In Stafford neighborhood, residents still waiting for post-Sandy grants to fix homes

By. MaryAnn Spoto

STAFFORD — Beach Haven West, an enclave of 4,000 homes in a lagoon-laced section of Stafford Township, was practically a ghost town over the summer.

Many homes still stand dark and vacant, with overgrown lawns or black mold growing up the siding — a constant reminder of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy 11 months ago.

Others have been gutted and raised at least a dozen feet, hulking like monsters over their neighbors’ bungalows, as their owners prepare for future flooding.

Contractors’ trucks are a common sight: their signs dotting front lawns like campaign signs just before an election.

Situated at the southwestern base of the Route 72 bridge to Long Beach Island, Beach Haven West is also a neighborhood where many homeowners have been promised help in the form of grants from the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation Program to rebuild or elevate their homes. But as summer slipped into fall, residents are still waiting, wondering if they can rebuild without going bankrupt.

"We’re not getting relief at all," said Jackie Terefenko, of Morris Boulevard. "We’re all on freeze with no money."

This cozy section of Stafford sits directly west of Long Beach Island and is a triangular maze of lagoons bounded by busy Route 72 to the north, the Mill Creek to the south and Manahawkin Bay to the east. About 1,080 homes in Beach Haven West were substantially damaged by Sandy and must be rebuilt to new standards set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. About 450 have to be torn down, according to Mayor John Spodofora. And, he said he suspects many homeowners underestimated damage to avoid FEMA regulations, including elevating their homes. The damages — just in this section alone — dropped the township’s ratables by $200 million, Spodofora said.

With money from their flood insurance claim, Terefenko, 59, and her husband Michael, 70, started repairing their two-story home, but quickly ran out of cash. They are among 211 full-time residents of Stafford approved for the RREM program, which provides grants of up to $150,000.

Jackie Terefenko becomes emotional as she shows two visitors the cluttered condition of the master bedroom she and her family have been forced to live in while working to repair their Hurricane Sandy-damaged home on Morris Blvd. 

The Terfenkos were counting on the RREM money, but the process has been painfully slow, she said. After registering in July, they still have a long way to go in the 11-step process.

No one has received any money from that program yet, state officials have acknowledged.

The first floor of the Terfenkos home, which was swamped by 42 inches of water, remains gutted. What belongings they salvaged, they have crammed into the four bedrooms and single bathroom on the second floor — which is where they now live. Jackie Terfenko has trouble negotiating the 17 temporary wooden steps to her front door, which is now 13 feet in the air.

She cooks in a microwave or on a hotplate set up on the vanity in the bathroom. Meals are served on paper plates on a card table in her bedroom. The coffeemaker is on a half-round table at the top of the stairs. A few pots rest on the shelf below.

The Terefenkos also qualified for a $30,000 federal Increased Cost of Compliance grant to help pay to elevate their home, but they have received only $15,000 so far. They used $37,000 from savings to pay the balance of the $52,000 elevation project.

Jackie Terefenko said they probably should have torn the house down and started from scratch, but she couldn’t bear to do that to the house her husband bought in 1964. It’s where they raised their three children and where her grandchildren have overnight visits.

"It was hard because I lost everything," she said. "I lost part of me. That’s what I lost."

Terefenko cried in Gov. Chris Christie’s arms during his visit to Beach Haven last month. Members of his staff took Terefenko’s information and within 20 minutes, she said, she got a call from the Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable III and others. They told her they’d follow up with her after Labor Day, but Terefenko said she’s still waiting.

For Terefenko, the longer the wait, the closer they get to cold winter days and nights with only radiant heat on the second floor.

Her neighbor, Jenny Jo Gatewood, has also been approved for the RREM grant. She’s renting in Egg Harbor Township, while she waits. She and her husband have already spent $78,000 of their savings on repairs but need another $60,000 to elevate their house.

"I don’t know where I’m going to get $60,000 to raise my house," said Gatewood. "I don’t have it. I don’t have it."

She said she’s skeptical she’ll see any money from the RREM program.

The program’s multiple steps — mandated by the federal government — are necessary, state and local officials have said, to protect against wasteful spending — a lesson learned after Hurricane Katrina rebuilding.

"The RREM process is a very involved one and each of these steps take time," said DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan. She noted as an example that the federally-mandated environmental and historical review alone can take anywhere from one to three weeks.

To help homeowners navigate the RREM process, the state Department of Community Affairs, which oversees the program, has assigned advisers to all 3,545 homeowners who have been preliminarily approved, Ryan said. She said more than 3,400 have completed the first step, their initial counseling session.

The advisers are supposed to be in "very frequent" contact with the clients assigned to them, Ryan said. "We regret if this hasn’t happened in some instances," she added.

Mayor Spodofora agrees federal aid has been flowing too slowly.

"It’s a massive problem up and down the coast," he said.
Original article

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