By Daniel Nee
Nearly a year to the day their homes were destroyed, they came one-by-one to the microphone – still displaced, and begging for someone to help.
They were people who thought they had done the right thing. They paid their mortgage and tax bills, sent their kids to school, worked hard and bought flood insurance to protect their homes in the event of a coastal storm
But for many local residents who were witnesses before a joint meeting of the New Jersey state Senate and Assembly environmental committees this month, doing the right thing has turned into a year-long horror story that could result in financial ruin and even homelessness.
Michael Mazuka of Stafford Township's Beach Haven West section said the storm has even affected his family life. His wife resides in Barnegat while he stays at a hotel. He told the committee members he lost one job, and has had to take 20 days off from other jobs to deal with FEMA, insurance adjusters and others he's battling to be able to collect the funds to rebuild.
"We got no help from FEMA," he said. "We didn't qualify."
"We've been denied our claim with homeowners' [insurance]. I paid my policy for 16 years, and what did I get? A 20 percent payment."
The gut-wrenching story of Steven Gwin of Toms River's Silverton section might be unbelievable had it not been so true – and so repeated by others.
Gwin's home was damaged to the point where engineers and contractors have all agreed it is beyond repair and needs to be knocked down. He had flood insurance, but a year later, "my family is no closer to even beginning the rebuilding process than we were a year ago," he said.
His flood insurance carrier, Selective Insurance, gave him $62 per square foot to rebuild.
"Nobody anywhere, especially in the state of New Jersey, can build a house for $62 per square foot," he said.
Even New Jersey's own assistance program, New Jersey Stronger, calculates the cost of rebuilding at $135 per square foot.
"We did everything we were supposed to do. We had a flood insurance policy, we registered with FEMA, we applied for an SBA loan and tore apart our home," said Gwin.
Virginia Massa, 71, of Toms River's Ortley Beach section, said between the time her home was destroyed in Sandy and now, her husband died. Instead of living in her lifelong home in Ortley, she's renting a place in Seaside Heights and still working as a secretary to earn some extra money.
"There's no one to talk to, the town is overwhelmed," she said, of the slow recovery process, practically crying. Only two residents have returned to her street, and her home is still standing, waiting to be knocked down.
"I would love to rebuild, I am waiting for my house to be taken down and I don't know how I got to be on the bottom of the list," Massa said. "It's very traumatic for me every time I go back there."
Vincent Giglio, also of Ortley Beach, thought he was one of the lucky ones. He got approved for federal rebuilding assistance to elevate his home. But then he learned that if he started any aspect of the process, he would not be eligible for reimbursement – or any help at all.
"Our expenses here are extremely high, our taxes here are extremely high," he said. "We pay taxes that put FEMA programs in place, yet when we're in need or FEMA money, it's not available. After a year, for any authors of these grants to expect people to sit around and do absolutely nothing, is absolutely unconscionable."
Karen Hopson of Toms River's portion of Pelican Island said her mother-in-law died before she was able to get back home to the place she lived since the 1930s. Hobson was another person who said her family did everything right, and still got the short end of the stick.
"We had insurance, we paid our insurance," she said. "We received a fraction of the amount of our damages; there were many delays. Our family hemorrhaged money."
Though her own family owns a business on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights, spending money there shouldn't be the top priority, she said.
"I know the boardwalk businesses are important, but I think our families are important too," said Hopson.
Catherine Fulcomer of South Seaside Park agreed.
"Still, once again, there are residents who haven't been able to get back in their homes," she told the bipartisan group of legislators gathered for the hearing. "And while we all hope the businesses had fire insurance ... I think the priority should be the residents."
Fulcomer worried that the Shore would become a "playground for the rich" and middle class residents and senior citizens who were either denied assistance or wronged by insurance companies would be forced out.
"Many, many people in my area are senior citizens, many of them sold their homes up north and moved to a place that they love," she said. "They're put in a position where they cannot afford to keep the home they now have."
The stories went on for hours. And state officials said they had essentially no power over the federal government's handling of the National Flood Insurance Program, the program blamed for low payouts that could render families homeless in a state that has the one of the highest costs of living and highest tax burdens in the nation.
"We have a lot of people who haven't even cracked the surface yet," said Sen. Jennifer Beck (R-Monmouth), who excoriated the federal government's mounds of regulations that put recovery aid funding at risk for people who start the rebuilding process on their own. "We need to write another letter. Whatever it takes to convince HUD. It's insane."
Those satisfied with Sandy recovery services from the state and federal governments, as well as insurance companies, are in the "extreme minority," Sen. Bob Smith (D-Middlesex) said.
Some of the legislators suggested the state make its own Sandy aid appropriations that would be free of federal regulations, and others suggested scheduling hearing with the legislative committees that hear banking and insurance issues.
But there were few solutions provided for those who haven't been home in a year.
"Many homeowners have hit their funding limits, and they don't have enough to rebuild," said Smith.
More Jersey Shore coverage from Patch.com
Storm of Protest Grows Against New Flood Insurance Rates
More Sandy: One Year Later