In the high school cafeteria where he spent the first 17 days after Hurricane Sandy – a refugee in his own town – Highlands Mayor Frank Nolan asked members of the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee to listen and remember the real stories of those directly impacted by the storm.
Following its tour of Sandy-ravaged coastal towns Tuesday, a group of state senators who have held regular meetings with elected officials, utility companies and experts within various state agencies in preparation of Sandy’s longterm fiscal impact on Trenton, took their seats in Henry Hudson Regional School to hear storm stories from residents and business owners alike.
While testimony ranged from complaints over FEMA’s bureaucracy, praise for first responders, and concerns over the future of the New Jersey Shore as it rests in the hand of legislators, a singular theme was carried through the hearing. Above all, residents asked, don’t forget about us.
With Nolan on his right, who said his wife is still getting celebratory texts and phone calls from friends and relatives that have just gotten their power back, State Assemblyman Declan O’Scanlon, R-13, asked the committee to ignore the ill-informed assumption that only multimillion-dollar vacation homes and rental properties were impacted by Sandy.
“These are working folks,” O’Scanlon, whose district includes some of the most storm-impacted towns like Highlands and said. “These are people who get up every day, go to work and live in modest homes, (some) that have been in their families for generations.
“This was unprecedented. Buildings that stood for 80 years or longer here were devastated.”
The budget committee is faced what will assuredly be a monumental task moving forward. The damage caused by Sandy in New Jersey has been estimated at nearly $40 billion. Already, the legislature has been flooded with new bills that could have serious financial ramifications for the state.
When it comes to how funds are distributed and to whom, State Senator and Budget Appropriations Chair Paul Sarlo, D-36, said the best thing for residents and local officials to do is assess and document the damage. When it comes to passing legislation or approving funding, the Senate needs accurate information, he said.
“Don’t be shy to ask (for help),” Sarlo said.
Most expect the road to recovery to be a long one, but still, some believe even in the immediate aftermath of Sandy not enough has been done to help those most significantly impacted by Sandy. Nolan said FEMA’s workers on the ground have been great through the early process. As for FEMA itself, not so much, he said.
Nolan said communication between the town and its residents and FEMA has suffered. With about 1,200 properties in Highlands having suffered significant damage, the need for help is now, not stuck in an endless loop of paper work and frustration.
About 200 people, most of them residents and business owners from Highlands and nearby towns, filled the cafeteria. Among them was Atlantic Highlands business owner Sandra Craig-Barry. Since Sandy’s hit, Craig-Barry said she’s taken on the responsibility of stepping up where the government and FEMA have not. For the past seven weeks she said she’s fed and provided shelter for her employees and has even raided her son’s closet to help provide clothing for those who lost theirs to Sandy.
The owner of Risco, Inc., an RV repair and outfitter, Craig-Barry said her business represents one of the larger employers in Atlantic Highlands.
“We have shelled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to stay in business,” she said, adding that she was disheartened that no one, from federal down to local government, has even acknowledged the problem.