Ten months after Superstorm Sandy wrecked their homes, people who still haven't been able to return to them asked New Jersey legislators for help Thursday.
Simone Dannecker, of Union Beach, is fighting her mortgage company for the right to stay in her home. She works 20 hours a week as a bank teller and spends another 20 writing letters, filling out paperwork for seven separate aid programs, and making phone calls.
At a joint state Senate-Assembly hearing on the pace of rebuilding since the Oct. 29 storm, she broke down in tears describing the frustration and hopelessness she and her family feel as everything they once knew has been upended.
“We are the typical hard-working blue-collar American family who ask for nothing,” she said. “Now they tell me I owe $320,000 on a house that isn't worth $150,000 right now.”
“We are living in a mold-infested neighborhood,” she said. “Do I fight to keep the house I lived in and raised my kids in, or do I walk away? It's a very emotional thing to deal with this on an everyday basis.
“The state has gotten us wrapped in so much paperwork, it consumes your life,” she said. “It really does. Not once have I spoken to the same person. You get passed along and passed along.”
Lee Ann Newland, of Neptune, still can't return to her home yet must still pay its mortgage and taxes. She and her husband run a music education program for poor children in the Bronx and lost most of their instruments in the storm.
“While working full-time as teachers, we have spent the better part of our time on the phone, writing letters and filing appeals,” she said. “Life is not normal.”
She said the state's “Stronger Than The Storm” commercials featuring Gov. Chris Christie and his family, which she said send the messages that “all is well” at the shore, are distressing to watch.
“We are exhausted and frustrated, and feel let down,” she said. “No further help is on the horizon.”
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Christie, said the ads “were about tourism - a $38 billion part of our economy, half at the shore - and hardly a suggestion that everything is OK for everyone. The ads were critical to dispel the idea that the shore, rentals and attractions were unavailable or unattractive. The governor has made these distinctions many times, as well as recognizing that there are still many people displaced and trying to get their lives back in shape while many, many others are getting back to normal or already have.”
Sonia Daley, of Atlantic City, has been unable to return to the apartment she and her extended family rented before the storm. They had to split up among three different rentals. She said the process of seeking help for an affordable home has been daunting.
“Go to this line, go to that line,” she said. “Nobody can give you no answer, no how. I'm not asking for the government to pay my rent. I just want something where I can pay the rent.”
Environmental groups said the state needs to do more to protect infrastructure like water and sewer plants, to buy out even more flood-prone properties along the coast, and to incorporate long-term rising sea levels into future land use planning along the coast.
“I hate to say it, but we are not stronger than the storm - we never have and never will be,” said Mark Mauriello, a former environmental protection commissioner under former Gov. Jon Corzine. “We have to be smarter.”
Housing advocates said the state needs to build more affordable housing, and to toughen requirements that landlords tell tenants if they are moving into a flood zone. Loopholes in the law exempt single-family and seasonal renters, and the law provides no effective penalty for non-compliance, according to Maryann Flanigan of Legal Services of New Jersey.