Sandy evacuees find themselves on the move again
EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — More than a dozen Sandy evacuees, some with possessions crammed into plastic bags, filed onto a bus in West Atlantic City on Wednesday bound for the Atlantic City Convention Center and an uncertain future.
Money to put the Atlantic City residents up in the Travelodge motel while repairs were made to their apartment building had run out. They had to find somewhere else to stay.
“I don’t understand,” said Claire Kincaid, who sat in one of the first rows. “Where do they expect us to go?”
Similar scenes played out across New Jersey on Wednesday as thousands of people displaced by last month’s superstorm faced the prospect of losing housing assistance supplied by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other entities.
Many received eleventh-hour extensions but some did not, and they all face a long road back to normalcy.
FEMA spokesman Paul Gardner said about 38,000 New Jersey residents were deemed eligible for temporary assistance, although it was unclear how many actually received vouchers to stay in motels. In Atlantic County, he said, FEMA was still housing about 60 people as of Wednesday.
There were rumors that some would have their vouchers extended, Gardner said, but he couldn’t confirm whether they had any veracity.
“FEMA’s goal is to get as many of those people out to long-term housing situations as we can,” he said. “If they can’t get into a rental because those rentals are expired, then find a family member or friend.
“The real recovery begins when they get back into their own homes,” he added.
But for residents of the worst-impacted areas, home is still not an option a month after Sandy came ashore near Atlantic City with 90 mph winds and a 5-foot storm surge.
The last time 53-year-old Ronald Wonson saw his home at Liberty Apartments on Baltic Avenue, it was still under 2 feet of water.
He left behind most of his possessions, including an electric wheelchair, with the assurance that he could return in a few weeks after the landlord made the necessary repairs. With little money, no relatives to move in with and the complex deemed uninhabitable by the city, Wonson said he now has few options.
“I’m stranded here,” said Wonson, who suffers from diabetes that resulted in the amputation of part of his left leg. “I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Emergency Management Director Tom Foley said the city paid about $16,000 to lodge 18 residents of the Liberty Apartments in the motel when it became clear that the Liberty owner would not pay.
He said the city could file a lien against the property to recoup those costs. The rest of the estimated 90 residents likely found their own shelter.
The residents were being taken Wednesday to FEMA’s Disaster Recovery Center at the Convention Center, he said, where federal representatives would try to find more permanent housing for them. Those who have already received monetary assistance — for most, about $2,000 — will be expected to use that money to find lodging.
“They can’t just rely upon the city to pay your hotel forever,” he said, adding that the position of the city is that landlords are responsible for the relocation of the tenants.
Foley said the apartments have been deemed unsafe until the owner repairs its fire pump. The city had already helped the owner pump water out of the building and restore power within two weeks of the storm.
Later in the day, Foley said FEMA and and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development had agreed to put many of those residents up in temporary housing with the goal of returning all of them to the complex by the end of the week with a temporary fire pump for the sprinkler system.
The owner, Mike Yeroushalmi, said he hoped to have the pump installed by the middle of December, but declined to comment further.
Terra Flynn, the FEMA Division Supervisor for Atlantic County, said most residents, including those from Liberty Apartments, received some kind of assistance Wednesday. Those who had already received FEMA checks were given at least three possible places they could find temporary housing.
Atlantic City resident Taya Brown was one of the lucky ones who learned of an extension of her stay until Dec. 12 at the Ramada Inn in West Atlantic City, after several anxious hours Wednesday.
Since the storm severely damaged the Massachusetts Avenue home she shares with her husband and five children, Brown said her life has been thrown into chaos.
“We’re kind of at the mercy of FEMA,” she said.
Brown tries to keep life normal for her kids, ages 1 through 12. On Wednesday, she attended a parent-teacher conference and supervised a school hockey game.
Despite receiving some money from FEMA, she said it’s not enough to find long-term shelter while her home is repaired. Meanwhile, her husband typically is scheduled for one or two days a week at his job at Harrah’s Resort.
Even with the extension, Brown said it’ll likely be months before her family can move back home. That means many more tense days to come, she said.
In Wildwood, Seaside Heights resident William Franklin got the good news Wednesday afternoon that he could stay the Blue Palms Motel through Dec. 12.
“FEMA came through,” said Franklin, 47, inside the motel’s office. “It was a relief.”
Motel manager Gordon Clark said nearly all of the 48 rooms it’s renting to storm victims are receiving FEMA assistance. The rest are staying for free, he said.
Ocean County Administrator Carl Block said a few hundred residents are still staying in hotels in Ocean and Monmouth counties, Cherry Hill and Wildwood.
"We did not receive that many calls from people asking, ‘Where am I going to sleep tonight?’" Block said.
More calls will come in for help when people return to their homes and realize that they may not be able to rebuild for a year, Block said. As of the end of the day Wednesday, he said, the county has not heard of any money running out from FEMA for hotel payments.
Staff writer Trudi Gilfillian, Emily Previti and Donna Weaver contributed to this report.
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