An open letter to: President Obama, All the members of Congress, Governor Christie and members of New Jersey Senate and Assembly and to local mayors and council members
MY DESCENT INTO MADNESS BY WAY OF THE RABBIT HOLE
Super Storm Sandy has displaced seven people in my family. We all lived in Seaside Park, New Jersey. We are no different from the thousands of people who are facing what seems like insurmountable obstacles towards rebuilding our homes, our lives and our communities.
During the height of the storm our local rescue workers, emergency personal and police were heroic in their efforts to save lives and mitigate damages. The weeks following the storm were also filled with countless stories of families, neighbors, friends and strangers offering a helping hand. I have always had faith in the humanity and I was not disappointed. So many volunteers, so many offers of housing and food, countless acts of kindness and then the madness of trying to return home began.
Today, I feel like Alice in Wonderland. I have fallen into the rabbit hole and my world no longer has any logic to it. There is nowhere to go to get answers to the problems you are facing and no one place that can offer help, advocacy, guidance and real answers! The FEMA centers are certainly not the panacea of assistance they are made out to be.
I am a trained crisis counselor and I find it amazing that our government believes that families who have lost their homes, who are struggling to make sense of recent events, fully expects us to plow through hundreds of brochures on the FEMA web site, to find an answer to what needs to be done, negotiate with insurance companies, mortgage companies and contractors.
Like Alice, the characters in this new world really don’t make sense and are certainly not there to give anyone clear and concise answers. Rather like the Cheshire Cat they present you with riddles and you are left trying to figure out the answers!
I have been to the FEMA offices 5-6 times in the past 2 months. There are some very nice people there, but handing me another brochure is really NOT helpful. I have made at dozens of phone calls to various government offices to educate myself on what needs to be done, develop a plan of action and put that plan in place, all the while trying to secure temporary housing, comfort family members and grandchildren, mitigate our property and find answers to complex and confusing issues.
Here are a few of the dilemmas we face; these are not in order because they are all intertwined!
- If you rebuild your home as it was, you will not be able to afford the flood insurance premiums FEMA is putting into place (see brochure on rising flood insurance costs).
- If you want to do the right thing for the future you need to raise your home according to another FEMA brochure. However, if your home hasn’t been damaged more than 50 percent and you have not had storm damage twice in the past ten years, you are not eligible for the ICC payment of up to $30,000 to raise your home. HUH? You pay for this coverage and yet you are not eligible!
- The new FEMA flood maps seem to be in flux. So you really don’t know what your home’s flood elevation is on the new map. Then you have to wait to see what your town does in terms of adopting the new flood maps.
- Then there is “Free Board” (Not a surfing term!) which as I understand it is another level of elevation towns can adopt which will require you to raise your home, your heaters, etc. yet another 1-2 feet! This is another 1-2 feet in addition to the height elevations FEMA is strongly suggesting homes be raised to. Do the municipalities realize that with every foot you raise your home your heater, etc. that there is a related cost to the homeowner?
- In New Jersey, state government cannot implement a new requirement on without a corresponding funding source otherwise known as, “State Mandate, State Pay.” It would be nice if our federal government extended that premise to all the “suggestions” (Wink! Wink!) That FEMA is imposing on us! If we don’t follow their suggestions, our insurance rates will hit the roof. Where is the fairness in this?
- If you can’t get the ICC funds to help defer the costs of raising your home, where will you get the money to cover the additional cost of “Free Board”?
It seems to me that FEMA really wants me and thousands of others to file for bankruptcy!
- Try talking with your mortgage company to explain all this (some mortgage companies like Aurora Financial seem to be listening and are trying to find a way to help you! Others like PHH mortgage, Nation Star and others want you put back your home exactly like it was. They they don’t want to hear what FEMA requires in terms of elevations!
- Insurance adjusters are coming from all over the United States and promise reports within 7-14 days (we have been waiting 6 weeks for the reports). I called my mortgage company and they really don’t know whom they sent out to see my home!
- If you are lucky enough to get an advance payment from your insurance, the mortgage company requires you to get a release of lien and W-9 payment for each vendor/contractor you use. What vendor wants to sign a release of lien payment when they haven’t been paid?
- If the contractor signs off, but doesn’t put his title on the waiver of lien page, the mortgage company will reject the form! If you are waiting to pay the contractor, add at least 2-3 weeks unto the time frame to get your insurance advance payment back from the mortgage company, once they receive the amended document.
- You think you have done all the paperwork and you call to find out where the check is and guess what?? They need additional information and now want a statement from your insurance company stating that the contractor fees are reasonable (please see #6 my insurance company has dropped off the face of the earth, I can’t even get a report from them.)
- All the time you are trying to get all the paperwork done, the mold and mildew continues to grow in your home. If you don’t have the savings to front money forget about getting anything done in a timely fashion.
- It is my understanding by friends who have been lucky enough to get a report from their insurance company the money you think you are going to get really doesn’t happen. And another Alice in Wonderland experience begins! It seems that the insurance company depreciates everything to the point that the payment you may receive is 1/3-1/2 less than the actual replacement cost. So if you HVAC system cost you $9,000 to replace, you are lucky to get $3-5,000. And then you need to fight to get the money back from your mortgage company; who again like the Queen Of Hearts wants more paperwork, or she screams, “ Off with their heads.”
- I pay the insurance premiums; I pay the mortgage and more than anyone I want my house whole! Why do I have to struggle with my mortgage company to get money to pay the contractors? Why has getting access to your own money turned into a house of cards?? One false move and the whole thing collapse and you have to start all over! Is nothing simple and straightforward anymore?
- If you have a job, good luck keeping it in this surreal world because while you are at work you need to make dozens of calls to insurers, FEMA, SBA, contractors, Code Enforcement Officers, mortgage companies, etc. trying to get answers and they are mostly available during your regular work hours.
- So, you make calls when you can and stay up late to get the paperwork done, mailed in, and then of course redone because you never do it to the satisfaction of: FEMA, SBA, Insurance companies and mortgage companies.
- Here’s another example of the madness you face. You finally get back to work after the storm and your first day back a FEMA representative calls and says he will be at your house in 2 hours. When you explain this is your first day back to work since the storm and he says, “well if you can’t get here today, it may be 2-3 weeks before we can reschedule a site visit!” You decide.
- I can’t tell you how many agencies have asked me for me income, my tax returns, my monthly bills, debts and so on. And yet when I go on the FEMA site the security questions they ask me in order to verify that I am who I am, relate to people I knew or were married to 35 years ago, or the name of my best friend, or a street I lived on as a child. The government knows a lot about me and yet they still ask for a copy of my taxes! Really?? I can’t get help without a ream of paperwork and countless documents; which the government and the mortgage companies already have!
- Finally, let me add that in times of natural disasters our government has sent millions of dollars to other countries to help them to rebuild. I am just wondering has anyone sent money to us to help with the rebuilding of the East Coast of the United States? I know I haven’t gotten a check.
- When Congress is withholding funds, I really need to question their reasoning. Isn’t it the tax dollars that we have all been contributing for years and years? Is this not our money? Or is Congress thinking like the mortgage companies and they continue to think my money is really their money? Yet another Alice in Wonderland dilemma. My descent into madness continues!
- We need money now, not in a month or next year. Those of us with and without insurance need help to rebuild our homes. Does our United State Congress have something against New Jersey? Is it Snookie? Have we done something to offend them or am I forever doomed to living in Wonderland?
- When Katrina hit New Orleans (a city I love) we spent billions to help them out and yet it is a city that sits in a bowl surrounded by water! Did anyone tell them they had to raise their homes? If we can help New Orleans, why does the US Congress not want to help us??
I am tired and saddened by all these things and more. The emotional, financial and physical toll of this storm is taken on so many families is immeasurable. It begs the question: Who can give us clear and financially doable options to help us rebuild?
I believe I am strong person who could handle most challenges. But I doubt that I will come out of this one whole. I am asking for help and compassion from my government at the local, county, state and federal level. Without that help, we as individuals and as a state will fail to come through this crisis and I for one may never find my way out of the rabbit hole.
Please, we need answers. We need affordable, doable options so we can rebuild our homes and business. We need the insurance companies to be more responsive and the mortgage companies to know that we cannot repair anything until they release our money and we CANNOT put our homes back to the way they were. We need FEMA to understand we cannot all raise our homes and we cannot pay $10-18,000 annually for flood insurance.
The mad hatter is calling, my tea is ready and I must go. Thank you for taking the time to read this.
Faith C. Liguori,