union Beach, was washed away by Sandy. She told the panel of lawmakers that she is slogging through mounds of paperwork to find the money to rebuild.
“I lost my business and all I want to do is go back,” she said. “The things that you think you did to prepare, to protect you, they are not there.”