Officials Call for Accountability in Storm Recovery

By Lauren Wanko

This 37-foot trailer is home to Union Beach resident Andrea Kasimatis along with her three children and fiancee.

“It’s been a rough and grueling process. It’s very dehumanizing as well. You feel as though your government has forgotten you,” she said.

Andrea’s storm-damaged home had to be knocked down. Her family crams into a tiny space as they watch the reconstruction of their new home next door. The family received the $150,000 RREM grant, but Andrea says it’s nowhere near enough.

“Our problem is we only recovered one-third of our flood policy. We were very, very low-balled,” she said.

The storm victim this morning asked Sen. Robert Menendez to make that a priority at a press conference in the Monmouth County town. The senator passionately voiced his concern over the state’s handling of the federal disaster recovery aid.

“Let’s get people back into their homes. That means a timely answer to questions. Do I qualify? If I do when do I get my money and how quickly can I close so I can get a contractor to build my home two years after the storm so I can get back into my house,” he said.

“There must be a higher level of accountability and transparency. It is unacceptable there is so much frustration,” said Sen. Cory Booker.

“We are going to work with the secretary and with HUD to try to get these state programs that are using federal funds moving so people know what their rights are,” said Congressman Frank Pallone.

“HUD wants to ensure that we do everything we can to be a strong partner with New Jersey,” said HUD Secretary Julián Castro.

The politicians this morning talked about the raw testimony they heard from storm victims who are struggling to recover, waiting for the RREM grant to rebuild and wondering what’s next. These leaders say they want answers.

“The only people who have consequences for missing deadlines are the homeowners,” Menendez said.

Meantime in Borough Hall, a team of volunteer case managers are helping homeowners with many of those deadlines. Gateway Church of Christ Disaster Response Team has been here since Sandy struck two years ago.

When asked what motivates him, Carl Williamson said, “If you are around people in the Bayshore area, you see they are really struggling and suffering. We are continually reminded people are not back home. We still find people who are sleeping on the floor.”

“I think the biggest challenge are people are still fighting with insurance companies and FEMA. They’ve gotten money to fix the homes, but not enough to do the job right and it’s sad,” said Union Beach Mayor Paul Smith.

Of the 2,400 homes in Union Beach, local officials say 85 percent were damaged by the storm and there are still at least 400 families not back in their homes. Andrea wonders and worries how these living conditions are impacting her children.

“I’m sorry. It’s just been very difficult for them because they live on top of each other basically. They hurt when we hurt and we hurt when they hurt. It’s hard to watch your children hurting,” she said.

Andrea’s exhausted the grant and insurance money. Faced with mounting out-of-pocket expenses, she doesn’t know when her family will move back home.