By: Amanda Devecka-Rinear, Executive Director, New Jersey Resource Project
Nearly 5 years to the day since Superstorm Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, New Jersey Resource Project released our ground-breaking report “The Long Road Home.” It is the story of our struggles during Sandy, hardships faced on the road home, and ongoing financial and health impacts. And as the title implies, it’s the story of home – of how central stable, safe housing is to our lives.
As we approach the anniversary, hundreds of thousands of people are just starting the recovery from Harvey, Irma and Maria. Many of the struggles Sandy families faced are likely to be repeated for those trying to recover today unless we apply lessons learned, enact policy reforms, and humanize the disaster recovery process.
More than 500 Superstorm Sandy survivors were surveyed on their experiences during the storm, in the recovery process, and four years after landfall. Their stories make a compelling case for better preparation ahead of storms, and for the critical reforms needed in federal, state and local response programs. Lessons that policymakers from HUD and Congress to state and local governments would do well to heed.
Here are just some of the key findings:
- Twenty-two percent of survey respondents in “The Long Road Home” said they were still not back home.
- Seventy-seven percent said they either did not have enough money to finish rebuilding their homes, or had to borrow from retirement or other savings, SBA loans, and credit cards.
- More than 70 percent said they had developed physical or mental health problems or a worsening of pre-existing health conditions since Sandy. Many described anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress, often in combination with respiratory, cardiovascular, or other conditions.
- Of families with children, nearly 40 percent report that their children’s school performance suffered because of difficulties their family has faced since the storm.
When Sandy made landfall, it resulted in 72 deaths, caused billions of dollars in damage, and displaced thousands. “The Long Road Home” shows families still need funding assistance and help navigating recovery programs to make it home again.
The report also found that even when storm survivors make it home, there has been a significant impact on their finances and health. Results are based on a survey of Sandy impacted families, and show that 56 percent of families have had trouble paying bills or affording food since the storm
Here are just a few of the recommendations from the report:
- Immediately after a natural disaster, storm survivors with damaged primary homes that they are required to leave in order to repair should be offered the opportunity to apply for a forbearance for up to three years after the storm to provide flexibility in meeting financial obligations. The forbearance must be without interest or penalties, and without a balloon payment. Rental assistance and/or mortgage assistance should be available early and consistently.
- To better prepare any state dealing with disaster, the National Flood Insurance Program should be reformed to make flood maps accurate, insurance affordable, and mitigation and disaster prevention efforts a priority. It is equally critical to rein in abuses from the private insurance companies that administer the Write Your Own program so that policyholders can receive fair payouts.Immediately, to assist families still recovering from Sandy, humanize recoupment procedures to forgo clawbacks when collection would be “against equity and good conscience” and pass legislation at the state level formalizing an appeal process and allowing the state to consider the family’s ability to pay.
- The state needs to ease the requirements for homeowners facing contractor fraud who are still in need of additional grant funds.
As more communities face record floods and extreme weather, our leadership and lessons are more important than ever.
Amanda Devecka-Rinear is the founding Director of the New Jersey Resource Project and the New Jersey Organizing Project. Founded by Superstorm Sandy survivors in 2014, in less than three years they have won millions of dollars in rental assistance for Sandy families, worked to pass two state laws, one on disaster spending and transparency and the other to halt foreclosure and provide a mortgage forbearance for disaster survivors. Previously, she was the National Campaign Director for People’s Action where she ran campaigns on Wall Street accountability, tax fairness, and predatory lending. She has been a community organizer for nearly twenty years.