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We visited and couldn't look away

Chad Carson

Chad Carson is the New Jersey director of St. Bernard Project. Founded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2006, the Project works to rebuild homes destroyed in natural disasters. Since 2013, it has been working in Monmouth and Ocean Counties in New Jersey. Born in Texas and living in New Orleans during Hurricane Sandy, New Jersey is not where Chad expected to end up. In this narrative, Chad discusses the work of the St. Bernard Project and its commitment to rebuilding homes destroyed in the storm.

How did the Hurricane affect you?

At the time of Sandy I was working for St. Bernard Project in New Orleans. St. Bernard Project started out just thinking we were gonna be in New Orleans alone.  We started back after Katrina and since then expanded out to other disaster impacted places.  Hurricane Sandy hit and we sent staff first to New York. I never thought I’d be a part of that response and eventually I’d find myself sitting here in Monmouth County [laughter] as part of the rebuilding. At first I didn’t think it had anything to do with me and now I find myself kind of at the center of it.

What organization do you work for? Tell me about it.

St. Bernard Project is a non-profit that rebuilds homes for people impacted by disaster who don’t have enough money to finish the job on their own. It started out in 2006 in St. Bernard Parish. We were started up by two people that had no connection to New Orleans. Zack Rosenberg who is a Criminal Defense Attorney and Liz McCartney, his then girlfriend, now wife, she worked in public schools in D. C. and they watched Katrina unfold on T.V like everybody else and they thought, “we’ll go down to New Orleans and volunteer.” So they called the who’s who of New Orleans and tried to find a place where they could work. Nobody called them back. It was six months after the storm, and they thought, “Maybe we’ve missed it. Maybe Katrina’s over.” They got a call back from one group that was set up in St. Bernard Parish, a place they had never heard of. They went down there, slept in a tent, and found themselves working at a soup kitchen, it was still operating six months out and got to know the people, got to know the situation and found people still living in their cars, living in attics, living in garages, living in gutted homes. They were like “What the hell, this is six months out from the storm and no rebuilding is happening. So it was in that spirit that St. Bernard Project just started rebuilding houses when no one else was. Since then we have rebuilt 800 homes nationally. First in St. Bernard Parish, then New Orleans, then Joplin Missouri in 2011 after their EF 5 tornado, then we started up 3 operations in New York after Sandy, and finally, a year and a month ago, in Monmouth County. We’ve been rebuilding ever since.

How have you been involved in the response to Hurricane Sandy?

When we were starting up our affiliates in New York I provided some support there. We partnered with groups in New York that were good willed people who had found like-minded people to help gut homes. I did that from a distance and then I took a few trips and now most recently I find myself running our New Jersey response. Basically I set up this program here from the ground up.

What were some of the events that led up to the St. Bernard Project in Monmouth County particularly?

Right after Sandy we were in New York and we were not in New Jersey. We really didn’t understand the New Jersey landscape as it related to Sandy. The fact that we showed up a year and a half after the storm I think speaks volumes. In New York it was pretty darn straight forward, it was clear who was impacted, it was clear where the water went, there were few municipalities that were impacted, it was mostly New York City and on Long Island. Here, it was confusing. We were outsiders and we didn’t understand how to respond. We got an introduction to New Jersey. We were already running our stuff in New York and one of our…this is the weirdest chain of events. One of our board members for St. Bernard Project nationally, his former rabbi in Boston relocated to New Jersey and she was personal friends with the mayor of Sea Bright, Deena Long, and this chain of communication had Deena ask us to come see her town and see if we could help. She introduced us to Sea Bright Rising, which was active in Sea Bright. They raised over 1 million and a half dollars or so and gave it all out to people of need in Sea Bright. We visited and couldn’t look away after we saw what was going on. So we set up a shop.

Can you tell me more about your affiliation with Sea Bright Rising?

Sea Bright Rising are local people from Monmouth County. It’s here, Long Branch, Rumson, and they all cared about Sea Bright. One of the co-founders is Chris Wood. They raised a bunch of money, they had given out money, they were a relief organization. They had set up food tents, and they were feeding people who were doing first responder work and they had kind of run out of steam. They raised a lot of money, spent a lot of money, and sea bright was coming together but they found that people in their community were still left behind. We partnered with Sea Bright Rising to plug us into the community here. Originally we thought we would only serve Sea Bright. We thought there would be enough need, enough actionable projects, enough money, enough volunteers just for Sea Bright. That turned out to be wrong. We did our first six homes in Sea Bright, but after that quickly ran out of people to help. It’s not that there aren’t more impacted people in Sea Bright. It’s that it lacked a certain ripeness for us to be able to start the project. There were other factors that made it so we couldn’t immediately start a bunch of homes in Sea Bright, so we started branching out. They still fundraise for us, they still send us clients, but now we’re doing our own thing. We thought we’d just be Sea Bright, then we thought we’d be Sea Bright and adjacent towns, and then we realized we couldn’t build the density there so we went county wide, and now we’re expanding south into Ocean County. It’s actually a bad thing that we’re having to do that because the recovery’s been so sluggish that we’ve had to build the density that we need to operate. We have to take houses all the way an hour south of us just to be able to fill our pipeline with work.

Have you been involved with previous relief efforts and how has this been different?

I was involved after Katrina, I was involved in the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster, I was involved in the tornado in Joplin in 2011, went and did some work with flooding in Colorado, flooding from Hurricane Irene in upstate New York. There are commonalities for sure, but Sandy in New Jersey has been a particular challenge. I’m sure there’s tons of reasons, I’ll name a few. Tons of impacted municipalities, so many towns it’s crazy. Each town with its own unique demographics, its own leadership, its own population, people are super decentralized. Here…everyone is working on their own thing. It’s very challenging. Being a vacation community, kind of, has been an interesting challenge. The mix of fulltime residents and vacation residents has been different from any place we’ve ever worked in. It is immediately off-putting to people when we deal with volunteers or when we try to tell the story. . Even though this has been people’s year round residence for generations. It’s been hard. The government response, I can’t pretend that it’s been different here, although it’s been bad. In Joplin we built 178 homes before government funding came in. We built 5 homes with government money. So I can’t pretend it’s different. But it has been unique, the challenges have been different. Still government response has been…lacking. Even though they’re our friends, like the Department of Community Affairs works closely with us, with the RREM program to make sure that they’re doing the best they can. But, I’m sure that even DCA would say that this has been a very challenging program. The last thing I’ll say is different is who we’re helping, the income has been different. When we worked in New Orleans people, our volunteers expect to see sort of generational poverty and everything that comes with that. Here, the people that we help are solidly middle class. Which is different. They’re no less deserving. They’re financial situation is complicated and they make money. They also spend money, it’s expensive to live here. It’s just a different story to sell. It’s a little bit harder to sell. But that’s on us, not our homeowners. They’re totally deserving.

What are the biggest challenges that have faced people as they’ve tried to rebuild?

I think a lack of clarity about what the patch forward is for them. The cases here are very complicated. For a while the biggest impediment was waiting on RREM, just waiting. Then it became “how long am I waiting?” Now it’s “I got my money but now what do I do.” People are put in a roll where they’re expected to produce their own recovery plan, and it’s complicated. The intersection, elevation, architecture, engineering, traditional contracting is something that most people have never dealt with before. With REM pathway B, which represents most applicants at this point, they’re expected to run the show. They don’t have the know-how to do it. Even if they have enough money, which is only true of some people, they’re still fighting an uphill battle just to understand the process and piece it together. It’s a whole other challenge of people who simply don’t have money to fix their house. Those are the people we work with.

What are the biggest challenges that you as St. Bernard Project have faced?

It’s been tough to get actionable cases. The fact that we’ve built 8 homes is insane, it’s horrible. We’ve had the capacity to rebuild 30 homes and we haven’t done it simply because we can’t find people who have a clearly defined need, no impediments to moving forward in construction, and a clear path forward. It’s really hard. Every one of the cases we take on we have to take months untangling all of the pieces. It would be easy if we had an abundance of money and we could just throw money at the problem but there’s not enough money in this recovery to do that. That’s been the single biggest problem for non-profits in this area, cases are hard to come by. Which is maddening. Because you know there’s still thousands of people displaced. We know that in a year, a year and a half, there will be a line out our door. It’s the slowly unfolding crisis.

What has been the most positive or rewarding part about your job here in Monmouth County?

It’s getting people back home. It’s making the seemingly impossible, possible. Leslie is one of our clients who lives across the street from us and when we opened up our office she was living in a trailer in front of her house. She had lived in 7 places prior and just wanted to have her own space. It was not suitable for long-term living but it was her own little slice of privacy. We rebuilt Leslie’s house. She’s back in, and every time I come to work, I drive past Leslie’s house. It shows that our work matters. Now Leslie continues her life basically within the view of our office. It’s stories like that.

Are there any particular stories of families whose homes you’ve rebuilt that have stuck with you?

Every case that we deal with is a beautiful and challenging story. There’s countless people that we can’t help. We’re dealing with a client right now, and it will just illustrate some of the complexity. She lived in Highlands. She was a small business owner she had just opened a business in Highlands prior to the storm. She was paying a mortgage on her home, and paying a mortgage on her business. Her business is totally flooded out, her income source is gone. She has to make a hard decision to decide which mortgage to keep paying, she keeps paying her business mortgage. Her house was foreclosed on. Now she has no more house, she has a business that’s flooded out, no income. She doesn’t have enough money to pay rent, and she is now living in a trailer in front of her business. She doesn’t have enough money to fix her business, and we’re sort of grasping at straws to figure out how to help. For every quick and easy story like Leslie’s, where we just built her a house, there’s these really complicated ones that leave everybody scratching their head.

There’s a Sea Bright client, Eric. Eric, on paper his case looked really odd because he didn’t apply for any grants and it’s like “uhh what are you doing Eric?” When we met with him, he was like, “I had homeowners insurance, flood insurance, why am I gonna ask the government to come in and deal with my situation? I was properly prepared, took all the precautions and I should be able to recover on my own.” He set about to rebuild his house solo. Hired contractors, oversaw contractors, and did a lot of the work himself. He has partial custody of his daughter who now I guess is in her teens and ever since Sandy, he hasn’t been able to have her over because he doesn’t have a place where she can live. He wanted nothing more than to just have his daughter come back and spend weekends with him, and he couldn’t do it. He was the most reluctant person that I have ever seen as a client. This is a guy who does not ask for help…ever. He’s a surveyor and he knows the building trades and he just straight up ran out of money. He did everything you’re supposed to do and still couldn’t get home. Now we’re done with his project and now he’s back and now he talks about how he will be able to watch the Giants games with his daughter, and have people over and continue his life in Sea Bright. I’m not putting anything against people who didn’t have proper insurance or other things got in the way of the recovery but this is a guy that did everything you possibly can to do to be prepared and mitigate your risk and even do your post-disaster steps and he couldn’t get back. That I think paints a picture of what’s happening.

Where do you see Monmouth County in the next 5 years or so?

I think in the next 5 years things will be drastically different than they are now. I’m not thinking that we’ll be done in five years but I’m thinking that we will have certainly identified the need. We’ll know who’s left, we’ll know how long it will take and how much money it will take to fix it, and the vast majority of people will be back in their house. In New Orleans now the number is 4000 homes. 4,000 owner occupied houses where people are still trying to get back. That’s a lot. But also, it’s just 4,000, we can do it! We will arrive at a similar number in Monmouth County by that time.

What do you think can be learned from Sandy and the whole process of rebuilding?

Every disaster should be informing the way we handle the next disaster. That is usually not have disaster recovery is done, unfortunately. We use the same model from 30, 40 years ago and expect that it will go differently, and it doesn’t, [laughter] predictably. St. Bernard project is dreaming of a future where they have a stock program on the shelf ready strikes and they can roll it out the next day. The toll of waiting is crushing for people. They don’t know when they’ll get back. People can wait but without understanding how long, every day feels like there’s no end in sight. I don’t think people were upset with how FEMA responded here, they were quick. It seems like we’re getting our act together in terms of response, now we need to get our act together in terms of long-term recovery.

Interviewed by Stephanie Pappas
Assisted by Gina Palmisano
Edited by Stephanie Pappas
Sea Bright, New Jersey
Recorded April 15, 2015