Frustration with the slow pace of recovery from Superstorm Sandy boiled over Tuesday at a public hearing on the rebuilding process.
Residents affected by the Oct. 29, 2012, storm blasted state officials over what they consider unconscionably long delays, unresponsive bureaucracy and incompetence in approving and distributing storm aid.
The hearing in Galloway Township was the first of three scheduled for this week on the state's plans to spend the next $1.4 billion in federal storm recovery aid.
Jane Peltonen, of Brigantine, said the state has done next to nothing to help her town.
"You remember Brigantine: That's the town where Gov. Christie and President Obama came and said help is on the way," she said. She said the state's main housing rebuilding program has lifted only one home in Brigantine in 15 months.
"A lot of people have been promised help, but only one has been helped," she said. "People who think RREM is going to solve their problems better be careful what they wish for. Right now, it's a black eye on the state. You've got to fix it before you give it to anybody else. Please, step up and fix it."
The state recently terminated its contract with the company that was administering the program, but has repeatedly refused to go into details about why, or who is handling the work now.
Marc Ferzan, the head of the state's storm recovery office, said he understands how victims feel.
"We feel equally frustrated as you do," he said near the conclusion of the three-hour hearing. "There has got to be a better way."
Several residents said they started rebuilding their homes, only to be told to stop by the state to comply with aid programs.
Chuck Appleby, of Seaside Park, whose home was flooded, said he got a state grant, but it was only enough to rebuild his home to the same elevation it was at when it flooded. He's paying the rest out of pocket.
"I'm amazed at the incompetence of the whole process," he said. "I started work. Then I got told I had to stop work. I waited seven months. Now, I have a $30,000 lawsuit with the house lifter. The state should be assisting people to do the right thing."
Georgina Shanley, of Ocean City, said many of her neighbors felt it was worse dealing with the state Department of Community Affairs than it was enduring the storm.
"No one wants to go to DCA and suffer the indignity of having to beg and having to be rejected," she said.
Christie's administration wants to use roughly half the money for housing programs, including grants for homeowners to rebuild and developers to put up new apartment buildings. Of the $735 million to be spent on housing assistance programs, $450 million would go to low- or moderate-income families.
About a third of the next round of money would go toward fixing vulnerabilities that Sandy exposed in the state's transportation, energy and water infrastructure systems. The $535 million investment would include a proposed "energy bank" to fund resiliency projects and a multifaceted flood hazard risk reduction program. Part of the money would be made available to satisfy governments' matching funds obligations for infrastructure-related recovery and resiliency projects.
The state received $1.83 billion in storm aid last year.
The plan calls for adding $390 million for the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation & Mitigation (RREM) Program, which is the state's largest Sandy housing recovery initiative. This is in addition to the $710 million received last year. It would add $200 million to the $179 million allocated last year for a fund to help develop affordable multifamily rental housing.
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It also would allocate $100 million for the New Jersey Blue Acres Buyout Program to purchase flood-prone homes.
Earlier in the day, three housing and community advocates told a state Senate oversight committee that many residents are confused after having been wrongly denied housing assistance. Others didn't receive information on how to apply or appeal for aid in Spanish.
Tuesday's hearing follows revelations that 80 percent of post-Sandy housing grant applicants were wrongly rejected. John Mullins of Margate is incredulous, saying he and many others still can't get back to normal 15 months after the storm.
"I haven't heard anyone talking about accountability for all the mistakes that were made," he said. "Who's going to get fired from the state? If we did our jobs that poorly, we'd all be fired, plain and simple."