HIGHLANDS - One year after Superstorm Sandy, thousands of New Jersey homeowners are still waiting for help from a grant system that is slow, inconsistent and plagued with problems, a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds.
Few homeowners can top the horror story of Oliva DeCellio, of Highlands. Her home was a total loss after being flooded by 4.5 feet of water. Not only were all her contents destroyed, but the foundation was so compromised that the town ordered the home torn down. But when DeCellio applied for a $150,000 Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation grant, the state turned her down on the grounds that her home had "suffered less than $8,000 damage."
"I was beet red," DeCellio says, recalling the moment she opened the letter at her place of employment. "They were going to call me an ambulance because they didn't know what was wrong with me. I was just screaming."
After Kane In Your Corner asked the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs for an explanation, spokeswoman Lisa Ryan said the department reviewed DeCellio's case and found she was eligible for funding after all. But because the first round of RREM grants was exhausted before the mistake could be corrected, DeCellio is now on the waiting list.
Mike and Paula Galida, of Ortley Beach, are also on the waiting list, and they're equally unhappy. They were notified in early July that they'd been wait-listed, even though the deadline to apply for grants, Aug. 1, was more than three weeks away. "If you extended the program until Aug. 1, (why are you) sending letters out that the money's already gone?" Paula Galida says.
Even those who have been approved for RREM grants may not be better off. Of the $600 million available in RREM grants, less than $5 million has made its way to homeowners. The state says another $15-20 million is on the way.
"That money was approved by Congress in January," says Adam Gordon, an attorney with the Fair Share Housing Coalition. "The state should have had a plan in place to get up and running and get this money out the door."
Both Gov. Chris Christie's office and the Department of Community Affairs declined to speak to Kane In Your Corner on camera. Off camera, officials within the DCA blame the delays on slow action by Congress - the federal funding was not released until the end of May - and stringent federal regulations, including environmental testing that's required before grant money can be given to homeowners.
But there have even been big problems with New Jersey's disaster assistance website. For almost a year, the English language page included a link homeowners could click to appeal if they were turned down for aid. The Spanish language page included no appeal link. The problem was finally fixed within the past two weeks, but only after the Latino Action Network filed a formal complaint against the Christie Administration.
Because of the ongoing problems with Sandy grants, Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) has called on Gov. Christie to extend the grant application deadline, which expired Aug. 1.
"I don't think it's an unreasonable request so that nobody falls through the cracks," Pascrell says.