Bart Sutton fought with his insurance company for a year over what it would cost to rebuild his flood-damaged home, then gave up in frustration and tore it down. A week later, the money came through.
Simone and Ken Dannecker fixed their flooded home themselves, deciding they couldn't wait for insurance and government aid as green mold threatened to overrun it. Now, with the work nearly done, they are all but bankrupt -- and still can't afford to elevate the house they fought so hard to stay in.
Gigi Liaguno-Dorr needs $2 million to rebuild the bayfront restaurant that was one of the town's major employers; she has less than a quarter of that and says she has never felt so helpless.
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For these three families in Union Beach, a blue-collar enclave clinging precariously to the Raritan Bay, full recovery from Superstorm Sandy is still elusive nearly a year after the storm pummeled the state Oct. 29. That's also true to thousands of others at the Jersey shore; in Ocean County alone, the county planning board estimated 26,000 people were unable to return to their homes as of last month.
Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, could not estimate how many storm-damaged homes remain unoccupied. Many families are living elsewhere while their homes are being rebuilt, and "a large number" of bungalows and small homes that were destroyed or severely damaged were second homes for people living in their primary residences, he said. The state taxation division said more than 40,000 properties suffered a total of $4.3 billion in lost value from storm damage.
Joanne Gwin's home in Silverton section of Toms River was wrecked by the storm. Her insurance company paid $101,100 on a $250,000 policy, and she is appealing that decision, still living in a rental a year later.
"As of today, we are no closer to moving home than we were on Nov. 2, 2012," she said. "We are paying taxes and insurance on a home we can no longer live in. We are now at a standstill, waiting for the next step. What IS the next step? Does anybody know? We are looking at another Christmas with a tabletop tree in an apartment instead of the 9-foot Christmas tree that has always been our tradition. We want to go home."
To be sure, remarkable progress has been made in recovering from one of the worst storms ever to hit New Jersey and the second-costliest in the nation's history at $65 billion, trailing only Hurricane Katrina's $125 billion cost. Tens of millions of dollars have been spent rebuilding boardwalks and oceanfront attractions crucial to the tourist trade, and thousands of homes have been repaired, either with the help of government aid or through a mix of private insurance and savings.
As of Sept. 30, $5.6 billion in aid had been paid out to New Jersey storm victims, including $3.5 billion from the National Flood Insurance Program and $415 million in FEMA grants to individuals or households.
Sutton, who works for a regional sewerage authority, fought with his insurance company for nearly a year over the damage to his Union Beach home. Finally, he gave up in frustration and tore it down.
After inking a contract for nearly $10,000 to pay for the tear-down out of his pocket, Sutton and his wife, Sue, watched as heavy equipment smashed it to bits in less than 40 minutes. Sue fought back some tears but held it together as the house came apart.
"We cried for weeks," she said. "We dragged our entire life's possessions out onto the front lawn and cried as we watched it all get hauled away. After fighting with the insurance company for a year, this is actually progress. An empty lot gives us a place to start rebuilding our lives. A lot of the tears come when no one is around. This is actually a good day. We just want to go home."
A week after they tore the house down, the $68,000 over which Sutton had been battling, and which could have saved his home, was approved by the federal flood program. He'll use the money to help build a new home.
Not far away, the Danneckers fixed their flooded house themselves. Ken is a carpenter and realized mold was moving faster than the bureaucracy of insurance companies and government aid.
"Financially, we're in ruins," Simone Dannecker said. "We took everything we had in the bank and put it into our house."
She works part time at a bank and spends the equivalent of another part-time job dealing with paperwork for insurance and aid money she's hopeful will eventually arrive.
Doors are the dominant theme of Liaguno-Dorr's new restaurant, in rented space about a mile inland from the bayfront business that was annihilated by the storm. She salvaged dozens of doors from destroyed homes in Union Beach, restored them and marked each with the address where it once stood and uses them as wall space and tables for her new eatery.
It will cost $2 million to rebuild the restaurant -- money she does not have. Business was depressingly slow over the summer.
"There's nobody here, nobody in this town," she said. "You drive around at night and it's dark. And so quiet!"
Dorr has yet to receive a penny in government assistance despite applying for several programs. She will soon be on her eighth adviser for just one particular grant application.
"I have never felt more helpless than I do right now," she said. "We're struggling. And I'm not alone. Everybody I know is like this."