By. Jacqueline L. Urgo
TRENTON - For the third time, top state officials - including a so-called Hurricane Sandy czar - failed to attend a bipartisan legislative hearing on the progress of recovery efforts from still-homeless storm victims and others.
Storm victims Monday said the officials' absence added insult to injury when they testified during the third joint hearing of the Senate and Assembly Environment and Energy Committees at the Statehouse Annex. Hearings were held in Atlantic City in August and in Jersey City last month.
"Where are the people who are supposed to holding these insurance companies and banks accountable? . . . Nobody is holding them accountable," said Gigi Liaguno-Dorr, whose family-owned Jakeabob's in Union Beach employed 74 people before it was swept away by Sandy.
"This isn't political, Republican or Democrat . . . This is a situation we're in. Nobody has any answers how to fix this. It's very frustrating," Liaguno-Dorr said.
Invited to all three hearings were Community Affairs Commissioner Richard E. Constable III and Marc Ferzan, executive director of the Governor's Office of Recovery and Rebuilding. Neither attended the hearings, said Sen. Bob Smith (D., Middlesex), who cochaired the sessions.
Constable's spokeswoman, Lisa Ryan - who answers reporters' questions via e-mail - wrote that the commissioner's schedule on Monday "did not permit him to attend today's hearing" but did not elaborate.
Also in an e-mail, Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Gov. Christie, did not indicate why Ferzan did not attend the session, hosted by a panel including both Democratic and Republican members of the state Assembly and Senate.
"If Democrats want to play a genuine, constructive role, we honestly appreciate the input. But if they are looking to use the suffering of individuals for partisan political reasons, then they should be ashamed of themselves," Drewniak wrote.
Drewniak wrote that the governor's office is also disappointed with the National Flood Insurance Program, which he said was the source of most of the complaints.
"In the areas where the state has jurisdiction - homeowners, personal auto and commercial claims - the New Jersey insurance industry response has been good," Drewniak wrote.
Of the 458,000 nonflood claims filed, carriers have settled 96 percent, paying out about $3.6 million to date, he said.
But Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D., Essex), who cochaired the hearings with Smith, said the sessions were held to help legislators from both political parties understand the "insurance and mortgage company quagmire" that many storm victims find themselves in.
"Commissioner Constable's absence at this hearing only supports the emotional accounts of frustration and indifference we have heard from residents. There are questions of accountability and in the grant program which have been raised that deserve answers," Spencer said.
Liaguno-Dorr and other storm victims said relief money has only just begun to trickle in - and what they have received isn't nearly enough to cover rebuilding their homes and businesses, destroyed Oct. 29 when the storm ravaged the New Jersey Shore.