The Ocean County Planning Board estimates that there are still about 26,000 people across the county who remain displaced from their homes since Hurricane Sandy.

“The Jersey Shore is back in some areas, but you can’t ignore that there are still thousands of people still out of their homes,” said David McKeon, Ocean County planning director.

With a countywide population of 576,567, McKeon said it’s not a stretch to say that as many as 26,000 residents, or about 4.5 percent, could still be displaced.

“We have got to get these folks back in their homes. ... That this many people have not returned to their homes is unacceptable,” Ocean County Freeholder Joseph Vicari said.

The problem facing the agencies is that there is no single source to turn to that will calculate exactly how many people are still out of their homes, McKeon said.

“We’re working with the emergency management offices and our Social Services office to keep up to date with displacements. As more time goes by, there is more information available. We have been able get more information from town tax and utility records to narrow the number down,” he said.

In March, data from the Federal Emergency Management Agency showed 2,500 people in the Little Egg Harbor and Tuckerton area had applied for assistance for storm damage to homes that were considered a structural loss.

McKeon said it is safe to assume that those people were displaced because their homes were uninhabitable.

In Stafford Township — which had a 2010 population of 26,535, according to the U.S. Census Bureau — the number of affected homeowners, according to FEMA data collected in March, was 1,700, McKeon said.

“Those numbers have definitely increased over the last six months as people continued to seek help, and it is doubtful those homeowners have returned to their homes,” he added.

Others did not apply for assistance through any program and may have gone to live with family or friends.

“But we know they’re not on anyone’s list or in any program. We think there are a lot of those people out there who sought out their own resources,” he said.

In the day or two after the storm, as people were beginning to pick up the pieces, officials did not think that almost one year later thousands would still be out of their homes, McKeon said.

It didn’t take long, however, before it was realized some areas would take years to rebuild, he said.

“In just a few weeks, we realized the prognosis wasn’t good. That’s what makes this storm so much of an impact that we have never seen before,” he said.

Driving through the Mystic Island section of Little Egg Harbor Township at nightfall, it is clear that many people have yet to return to their homes. Township officials estimated that 5,000 homes suffered substantial storm damage.

Areas such as Mystic Island were hit hardest during the storm. The homes there are in low-lying, bayside areas that 30 years ago were seasonal residences but now are mostly inhabited year-round, McKeon said.

“There are funding programs out there to raise homes, but they don’t work well for communities like Mystic Island, where houses are packed in tightly,” he said.  

Assemblyman Brian Rumpf, R-Ocean, Burlington, Atlantic, who lives in Little Egg Harbor Township, said the state is continuing to work diligently to return people to their homes.

Rumpf said he attributes the thousands who are still displaced to the sheer number of those who were adversely affected and the magnitude of the disaster that put a strain on all agencies, particularly FEMA.

“It’s absolutely terrible how many people still have their lives turned upside down. We were all aware from the onset that it would be a painstaking process. I would certainly have hoped with all of the grant programs being advertised and insurance companies would have done what they needed to do to get people home,” Rumpf said.

In Atlantic County, the snapshot of displaced residents nearly one year later is not as grim. Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said he estimates that there are about 1,000 residents who are still displaced from their homes because of storm damage.

“It’s pretty tough to come up with an exact number because the displaced people are processed through different agencies. There are also many people who have never even registered with FEMA,” Levinson said.

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Been working with the Press for about 27 years.