My Birthday Wish

Dear Mr. Governor,

I am both pleased and excited by your executive decision-making and action to bring immediate relief to the survivors of the Seaside Heights Boardwalk fire. Your decision to give $15 million of Sandy-related funds (CDBG-DR money allocated from HUD for Sandy Recovery) should be applauded for its initiative and timeliness. It's the direction in question.

As a sister to the boardwalk, I am excited about what I will get on my first birthday on October 29.

You know me --

I am the middle-class single working mom who is still living in mold with her 12-year-old son and can no longer afford to wait for help. Because I can't afford to pay my mortgage and my repairs. I'm walking away from my home. That I fought for. And earned.

I am the father of six kids who sleeps on the beach after making sure my kids are sheltered. I am not covered by the federal or state grants because I was living in a hotel when Sandy hit. I am therefore not a "Sandy Survivor." No residence means you don't exist.

I am the homeowner stuck in a RREM step. There were 11 of them. I'm still waiting on the Environmental Review Board. That's Step 4. At least I don't have mold -- I paid for that myself and am now told I am denied for reimbursement. Should have waited, they said. Until the process was completed.

I am the homeowner not eligible for RREM because my home is "mobile," and my neighbor's mobile home is on the eligible list. I am so confused. To me, everyone seems like FEMA, I've been initially denied on every application, and I had to hire an advocate who took one-third of my insurance settlement. At least I have a roof. Asthma isn't that bad.

Sir -- I AM Jersey Strong. It's just that my local post office doesn't recognize "beach behind the dunes" or "Toyota behind the Wawa."

Mr. Governor, Ocean County says 26,000 are displaced in their county alone. That's one of the nine counties "affected" by Sandy. And, as we all know, there were more than nine. Ask Cumberland County if they felt Sandy's effects. Japan still has more than 300,000 displaced residents after their storm two years later. I think we'll have a better count for my second birthday -- we might be over 100,000 then for the state. Although I get a feeling you'll know -- we should be showing by then. Just in time for Iowa. That won't be a white wedding.

For my birthday, I would simply like what my sister the Boardwalk got. $15 million. In Section 4 of your NJ State Action Plan (your plan for how the state of NJ uses the HUD funds allocated to you through the Community Development Block Grants -- Disaster Relief), you describe the allocation of funds for transitional housing and for the administration of these funds. Secretary Donovan just allocated NJ's second tranche of money. Almost a billion and a half. Baby needs a new pair of shoes. And a roof. I request the following three gifts:

1. Emergency Housing. Section 4 discusses monies to be allocated for low-moderate income residents to be run by non-profit agencies. You have addressed the long-term strategy to replenish the stock of rental housing with your $135M allocation announced last month -- this is welcome and desperately needed, but will take years to come to fruition. Our homeless issue is current and on-going. And winter is coming. There are myriad vacant or abandoned commercial structures within the disaster zone. We have numerous highly-skilled volunteers coming in every day looking for rebuilding work. Let's fix the homeless issue in three months. That's a great running point for 2016 that could sway the socially-conservative liberals in battleground states. $5M

2. Case Management. The public is confused and stuck in the process. Period. This is a three-pronged solution:
A. The recommended maximum case load for a case manager is 20:1. We're currently running in excess of 50:1. We need more case managers hired now. $2M
B. Send a liaison from your office and from each of the Long-Term Recovery Groups (LTRGs) to a meeting with the DCA each week. Streamline the process. A laborious and complex process is untenable in a complex crisis. The recent RREM step revisions are applauded but not near enough. Someone from the DCA or their distant cousin in Freehold, ReNew Jersey Stronger, must communicate directly with the people struggling to dig out. $0.5M
C. Set up more intake centers where the public can walk in for assistance or information. If a survivor is struggling to breathe clean air and to put food on the table, they may not have WiFi or a phone -- much less navigate the IHP-CDBG-RREM-ICC-HMGP-FRM labyrinth. $2.5M

3. Long-Term Housing. You have significant portions of a dozen of your cities that are vacant and remain un-touched since the storm. You have volunteers at your disposal and funds for materials. Let's navigate the ambiguous waters of how to make the right call on abandoned housing, fix them up, and get renters who want to stay in Jersey (I haven't talked to one that wants to leave) into homes. The Sandy first-time homeowners' program is good start, but if your credit is below 620, it doesn't apply to you -- which includes quite a few people in the low to middle demographic in the middle of a four-year recession. $5M

These are all actual cases that I am working on as a disaster case manager and field organizer with Occupy Sandy NJ. And I have 20 more just like them. And I'm just one of many trying to help navigate this frustrating process . I've done Katrina, Haiti, and Bosnia, and if you've seen one disaster... you've literally seen one disaster. This one is 10 miles wide, but hundreds of miles long. It came when people were already financially struggling. Then they got hit. Disparate impact is the vivid outgrowth of this disaster, it's just that it's vaguely hiding behind exteriors that don't look damaged and people that "don't exist," held at bay by help on the way. But it won't stay hidden much longer.