I refused to let the storm beat me and I refused to let the recovery defeat me. Like 40,000, other homes mine was severely damaged after Superstorm Sandy hit New Jersey in 2012. I not only lost a home but I also lost a business and a 2nd job. I didn’t think I could feel more helpless and clueless. What were we going to do? Where was my family going to live? Little did I know that something amazing was about to happen. The 2nd day after the storm while we were trying to gut our home, a group of teachers from my wife’s school showed up and begin to help us gut our home and save what could be saved. After my home was done, I joined this group and we helped my neighbor. Then we helped another neighbor. This was the beginning of a grassroots organization called START. Over the next year we ended up gutting over 800 homes and saving taxpayers over $4 million in clean up costs.
Almost overnight we became experts in demolition, construction, mold remediation, and psychology. The emotional impact was high. Day after day I’d drive down streets whose curbs were stacked high with people’s personal belongings. We did the best we could to bring some sort of comfort and aid to the community. I tell people all the time that I hugged more people in the 6 months after Sandy then I did the first 40 years of my life. This was my first taste of what a community could accomplish when it got itself organized.
While I was out trying to save the world, I also had to save my family. We were homeless, and the 4 of us and our 2 cats were living in a small bedroom at a friends house. I foolishly thought I could get us back to living in our gutted home in 6-8 weeks. We spent our entire savings on replacing the heating system, electric and plumbing. I kept expecting the our flood insurance money to arrive any day. It didn’t come, not even the advance I had been requesting. One day I get a letter from the flood insurance company stating that I needed to submit the paperwork I’d already submitted twice again to get an advance. Then I could expect payment in another 6 weeks. This was a devastating blow.
I came to the harsh realization that all the money we had in the world was what was in my pocket at that moment. No money to rebuild. No money for rent. No money to pay the mortgage. This became a defining moment for me because now instead of helping others I was the one that needed help and I had to ask for it. Thankfully I got it from a local organization.
We, like many other effected families, were broke. Mortgage companies were doing the bare minimum to help homeowners. If you were lucky you were granted a 90 day forbearance on your mortgage but then at the end of the 90 days you to pay it all back in full, so it wasn’t helpful.
Retirement security was threatened for many, particularly seniors on a fixed income. People were cashing in their 401Ks or borrowing from pension funds to rebuild or to pay for a rental to live in while also paying the mortgage on a house they couldn’t live in. Some people did get fair and swift settlements from their Flood Insurance and started rebuilding, others were blatantly cheated out of insurance money and were falling deeper and deeper into debt everyday.
By March 2013 due to mold exposure my health was a mess. I had to use an inhaler everyday just to breathe. I developed night terrors. The stress on the entire family was intense. We were starting to crack and needed desperately to get back into our home regardless of its condition. We moved back into our gutted home. We had heat, electric, water and little else but it didn’t matter we were home and it felt great. It was indoor camping but doing dishes in the bathtub got old real quick. So while I was rebuilding the interior of our home I also started the long arduous task of getting into RREM, New Jersey’s rebuilding program, so I could eventually have my house raised to meet the new flood standards.
And wow, getting through the RREM process made Sandy feel like a spring rain. Approved, denied, approved again. Don’t start rebuilding or you’ll be kicked out of RREM. Wait, what? They once tried to tell me I was ineligible because my wife and I made $500,000 a year. My response to that was, “if I made $500K I wouldn’t be sitting here begging for a grant. Break out your calculator and redo your math genius.”
So as this was going on the calls that START was getting began to change from, ‘can you help us gut our house’ or ‘can you help us rebuild’ to ‘we need help with RREM, we need rental assistance, our insurance company is screwing us, our contractor walked away with our money,’. I was good with a sledgehammer but I had no clue how to handle these matters. I knew something had to be done but what and how? And that’s when a small group of us founded the NJOP in October 2014.
By Thanksgiving in 2014 I finally navigated the RREM maze and got my grant to raise my house and moved out as requested by my state approved builder. My contract stated that my house raising would take 90 days. Almost immediately I begin to worry. I start getting vague excuses from the builder on why nothing was happening. Then I didn’t even hear from the builder. We were again paying for a rental and a mortgage on a house we couldn’t live in. Finally we, we being the NJOP, and I decide we need to take action. Not just for me but for the thousands of people in the same predicament.
We tried to meet with the governor’s office but his response was he was too busy to meet with us. So to accommodate his busy schedule 3 of us went out to Iowa where he was participating in a summit with other presidential hopefuls to meet him. 110 days after my “90 day” project was supposed to begin I stood up in the crowd, for myself, for my family and for my community and demanded he finish the job on Sandy recovery. I was not going away until Sandy families got home. As I’m yelling at the governor the guy in front of me starts yelling at me to shut up and go home. I say to him, don’t you hear what I’m saying I have no home to go to. First thing Monday morning my phone rings and it’s the builder I haven’t heard from in weeks. His first words were you were all over the news this weekend. His next words were your house will be raised by the end of the week. That same month, the state announced the rental assistance program we’d been demanding to help people like me stay afloat and keep up the fight to get home.
That was in March. By August 2015 with work still not completed we finally moved back home. In October 2015 I was finally issued a certificate of occupancy saying I could live in my home. Today, believe it or not, I am still not released from the RREM program. Does that sound like a rebuilding program that is working to get families back home?
Are you asking yourself? Why do this? It sounds like a giant pain? Why fight to get RREM working? Why fight to stop foreclosures? Why fight to create economic security for all of us after a disaster? Why fight to protect pensions, Social Security and Social Security Disability Insurance? The community we call home is why. I could have been selfish and just focused on getting my house in order. But what good is it to be the only house on the block surrounded by vacant home, foreclosed homes and homes that have transitioned from year-rounders to 2nd homeowners? That doesn’t benefit my family and it doesn’t benefit our local economy.
Even though we are home now, I’m still worried about my, and all of our future economic security. The jobs haven’t come back and we still have work to finish our houses. My wife is a teacher, so we should be able to have faith in her pension but our pension system is in big rouble partly because of the same guy that botched Sandy recovery, Governor Christie. Many families are walking the tightrope right now. We are one illness, one major car repair, one unexpected job loss away from losing everything. And we can’t allow that to happen. I was taught that family is more than blood relatives. It’s your friends, neighbors and active community members.
We’re doing all this fighting to get families home and make sure they can afford to stay home, right? Well let me ask you, what’s the plan for the next storm? What are we doing to deal with sea level rise? You know who doesn’t have an answer. The state of New Jersey. We are the only state that borders an ocean with no plan to deal with sea level rise. But you know who can find and fight for solutions? We can.