EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP - State officials visited disaster-recovery centers in Atlantic and Cape May counties Monday to get an update on efforts to repair or rebuild homes damaged by Hurricane Sandy.
The state is distributing $780 million in direct aid to homeowners in the wake of the Oct. 29 storm.
State Department of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable III said that is just a fraction of the total amount that will be needed to rebuild homes destroyed or damaged by the coastal storm.
The department this month opened nine centers statewide, including three in Atlantic, Cape May and Ocean counties, to help residents apply for grants and navigate the hiring and payment of contractors who will repair, elevate or rebuild their homes.
The state has two grant programs: one that offers homeowners as much as $150,000 for repairs and another that offers $10,000 to help residents remain in their home county while they make repairs to their house. The funding is a block grant, part of $1.8 billion in aid set aside for New Jersey through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"People want to get back in their houses. We want to get them rebuilt quickly," Constable said. "But any time the federal government is involved in giving out money, there are strings attached. It's taking longer than we hoped."
New Jersey sustained $4.5 billion in housing losses, $1.9 billion in business losses and $25 billion in public infrastructure losses from the storm, according to New Jersey's storm action plan it filed for federal assistance.
About 10 percent of homes in Atlantic and Ocean counties sustained severe damage, according to the report.
In Brigantine alone, the state estimated that half of the homes sustained major damage. One of them belongs to John Ferguson, who evacuated to Egg Harbor Township during the hurricane.
He came to the disaster center on Monday to apply for grants for his bayfront house.
"At first the damage didn't seem so bad," he said. "But then things started buckling and mold started growing."
He moved out of the home into a nearby rental property while he made repairs, estimated at tens of thousands of dollars. He thinks a lot of Atlantic County property owners are in similar straits.
"If you drive around the island, it looks pretty good. But there are so many houses where the interiors are a total mess," he said. "The damage was extensive."
About 75 percent of New Jersey's total property claims were filed in Atlantic, Ocean and Monmouth counties, Constable said.
In Cape May County, about 2,446 homes were affected by the storm, representing about 5 percent of the county's housing stock, according to state estimates.
Constable said he has traveled around the state seeing the damage firsthand.
"I've seen the devastation - homes off their foundations. A lot of people are still out of their houses," he said.
Homeowners are encouraged to apply for aid this month. Applications will be prioritized based on the degree of damage to the home, the property owner's income and the extent of damage in the rest of the town.
"The focus is on filling gaps. We want to prioritize those most in need," Constable said.
Constable said the centers are expected to remain open for about two years. Homeowners can apply for grants in person, online at www.renewjerseystronger.org or by phone at 855-726-3946.
Egg Harbor Township Mayor James "Sonny" McCullough said he has been working on repairing his Seaview Harbor home after the storm. He said residents have expressed frustration about the slow approval process.
"I started this process when I was 70. I'll be 72 before I see any money," he said.
Contact Michael Miller:
Atlantic County: 500 Scarborough Drive, Egg Harbor Township
Ocean County: 750 Vassar Ave., Lakewood Township
Cape May County: 3860 Bayshore Road, Suite 5, Lower Township
For more details, call 855-726-3946 or visit www.renewjerseystronger.org.