7 Years After Sandy, Many Still Battling A Broken System

Photo courtesy Tab Duchateau

NEW JERSEY – This year marked the 7th anniversary of the day Superstorm Sandy struck the Jersey coast, taking over 140 lives and causing at least $70 billion in damage. While many would say the Jersey Shore is on the mend or nearly healed, there are a remaining few who continue to feel the lasting effects of Sandy’s devastation at home. 

  State and local leaders came together recently to draw attention to the flaws in recovery programs and the rising cost of flood insurance that have kept so many from fully rebuilding their homes destroyed by Sandy, even now in 2019.

  The Quinn family of Silverton in Toms River is one of these families.

  Seven years ago, storm surges from the Barnegat Bay sent three foot waves crashing into Doug Quinn’s ranch-style home, flooding the house where he lived with his teenaged daughter with four feet of water.

  Later, Quinn became one of many who were underpaid by their flood insurance company after Sandy. Despite a $254,000 damage assessment and $250,000 in flood insurance coverage, the Quinn’s initially received only $92,000, of which their mortgage company held half, leaving them with little money to remediate and rebuild. 

  Quinn spent years tied up in the NJ Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation, and Mitigation (RREM) Program, which was created under the Christie Administration. The RREM Program is meant to provide grant awards to the primary residences of homeowners for activities necessary to restore their storm-damaged homes, including reconstruction, rehabilitation, elevation and/or other mitigation activities, according to the NJ Department of Community Affairs.

Photo courtesy Robin Sinor

  The holdup ended up costing him even more, adding $42,000 in legal fees in the fight to get what he was entitled to rebuild. 

  On Oct. 27, 2019, nearly seven years to the day Sandy hit, Quinn was joined by Senator Bob Menendez, and other Sandy survivors and advocates as he returned to his finally-rebuilt home.

  “We are happy to finally get home after Superstorm Sandy,” said Quinn.

  The Quinn family was first visited by Sen. Menendez in July 2014, when they discussed the systemic problems that delayed recovery for thousands of Sandy survivors.

  “When I visited Doug’s storm-wrecked home back in 2014, I made a promise that I wouldn’t stop fighting until he and his family could return home. It’s been an honor to keep that promise, but I won’t be satisfied until we fix what’s broken,” said Sen. Menendez.

  The theme of the Oct. 27 celebration at Quinn’s newly-rebuilt home was ‘finished but undone,’ because while the Quinns finally regained their home, many other families have not and there is much work to be done to fix disaster recovery systems. 

  “The fact that it took seven years shows just how broken disaster recovery is in America and how badly the National Flood Insurance Program needs to be reformed,” said Quinn. “American families need affordable flood insurance and the senator’s NFIP reauthorization bill promises to deliver that by eliminating the waste and fraud that have come to characterize the program”

  Sen. Menendez, chair of the Sandy Task Force and a senior member of the Senate Banking Committee that oversees the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), authored the National Flood Insurance Program Reauthorization and Reform (NFIP-Re) Act of 2019, which “tackles systemic problems with flood insurance, puts it back on solid fiscal ground, and reframes the nation’s entire disaster paradigm to one that focuses more on prevention and mitigation to spare the high cost of rebuilding after flood disasters,” according to officials.

  Menendez claims that “without real reform, we’ll be facing the same exact problems we faced after Superstorm Sandy when the next storm comes.”

  The NFIP-Re caps premiums to keep flood insurance affordable but also includes individual and community wide mitigation.

  Affordable flood insurance is key to ensuring the revival and survival of coastal communities, according to Joe Mangino, President of the New Jersey Organizing Project (NJOP).

  “If our flood insurance rates triple or quadruple over the next four years all this fighting we have done over the last 7 years to get myself, Doug and other families home will be useless because we will be forced out and our communities will crumble,” said Mangino.

  NFIP-Re also holds insurance companies accountable for underpayment, and eliminates the ‘earth movement’ clause that plagued some Sandy survivors. The earth movement clause is an exclusion found in many property insurance policies eliminating coverage for loss resulting from earth movement, except ensuing fire, according to IRMI.

  More than five million American families, including more than 220,000 New Jerseyans, depend upon the NFIP, which Congress must reauthorize before it expires next month.

  “The current NFIP does not work for our communities and we need to see a better, affordable and a fair NFIP. We support the NFIP Re as it works for us and our communities – not the insurance companies,” stated Jody Stewart of the NJOP. “New Jersey Organizing Project’s goal is to see every Sandy survivor get home and be able to afford to stay in their homes.”

  Another Sandy survivor, and organizer with the NJOP, Alison Arne highlighted that this is not just a coastal issue but a statewide issue, as 95 percent of NJ municipalities have flood insurance claims filed.

  “And that’s why the NFIP-Re is so important, it puts billions of dollars into mitigation. For every $1 we spend in mitigation, we save $6 in disaster recovery,” she added.

  In addition to flawed recovery programs or costly flood insurance premiums, organizations like NJOP are working to address another issue: clawbacks.

The damage caused by Superstorm Sandy in the Brick area. (Photo by Judy Smestad-Nunn)

  A clawback is the recovery of monies already paid by insurance companies or programs requiring storm survivors to pay back their own insurance money, a loan, or a grant because of “an outdated and dysfunctional disaster recovery system,” as the NJOP puts it.

  Robert Wachendorf of Brick Township is yet another Sandy survivor, one who has lost nearly everything to the storm and now faces a fear of clawbacks.

  Wachendorf and his family were displaced by Sandy and are still not yet returned home, residing in a rental for the time being.

  “A clawback can be very damaging to our family since we’ve recently exhausted our savings and are now saddled with heavy credit card debt,” he explained.

  Mangino visited the Wachendorf family on Oct. 27, along with other leaders including Congressman Andy Kim, at their rental home.

  “It’s tragic that Robert and Kristine’s children have spent either all or most of their lives as displaced Sandy victims. They deserve to have family stability. Recovery programs need to work faster and more efficiently than what is currently taking place with Sandy recovery,” Mangino said.

  Some action has been taken already, when Governor Phil Murphy put a freeze on clawbacks in 2018. However, the problem has not yet been solved. As NJOP stated, a freeze does not mean money is not owed, just that repayment is not due at this time.

  Congressman Kim added: “It breaks my heart when families tell me they are still not in their homes after Superstorm Sandy…To those of you whose homes were damaged, to those of you scammed by fraud or treated unfairly, to those of you worried about the next storm or flood, I promise you I will keep fighting for you and your families.”