Fifteen months after Superstorm Sandy pounded New Jersey, the state has distributed nearly half the $1.8 billion in initial funding it received from the federal government, the state’s community affairs commissioner told lawmakers Wednesday.
At a state Assembly hearing, Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable said the state has awarded nearly $900 million in post-Sandy aid. New Jersey will soon get another payout of $1.4 billion in aid.
Constable defended the state’s performance after several Sandy victims said they still can’t return to their homes or get the help they need to put their lives back together.
He said his agency “has aggressively worked to distribute these funds to Sandy-affected victims. We are not perfect, but every day we learn important lessons.
“I wish this process could be faster, simpler and easier,” he told an Assembly housing panel. “We are doing everything in our power to get people back in their homes.”
Constable said some programs are easier to make payouts with than others.
A program offering $10,000 resettlement grants to encourage residents to stay in their communities is much easier than another offering aid to rebuild or repair homes, Constable said. That is because the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development has strict rules governing payouts, which he said were a response to widespread fraud that surfaced with aid handed out after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Some Sandy victims told the panel they are still struggling to find a place to live, while others said they are waiting for money they fear may never come.
Bill Halbeisen says he’s ready to pitch a tent in the backyard of what used to be his Manahawkin home, which was wrecked by 4 1/2 feet of flood water and mud.
He said he was rejected for a housing rehabilitation grant, with his rejection letter saying he had not suffered more than a foot of water in his house and at least $8,000 worth of damage. In reality, he had $165,000 worth of damage and still can’t live in his house. He appealed, and is now on a waiting list.
“I just hope and pray every time I go to the mailbox that there’s a letter from Community Affairs saying I’m eligible for the grant,” Halbeisen said. “I’m trying to keep my hope up. At this point I really don’t trust the promises of politicians, I don’t care what side of the aisle. Many thousands of people in New Jersey feel as I do, make no mistake about that.”
Wanda Peterson said she lost her Keyport home after the storm and became homeless, getting separated from her two daughters. She only recently found a place to live in Matawan.
“Close your eyes and imagine what your house looks like,” she told the panel. “Imagine some natural disaster, and it’s gone. And not just the house itself, but everything you were used to having — basic essentials like plates, washcloths, your slippers. Maybe you had a favorite pair of pajamas. It’s gone.”
Peterson, who said she was laid off from her job at a transportation company right before Sandy, said she lived on the streets for a while, using a cellphone she managed to pay for “by the grace of God” to call state offices, looking for help.
“I knew homelessness existed. I knew about pantries,” she said. “But I never had a need for these things. I’ve been confused about what did I need the most, a job or a home, `cause I need both.”