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Slow recovery in New Jersey 1 year after Irene

August 25, 2012 6:51:52 AM PDT
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's blunt warning a year ago to "get the hell off the beach!" kicked off what became the costliest natural disaster in the state's history, causing more than $1 billion in damages and killing 11 residents.

Tropical Storm Irene made landfall along the Jersey Shore on Aug. 28, triggering widespread flooding and prolonged power outages affecting nearly 2 million customers.

The recovery has been slow for many homeowners despite the Federal Emergency Management Agency approving more than $175 million toward nearly 50,000 requests from those eligible. And residents, who saw possessions that took a lifetime to accumulate floating away with the trash, are frustrated.

Frank Maneri of Garfield says he's still struggling with repair bills for a home he owns several blocks from the Passaic River. FEMA denied his request for assistance, he said, because the damaged property was not his primary residence. The two-family home was uninhabitable for months while he made repairs on his own, he said.

"What ticks me off is we couldn't get any money just to make repairs," Maneri said, adding that he depended on the rental income for his livelihood. "I wasn't looking to make money on the deal, just to repair things."

A year ago, there were tales of dramatic water rescues and neighbors helping neighbors who had lost everything. Today, there are stories of denied government assistance, benefits abuses, and "for sale" signs sprouting on lawns once piled high with water-logged debris.

"All these people that got flooded out, it didn't matter if they were in apartments in Paterson or a $700,000 house in Wayne, they were impacted," said Assemblyman Scott Rumana, who is active on flooding issues and represents an area of northern New Jersey hit hard by the storm. "At a time when the economy has been in the toilet, nobody in this region is in good shape."

Officials from FEMA, as well as state and local agencies, say the scope of need following the storm has been greater than the funds available, and not everyone who requested help has been deemed eligible. The state has only been able to secure from FEMA about 10 percent of the $400 million in requests it has received since the storm.

In addition to its assistance to homeowners, FEMA also has approved nearly $100 million for eligible state, county and municipal projects, $40 million for hazard mitigation grants, which include home buyouts, and about $118 million for about 3,000 disaster-related home and business loans, said Mary Goepfert, spokeswoman for New Jersey's Office of Emergency Management.

A state program that receives a federal match has bought 162 properties from homeowners in flood-prone areas so far. But requests for such buyouts and assistance elevating homes has outpaced the dollars available to help, according to the state's Department of Environmental Protection, which received $30 million worth of requests following the storm.

The storm also was an opportunity for abuses.

In Paterson, where President Obama visited flood victims following Irene, a City Council investigation found rampant abuse of overtime payments by city officials during Irene. The mayor, several department heads, as well as rank-and-file police officers, racked up thousands of dollars in overtime despite being ineligible for it as salaried employees, according to the council's investigation.

A review by the state's Human Services department found that nearly 1 in 5 New Jersey households that received emergency food stamps following Irene were ineligible for the benefits, the result of a mix of mistakes, confusion and fraud.

The National Weather Service revised Irene downward from its original hurricane designation to a tropical storm when it made landfall in New Jersey. But widespread, post-storm flooding wrought additional havoc on already saturated ground, contributing to August 2011 being the wettest on record. The misery and the damage were compounded by Tropical Storm Lee immediately following Irene, as well as a surprise October snow storm.

Residents struggling in the late August heat went without power for days or longer. A year later, no rate increases have been implemented, according to the state's board of public utilities, but at least one utility has sought to raise fees partly based on repair costs from the storm.

"We don't get a credit when there's a mild winter, so they shouldn't get credit when there is a big storm," said Stefanie Brand, director of the Division of the Rate Counsel, which advocates for ratepayers. Brand said she supports utility companies recouping some storm-related costs, but not too far in excess of a current formula already in place.

A review by the state's Board of Public Utilities, ordered by Christie, said New Jersey's utility companies needed to take immediate action to improve their performance during storm outages.

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