Hurricane Irene struck the East Coast one year ago Tuesday, prompting the region’s first full-scale mandatory coastal evacuation, according to the state Office of Emergency Management.
Along with the evacuation came a flood of federal emergency assistance money and aid offered before the storm even struck.
While Irene was the costliest natural disaster in New Jersey history, according to the state, the storm ultimately had little lasting impact on South Jersey. But that didn’t stop the offers and payouts of federal assistance for damage, evacuation costs and even the cost of food for those who lost power for more than 72 hours.
Ten months later, a line of severe thunderstorms categorized as a ‘super-derecho’ walloped Atlantic and Cumberland counties in the middle of the night, coming with no advance warning.
The storm thrashed neighborhoods with winds exceeding 80 mph in places, causing millions of dollars of damage. Tens of thousands of area residents were without electricity for nearly a week as power crews rebuilt utility infrastructure from the ground up in some neighborhoods.
Yet while FEMA approved disaster aid for municipal governments following the ‘derecho’ storms, it has rejected individual assistance for businesses and homeowners. New Jersey’s Office of Emergency Management is considering appealing the decision.
“They say there’s a rhyme or reason for things, but there is no reason for this,” Atlantic County Office of Emergency Management Director Vince Jones said. “I’m still scratching my head.”
How these storms struck, the type of damage they caused and the warning authorities received all are factors in how and when federal assistance was administered.
Flood vs. wind
Irene’s impact mostly came from heavy rain far from the coast, with severe flooding in northern New Jersey and some flooding along the Great Egg Harbor, Cohansey, Mullica and Maurice rivers in South Jersey. Private insurers rarely cover flood damage, so federal dollars were needed for the relief effort in many areas.
June’s derecho also affected millions as the storms barreled east after forming the afternoon of June 29 in Indiana. The storms struck several major population centers, including Washington, D.C., but because the damage was mostly from high winds and lightning, private insurers are more likely to pay the bill.
FEMA paid out more than 700 claims for individual assistance — homeowners and businesses — in Atlantic County after Irene, totaling more than $1.8 million. In Cumberland County, FEMA paid nearly $3.5 million for more than 1,400 claims.
The counties had the highest number of claims in South Jersey from Irene and suffered the worst damage from the derecho.
Federal reimbursement under public assistance totaled more than $1.8 million in Atlantic County and more than $1 million in Cumberland County. This money was distributed to various public safety, municipal, county and health care entities, covering costs related to damage, evacuation and sheltering. None of that money went to individual assistance.
The cost of the derecho still is being tabulated, although a 75 percent federal cost share has been approved. How much FEMA will pay toward the damage in South Jersey still is unknown.
However, Atlantic County estimated in its disaster aid application that the cost of debris removal and damage to public infrastructure, including the county’s emergency communications tower, would be more than $13 million. Debris removal alone cost $10.2 million.
Cumberland County estimated the cost to public entities for damage and cleanup from the storm would be $3.6 million.
Vineland has calculated much of its storm cost. City Council will vote on whether to appropriate $4.4 million for the cost, about $3.5 million of which will go to the city’s electric utility for cleanup and repair costs.
FEMA External Affairs Officer Phyllis Deroian said the agency is most concerned with ensuring residents have a safe and clean place to live. Trees falling in yards or on cars are not eligible for federal assistance, and if damage is covered by homeowners insurance, then the damage is not eligible for FEMA aid, she said.
“In this disaster, there just wasn’t enough (damage) to homes to warrant a disaster declaration,” she said.
Jones said that some Atlantic County residents have reported that their insurance policies won’t cover downed trees that don’t strike their houses, or if the tree that fell was not originally on their property.
“A lot of insurance companies ... let’s just say they’re not making any friends out there because of how the policies are worded,” Jones said. “Even if (the damage) is covered by homeowners (insurance), a lot of what we’re hearing is that ... they can’t afford the deductible and what was going to be the balance for the debris (removal cost.)“
Jones did not cite any specific cases.
A volunteer effort through several faith-based organizations was launched soon after the storm to help the elderly or disabled with free-of-charge debris removal, if those residents met certain requirements
New Jersey State Office of Emergency Management spokeswoman Mary Goepfert said that the first applications for individual assistance filed by Atlantic, Cumberland and Salem counties did not meet the financial threshold required.
“This is not a situation where there is flooding. A lot of the damage is more likely to be covered under private insurance and FEMA does look at that as a factor,” Goepfert said.
Goepfert said her office is in the process of collecting additional information from the counties and is looking into whether to file an appeal.
When forecasts for Hurricane Irene began showing an increasing likelihood that the storm would affect New Jersey, emergency preparations immediately began. And to help pay for that, President Barack Obama signed a pre-landfall disaster declaration, which was requested by Gov. Chris Christie.
That disaster declaration meant that the federal government would pay for 75 percent of the cost of expenses related to the evacuation, emergency response and damage to public infrastructure. FEMA-approved individual assistance, which provides money for nonpublic entities, was approved for a wide swath of the East Coast shortly after the storm struck.
But not all of that aid was warranted or distributed to eligible individuals, according to a report from the state Department of Human Services to the federal government.
Federal and local officials widely promoted and even extended application deadlines for the Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to South Jersey residents, which provided money to reimburse for food that had gone bad due to power outages. Nearly one in five households that received the nutrition aid were ineligible, a report found.
Irene was the first time the D-SNAP program was activated in New Jersey. The review also provided guidelines for how to avoid abuse again.
At the height of Irene’s power outages, almost 1 million customers in New Jersey were without electricity, with outages in Atlantic City Electric’s coverage area totaling more than 100,000 customers. About 2,000 customers were without power for four days or longer.
While the June derecho hit only a small portion of the state, 206,000 customers were without power in Atlantic City Electric’s area, more than twice the number affected during Irene’s peak. Those outages lasted more than five days for tens of thousands. And because the storm came, effectively, out of the blue, there was no way to obtain a pre-disaster declaration.
Among the recipients of Irene federal disaster aid was the Atlantic County Utilities Authority, which received nearly $130,000, of which $126,000 went to replace a major sewer main near the border of Pleasantville and Atlantic City that was damaged from the high amount of water coming through the system, said authority President Rick Dovey.
“I would say the derecho was more impactful because it was totally different,” Dovey said. “We’re more geared for wetness, and the impacts from the (derecho) storm came from wind.”
Dovey said the authority is still calculating the final cost from the derecho, but he said the storm’s aftermath resulted in more than 800 hours of overtime needed for crews to man pump stations without power for days and to help remove debris.
“FEMA was quick to come in here with the hurricane. But they did not do the individual (assistance) when we had more individual damage (from the derecho,)“ Jones said. “FEMA has processes in place, the application process and other things. We’re asking them to take a look at it. If we’re approved, then great. If we’re not, then live and learn and hope you don’t ever get hit by something like this again.”
Contact Sarah Watson:
Follow Sarah Watson on Twitter @acpresssarah