KIYC investigation finds NJ may not be ready for next major storm like Sandy

KIYC investigation finds NJ may not be ready for next major storm like Sandy

News 12 NJ

Seven years after Superstorm Sandy, New Jersey may not be significantly ready for the next major storm, a Kane In Your Corner investigation finds, because the system that let homeowners down the first time remains largely unchanged.

It’s taken seven years for Jim and Carol Ferraioli of Middletown to even get close to returning home. Their new home is elevated on pilings, but the interior is largely unfinished.

Still, Jim Ferraioli says, “Every time I come and see a little bit more and a little bit more, I feel like ‘Yeah, it’s happening.’ And it’s a good feeling. A really good feeling.”

That feeling has been a long time coming. The Ferraiolis’ home was damaged during Sandy, but it was a fraudulent contractor who ultimately destroyed it. The contractor, Jamie Lawson, took their grant money, elevated the house and walked off the job, leaving the house to rot. By the time the family got new grant money to replace the stolen funds, the house was a total loss.

“I just got to the point that I said, ‘I’m done,’” Ferraioli recalls. “My wife just kept pushing and pushing and pushing, and thank God for her, because she got us through it.”

Their story may be extreme, but it isn’t unique. Of the 7,500 families to receive Sandy grants, about 11% are still not home, according to the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs. And seven years later, New Jersey might not fare much better if another large storm hit.

“I don’t think we’ve applied the lessons we’ve learned,” says Amanda Devecka-Rinear, executive director of the New Jersey Organizing Project, which advocates for Sandy families. “There are many instances where the system that let New Jersey families down is still in place and it’s exactly the same.”

Take the National Flood Insurance Program. Families across New Jersey and elsewhere were systematically underpaid, in part because the federal government only penalizes insurance companies if they overcharge. “There’s no penalty for underpayment,” Devecka-Rinear says. “As you can imagine, with the system set up that way, there’s an incentive to low-ball families, and that hasn’t changed.”

Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez proposed legislation to reform the flood insurance program, but the bill has not made much headway. “Without real reform, we can expect the same exact problems we faced after Superstorm Sandy when the next storm comes," Menendez says.

The Ferraiolis also question whether future homeowners will be better protected against fraudulent contractors. Lawson, the contractor who victimized them, served just six months in jail. Carol Ferraioli proposes criminal background checks for contractors before they can receive grant money. “You can’t change the name on a fingerprint,” she says.

Sam Viavitinne, New Jersey’s Sandy Recovery Director, insists the state did learn from cases like the Ferraiolis, but admits the lessons came too late. “We had some builders who were not good actors, and we tightened up our requirements as to when payments would be released,” he says. “That made a difference, but unfortunately, a lot of the damage was done early on.”

In one key way, New Jersey is more prepared for a future storm. After Sandy, the state limited grant money to $150,000 per family. That often proved not to be enough, and advocates say the limit is a big reason hundreds of grant recipients are still not home.

Last fall, Gov. Phil Murphy announced supplemental funding. But as Kane In Your Corner reported Monday, one year after that announcement, that grant money has yet to be distributed.