7 years after Hurricane Sandy deluged his house, N.J. resident recounts the long journey home

7 years after Hurricane Sandy deluged his house, N.J. resident recounts the long journey home

By:  Avalon Zoppo

After Hurricane Sandy ripped across New Jersey in 2012, and Doug Quinn’s house, he lived in a small apartment filled with unpacked cardboard boxes. It was seven minutes from his old Toms River home, which had been inundated with 5 feet of water, leaving it unlivable.

In the years that followed, the 55-year-old fought his insurance company and the government for the resources to move back in, all while dealing with major life events: his daughter entering college and the passing of both of his parents. Some days, he said, he would sleep in his 1999 Dodge van because his rental “didn’t feel like home.”

But on Monday, with mixed emotions, the one-time Marine finally returned to his rebuilt home along the Barnegat Bay.

“This was bitter and fearful and angry every step of the way. The average person on their best day is not equipped to fight this,” he said, standing outside the house, on the eve of Superstorm Sandy’s seven-year anniversary.

It’s been a long journey— one that Quinn and advocates say highlights flaws in the debt-ridden federal flood insurance system, called the National Flood Insurance Program. The program, which is managed by FEMA and makes federally backed insurance available, has been straddling a more than $20 billion debt following a string of heavy storms, beginning with Hurricane Katrina in 2005

Quinn’s story began a year before Superstorm Sandy, when he purchased the property along with a $250,000 flood insurance policy from an insurer under contract with FEMA.

After the epic storm, Quinn said the private insurance company offered him only $90,000 for his claim, saying a majority of the damage was caused by movements in the soil over time, not by Sandy. Such damage is considered a preexisting condition and excluded in most policies.

Quinn appealed the decision to FEMA, which oversees the private insurers, but the government sided with the insurance company.

In 2013, Quinn hired a lawyer to challenge the agency. Hundreds of other victims also claimed in court that engineering reports were rewritten to blame storm-caused damage on other factors.

In the meantime, Quinn was spending his savings on rent, mortgage and flood insurance payments on top of attorney fees while he lived in a small duplex.

“I was angry all the time,” Quinn said. “I’d say ‘This is not a home. This is headquarters for a war.’"

About three years later, Quinn got a settlement. He received the full $250,000, minus $43,000 in legal fees. FEMA also reopened more than 142,000 claims by Hurricane Sandy homeowners.

Then, came yet another hurdle. Quinn had to find a contractor he could trust, as stories of fraud were everywhere, and continue to this day.

“I went through eight builders before I decided on one,” he said.

And as long as Quinn’s return lasted, others in New Jersey are still waiting and trying to navigate complicated programs and the insurance world.

As of October 2019, 757 homeowners who received grants from the state’s Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) program and Low-to-Moderate Income (LMI) Homeowners Rebuilding Program remain without certificates of occupancy, according to Lisa Ryan, spokeswoman for the Department of Community Affairs.

And 239 displaced homeowners in the program receiving rental assistance, Ryan said.

“Most of the 757 homeowners who have not finished rebuilding are currently back home as they either wrap up their projects or as they prepare for construction in the near term," Ryan said.

Across the street from Quinn sits a red home on pilings, seemingly empty and unfinished.

At a news event Monday with U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez, several members of the non-profit New Jersey Organizing Project shared their post-Sandy stories with Quinn’s rebuilt home as the backdrop.

Joe Mangino, co-founder of the non-profit, described the hectic years that followed and lowballed claims from his insurance company.

Mangino is advocating for federal legislation, sponsored by Menendez, that seeks to put federal dollars toward mitigation, stop fraud and prevent steep premium hikes under a new risk rating system FEMA is rolling out.

Part of the legislation would also give FEMA greater authority to remove contractors with a records of fraud and reform the claim appeals process for homeowners.

“I exhausted all of my savings just to get home, just to get my heat working, so my family could move into a gutted home...only to find out my insurance company was dragging their feet," Mangino said. "All the money I had in the world was jingling in my pocket because my insurance company refused to pay."

“Here we are, on the seventh anniversary, and we are finished, but we are undone,” he said.