Helping hands filling gap from FEMA, insurance inertia
BRIGANTINE — When Jackie D’Angelo returned home to 6 inches of sludge and the pungent smell of decay after Hurricane Sandy, she didn’t know what to do.
“For the first three days, I just sat there and cried,” she said.
Then the 46-year-old retired police officer found shelter for her elderly mother, handicapped brother and 7-year-old son and started rebuilding.
For the next two weeks, she worked alone, removing moldy carpet and insulation until she sprained both her wrists. With both arms wrapped in bandages, she finally took a friend’s advice and came to the city’s Community Center, where a command center staffed by a local volunteers had been set up.
D’Angelo’s experience is an example of how municipalities and nonprofits are increasingly filling the void left by FEMA and insurance companies, who have been slow to pay out and often don’t cover the full cost of recovery.
“I waved the white flag,” D’Angelo said. “I can’t do this anymore.”
For her, help arrived in the form of volunteers from Brigantine and around the country who came to pry up rotting floors and replace buckling drywall. They dropped off warm meals and donated construction materials D’Angelo had been paying for by herself.
Four months after the storm, many displaced residents still need help getting back into their homes, said Henry Wise, chairman of the Tri-County Voluntary Organization Active in Disaster and southern regional coordinator for Salvation Army Disaster Services.
“We’re here trying to make sure nobody falls through the cracks,” he said.
D’Angelo, for instance, said the progress she made is largely due to the kindness of others. She had no flood insurance — possibly a blessing in disguise, she said, because it allowed her to make repairs immediately — and received a spartan $13,000 through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“I’ve never asked for help before,” said D’Angelo, who is renting a place to live with her family on the island. “When times are tough, you see who’s there for you and who’s only taking advantage of you.”
Brigantine is home to one of the most organized efforts to help displaced residents. True Spirit Coalition, a 15-year-old charitable group comprising churches and civic organizations, recently spun off BrigStrong, a committee dedicated to long-term recovery.
“We’re very concerned that when FEMA does not give people money anymore, we’ll have a huge problem of people not having a place to stay,” said the Rev. John Scotland, of the Community Presbyterian Church.
Scotland, who also runs Sister Jean’s Kitchen in Atlantic City, said there are currently about 2,500 displaced Atlantic County residents, including at least 28 children from the Brigantine school system.
BrigStrong, which will funnel donations and volunteers to residents who need them most, is working on a website and publicity. The group is composed of a number of subcommittees that work on everything from gathering building supplies to championing residents before FEMA and their insurances companies.
With the summer tourist season on the horizon and housing already sparse, Scotland said, housing is the biggest concern.
“We’ve been networking with Realtors and folks who own summer rentals to find places,” he said. “There are dozens of people who’ve made their summertime homes available for just the cost of utilities ... but the need is just overwhelming.”
In addition, Brigantine is organizing a list of all of its displaced residents through City Clerk Lynn Sweeney. While her efforts aren’t officially sanctioned by the city, the municipality has tried to advocate for its citizens.
“One of our biggest concerns right now are residents still displaced by Sandy,” City Administrator Jennifer Blumenthal said.
With FEMA’s deadline for public assistance funds for displaced residents extended to March 1, Blumenthal said, the city is encouraging residents to apply or amend their applications at www.disasterassistance.gov. Anyone who has exhausted those funds can reach out to the American Red Cross at 571-205-3000, she said.
Wise said the VOAD is working with local organizations such as the True Spirit Coalition to determine what needs can be filled locally and what will need outside funding sources.
“We’re in the process of doing a needs assessment — finding out the needs of those who were impacted,” he said.
In addition to reaching out to groups directly, Wise said residents in need can call the New Jersey help line at 211. Requests from that system are referred directly to long-term recovery groups.
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