LITTLE EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP— Confusion, frustration and a lack of information over the last two months brought more than 900 people to a meeting with FEMA officials Friday night at the Pinelands Regional High School auditorium.
The crowd came looking for answers and help from the 25 representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency in attendance.
The township was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. The majority of homes in the Mystic Islands section were destroyed, many now standing as shells, others gutted by severe flood damage.
There were no lights on in many of the homes in this area Friday night. But it wasn’t because their owners were at the meeting. It was because they have yet to return home since the Oct. 29 storm.
Township officials have projected that more than 5,000 homes were substantially damaged in the storm, and many of those residents remain displaced.
“Each of you is going to write a different story on how you recover from this,” Ryan Pietramali, chief of FEMA’s Risk Analysis Branch, told the gathering at one point. “Having been through this in other areas of the country, I know it’s going to take more than a couple of days. I don’t have a magic wand. I wish I did.”
The crowd started filling the auditorium when the doors opened at 6:30 p.m. for the 7 p.m. meeting. Many clutched notebooks, envelopes and files.
Roy and Jo Anne Bray found their seats inside the auditorium and caught up with neighbors from their Mystic Islands neighborhood.
The Brays have not lived in their lagoonfront home on Superior Lake Drive since Oct. 29. The couple started renting a one-bedroom apartment in a senior community in South Hampton, Burlington County, on Dec. 1.
They continue to pay their mortgage on the small home they have lived in for the last 10 years. All they want is to go home, the couple said.
“We have over $100,000 worth of damage, but as far as raising the house, if we have to, we can’t, because it’s on a cement slab. More than likely we’ll have to tear it down,” Roy Bray, 71, said.
The Brays came to the meeting to get some answers, to find out about elevation requirements and to get help with funding if in fact they have to rebuild or raise their home.
“There are 5,000 homes here that are gone. They’re just shot. We need answers. We need help,” Jo Anne Bray, 62, said.
Just minutes after 7 p.m., it was evident that the majority of the people who used to live in some of the severely damaged homes were inside the auditorium, and it quickly became standing room only.
“I know there are a lot of questions that a lot of people don’t have answers to,” township Committeeman Raymond Gormley told the crowd. “They are here to help you as best as they can. I know tensions are a little high at times, but please be respectful and mindful of your neighbors.
“We will stay here as long as it takes to get the answers to your questions,” he said.
When the meeting started, FEMA representatives asked for a show of hands of homeowners who plan on raising their homes and the majority thrust their arms into the air. The next question asked who had substantial damage to their homes and even more raised their hands. Many in the crowd screamed for an explanation of just what is considered substantial damage.
FEMA cannot declare a structure substantially damaged, that can only come from local officials, a FEMA representative told the crowd.
FEMA defines substantial damage as “damage of any origin sustained by a structure whereby the cost of restoring the structure to its before-damaged condition would equal or exceed 50 percent of the market value of the structure before the damage occurred.”
“I know some of you are going through a hard time,” FEMA representative Rosemary Raises told the crowd.
A man in the audience yelled back, “You don’t even know.”
Township engineer Jim Oris told the crowd that one of the things that is important to understand with regard to new flood elevation maps is that the modeling used by FEMA doesn’t include Sandy-specific data. Instead, the new maps include data from storms that were substantially similar to Sandy and are based on the best information FEMA currently has.
“They want to make sure everyone who is rebuilding won’t wind up in a situation where they are built lower than they are supposed to be,” Oris said.
An ordinance was introduced last month by the Township Committee to adopt the new base flood-elevation maps, but officials are continuing to collect information from contractors and others in the community, Oris said. The Township Committee will hold a second reading of the ordinance Jan. 10.
When Friday’s meeting was opened to the public to ask questions, people had already lined up and one by one took the microphone. Many of the questions expressed similar feelings of confusion and frustration.
Susan Lawler said she doesn’t see a future at her home on Lake Superior Drive in Mystic Islands.
Lawler said her house was destroyed, and as far as determining its post-storm value, there is no way to see what its worth was before.
“I don’t even know who my local flood-plain manager is. I had an adjuster come out. It has been two months, and I’ve heard nothing,” she said.
“I’m at 5.9 feet now on the flood elevation and the new recommendation is 12 feet. ... So where is the money? I barely make enough to pay the mortgage I have. I’m homeless now,” she said.
A FEMA representative told Friday’s audience that homeowners in special flood areas are eligible for as much as $30,000 to go toward bringing their properties into compliance with new base flood-elevation maps.
Homeowners in these areas have three options moving forward: relocation, elevation or demolition.
Diane Bruhnsen said she received some answers Friday evening regarding money available for demolishing her home so she can rebuild, but as she left the meeting she had some harsh words for local officials.
“I think the meeting was worth it. I think we have an incompetent council and mayor. For over two months I’ve been trying to talk to somebody,” said Bruhnsen, whose South Ensign Drive in Mystic Islands sustained $128,000 in damage.
By 10 p.m., the auditorium began emptying, but some people were still asking questions and the same frustration that brought them to the meeting seemed to still be brewing.
“If it takes holding another meeting just like this to get as much information out as possible we will do that,” Gormley said.
“And rest assured that this governing body will do everything it can to get every dime that’s available to our community. That’s our job, and we will not stop until we get it,” he said.
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