Still Shoveling Out From Superstorm Sandy

A year after the storm, many New Jersey residents are still mired in red tape that has slowed recovery.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Last October, Hurricane Sandy made landfall in New Jersey, damaging some 360,000 homes. A year later, there are few signs of rebuilding in some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods. While residents there blame red tape, federal state and local officials seem to point finger at each other.

From member station WNYC, Janet Babin reports.

JANET BABIN, BYLINE: Ortley Beach sits on one of New Jersey's Barrier Islands. When Sandy moved through here, the ocean swallowed some homes whole and knocked hundreds more off their foundations. Barry Ingram rode out the storm at his home about a half block from the beach.

BARRY INGRAM: ...on the bed. We did. We laid down in the bed and the house is going like this. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And it was stuff in the basement hitting the pipes like a submarine going boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Pitch black out, wind howling, woo-woo.

BABIN: Ingram was OK, but his house took on nine feet of water. When I first met him about a month after the storm, he and his wife, Ileana, were shoveling through thigh-high sand that went right up to the front door.

ILEANA INGRAM: My workout.

BARRY INGRAM: My back's killing me.

(LAUGHTER)

BABIN: Like many residents, the Ingrams thought they'd rebuild higher and be living back at home by now. But on a stormy Friday a few weeks ago, the block was mostly deserted, with swaths of sandy lots where houses used to be. A few homes have been abandoned. The Ingrams still can't move back in and are living in different cities. They say they've spent more time jumping through bureaucratic hoops than working to rebuild their house.

BARRY INGRAM: From the time we first started shoveling sand here, I bet there's no more than 60 working days total. The shoveling sand...

ILEANA INGRAM: About twelve weeks has been waiting for permits and inspection.

BARRY INGRAM: Sixty days.

BABIN: Tom Kelaher is mayor of Toms River Township that includes Ortley Beach. He says his staff is overwhelmed and doing the best it can.

MAYOR TOM KELAHER: There's a minimum of 21-day turnaround, OK, because it has to - the plans have to be reviewed, zoning has to make sure it doesn't violate any zoning ordinances. We're not going to let the place be rebuilt with a hodgepodge.

BABIN: Thousands of residents affected by Sandy have a laundry list of complaints about the pace of recovery. From the changing federal flood maps that held up decisions on how high to rebuild, to delays and denials from insurance adjustors, to languishing grant applications. In February, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced that the state would be transparent about how it spent $1.8 billion in federal aid money.

GOV. CHRIS CHRISTIE: Our goal on this first section of the money is to use it predominantly for homeowner grant program and a small business grant program. Notice I'm saying grants, not loans. We know that a lot of our homeowners already had debt.

BABIN: One of the grants funneled through the state offers Sandy victims a lot of money, up to $150,000 per household. More than 15,000 people applied for the grant, but so far just 100 applicants in New Jersey have received any of that money. Attorney Adam Gordon is with Fair Share Housing Center.

ADAM GORDON: This is the major program to help people rebuild and elevate their homes and the federal government gave its approval to spend this money back in April, so we're not really sure what they're really saying here.

BABIN: In response to an email, Lisa Ryan, whose New Jersey office administers the grant blamed the delay on strict federal requirements like home inspections. She said an additional 200 applicants will receive their grant money by the end of the month, but that still leaves thousands and thousands of residents without the money to rebuild. The Ingrams cashed out a life insurance policy to get started and are further along than most.

But still, Ileana says success comes in small increments.

ILEANA INGRAM: We got a new sliding door, but you could probably, if you dare take a peak if you want, you can just look out here.

(LAUGHTER)

BABIN: At the door, you can see the waves crashing against the beach, much smaller than those that nearly washed away their home a year ago. For NPR News, I'm Janet Babin.

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