Michele Donato is an attorney who lives and works in Lavallette, New Jersey. She represents several community associations and individuals on the barrier island who are struggling to rebuild. In her narrative, she talks about her work in representing clients who are facing delays and difficulties in obtaining land use and construction approvals. She discusses how funding programs are tangled and confused, how recovery has been very slow and inconsistent, and how the bureaucratic disaster that followed after the storm continues to leave many parts of the shore in disrepair, with incomplete houses, vacant properties, and a less than robust economy. She also mentions how the National Guard, without declaration, forced her family to leave their home after the storm.
Although the federal and state bureaucracies and many local governments proved inadequate to respond to the natural disaster of Superstorm Sandy, the Borough of Lavallette was incredibly responsive. Municipal officials just took the bull by the horns and started to do all kinds of things to allow people to remain. The mayor said if you stayed through the storm you should stay in Lavallette and not have to leave. I had no electricity, I had no gas, and the telephone poles were gone so that was a big problem in that respect but I really felt comfortable. I had arranged for a generator and we were going to stay. My office flooded and my cousin, my husband, my daughter, and her boyfriend were down here everyday getting everything out. Making sure we were okay and we would drive back and forth with bicycles.
So, I came down here on Friday. I’m driving my bicycle down and I had a client who had a big business here in town. He had rented the space on the first floor to a retail tenant called “Island Gypsy.” They sold all kinds of summer clothes and things like that. Someone was there and she said “I’m throwing all of these hats out. I’m not keeping anything because they got a little bit wet so take what you want” They were these big straw hats and I thought “This will be fun! These will be our hurricane hats” so I put the hats in the basket and I came down here to the office. I had to check for certain papers to make sure that they were secured. I took care of what I had to do and I started peddling back when I saw a National Guard truck, a big Humvee with four people in it, and they all had on their side what appeared to be machine guns. The National Guard was here because Seaside Heights had a lot of looting and vandalism, but there was never a declaration that this was an area that they were allowed to be in, but they didn’t honor municipal boundaries.
They saw me riding my bicycle and they said, “What are you doing here?” and I said, “well I live here” and they said, “You’re not allowed to be here.” And I said “well I just spoke to my mayor this morning and the mayor said we could stay.” “Your mayor means nothing. We are in charge.” So, I was like “Well I’m really sorry but I live here” they said “Well you show me where you live because we’re going to come and get you out” So I said “Okay, I’ll go home and I’ll get everybody together and I’ll take care of it.”
They leave, and I go round the corner, and they back up and the only women gets out of the Humvee. She comes up to my face within 6 inches and she says “Where did you get those hats? They have tags on them. You’re vandalizing.” I said “Oh my god, I got them from Island Gypsy, the owner of the store told me she was throwing everything out and she told me to take them.” She asked, “Well why would you want these hats?” I said, “Well I thought it would be kinda fun. I got one for myself and all my neighbors so that we could say these were our Hurricane hats.” She told me, “Put those hats down. They are illegal.” So I put the hats down on the stoop of the house that was next to us. She then tells me that if I don’t leave by 6:00 that night, that they were going to come and arrest the whole house. So I said “here do me a favor, here’s the Chief of Police phone number right in my cell phone. I go to pick up my phone from the basket and then she sees all of the phones.
They had a charging station in Borough Hall and I had all of my neighbor’s cell phones. I thought, “Now she really thinks I’m stealing.” So I said to her “I brought them to the charging station. Call the chief! He’ll explain to you” So, I guess she must have realized that if I had the chief’s phone number, and she did call, and it was the chief she would be embarrassed. So she said, “Alright we’ll come get you tonight.”
So I went home. We all sat there and said, “What are we going to do?” My former law partner had a nice house that was empty, and we went up and ended up living in Perth Amboy for four months. The reason it took so long was because of the natural gas company. The gas line in the street had ruptured. It had just been replaced a couple of years ago. What I discovered is that every time the gas company replaced a gas line down here they put it on top of the previous one, so it was vertical to the surface and the whole neighborhood smelled of gas and a very high shriek, The water line had broken, spouting out all over the place, but the gas was really scary. I was on the phone with the gas company asking them to shut the gas line. The answer the gas company gave me was that “We’re not shutting off the gas because some people want hot water.” No one would come up and shut off the gas. It was fixed without the gas company because otherwise we would’ve exploded.
So we left and then they wouldn’t allow anybody back on the island. That was a major issue. I had gone to FEMA representatives because I’m involved with a lot of municipal law. I do work on the state level for non-profit agencies including the Institute for Local Government Attorneys, which is an affiliate of our state League of Municipalities. The general counsel knew my problem and he invited me to participate in a conference call with attorneys from around the country who specialize in disaster law and they were aware of what had happened and every single one of them said, “This was a horrible disaster, but the bureaucratic disaster that followed after is worse.” They warned me of a number of things, and I participated in this call for over an hour. I took all kinds of notes and actually gave them to my town, because they could be very helpful with the FEMA issues.
I had this insight into it but it was extraordinarily. Everything that happened afterwards was 10 times worse then I ever would have imagined. I learned, for example, that the National Guard had no authority, they were totally illegally here, and that their superiors from Monmouth County had to come down here and stop them.
I know you do a lot of work with the long-term recovery in Hurricane Sandy. Can you go into more detail about that?
Yes. The programs that were established continued to be plagued with an inability to really assist the people that they are supposed to assist. The RREM (Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation, and Mitigation) program, the Elevation Program, they are extremely confused. For example, there is an elderly woman who lived here all year-round. She immediately applied for RREM after the storm, when the program was set up. In August of 2014, she received word that she had received RREM money. She used a RREM certified contractor. They told her to disconnect all of her utilities and that they were going to be elevating her house. It is still not elevated. People who don’t understand what is entailed in the elevation of a house run the RREM program. They have really botched up the process.
One of the biggest dilemmas that has slowed recovery is that the money is really only available for primary, year-round homeowners, not secondary homes. So that becomes a major issue. The RREM program has been very, very poorly implemented. The SBA loan program is also very poorly implemented. They only allow you to replace what you had. You get people who keep going around in circles with the different aid programs, what is the best one to take? They are being delayed and not getting responses. When those lawyers from throughout the country who are experts in disaster law said that the recovery programs do not function well, and that you really have to pay attention, they were 100% correct. 100% correct. And the other problem is of course the flood insurance.
Back several years ago, FEMA let private insurers act as their agents to issue flood insurance. So, when I went to get my claim, I must have called months and months and months and I couldn’t get any answer. I couldn’t get anyone to come out. They then had engineering firms who did evaluations of the damage that people incurred. I asked for an engineering report because the property next door to me had a concrete foundation and the foundation broke lose. That concrete hit my house. My house shook and it broke the bracing and some of the pipes in the front. So our house really took a lot of good hits. The engineer comes out and says, “Oh there’s nothing wrong with anything.” We found out that engineering firm was fraudulent. People have been defrauded in their insurance claims. They have used dollar figures from Louisiana to try and figure out the cost of replacement, which is much less expensive than New Jersey. The government really did not give those insured a fair shot at recovery. So that was another issue that people had.
Then after they got the recovery money, it went to the bank. The money is made payable to the homeowner and to the bank. The banks wouldn’t issue the money to the homeowners because they want them to do the work first, instead of giving them the money even if they had a huge amount of equity into their property. That was my case: I had a very small mortgage and a lot of equity, but the bank wouldn’t give me the insurance proceeds without going through many hoops. I had to go to Senator [Robert] Menendez. He went to Fannie Mae and he got the rules and found that they were not applying them correctly. I ended up getting my money.
But I’m a lawyer; I can figure out how to do this stuff. There were people coming to me in tears. I had been working 60 hours a week with people, with recovery from the storm and people are still not recovered. To make matters worse there are still contractors down here that have taken money from people, twice than what they originally quoted, and still didn’t do the work. There’s one contractor down here who has probably 50 unfinished houses. He got paid in full and did not do the work.
Do you think that middle class and working class people were really taken advantage of?
Absolutely. They received a lot of misinformation, especially people down here. There are a lot of senior citizens and they have not come back. They have not returned because they couldn’t unravel the mess that they were in and there was no one able to help them. I tried to help every which way. It’s just been a series of dead end streets and it gets all entangled and confusing because nobody knows where to go first. For example with the RREM program, you have a pile of enormous papers that you need to complete. You complete all of these papers and you say to them “here is what I would like to do” and they say “well we don’t know if that’s covered.” So now you go through hours and hours of work to see if something is covered. They can’t tell you if it’s covered first.
…you have to go through all the work first.
Yes. The RREM program has been probably one of the biggest disappointments. People are just getting their money now…two and a half years later. It’s just inexcusable.
Then it also became an opportunity for the State of New Jersey to rebuild these roads. They’ve been studying the rebuilding of Highway 35 for about 15 years and they never had enough money in the Transportation Trust Fund to be able to do that. Now that the roads have been so damaged by the storm, the Department of Transportation went to the federal government and got everything paid to redo these roads. Under federal law, you are required to file an environmental impact statement. And under federal law, you are supposed to assess the impacts on social and economic welfare of the community in addition to the environmental impacts. The DOT did not do that and they have basically been ruining the rest of the businesses left down here. People have taken such an economic hit from this roadwork. Last summer I volunteered for the Lavallette Business Association to get them to stop construction during the summer and the DOT did stop. If they hadn’t stopped I don’t think half of these businesses would still be in operation. It’s just one insult after another, you know?
When we came back they had cleared out the streets so you had access to your homes but all of the properties were loaded with debris and sand. People were coming and throwing all of that stuff back into the middle of the streets and with the two weeks of delay, people’s things that would not have been damaged became damaged because they became mold infested. I can’t even imagine how much more debris there was on the streets that never would have had to be there. It became this vicious cycle of removing debris and every man was out for himself. “I’ve got to get my property fixed …so if I block the street for somebody else, who cares?”
What’s happening down here is your seeing the rebuilding, for example in Lavallette, we’re getting all new McMansions, and the well-to-do people are doing just fine. But a lot of the older homes, where the people were of moderate income, are gone. People are coming in, and they’re buying this town. The values have stayed very well but people are just building these big new houses as if there was no ocean out there. If you go up and down those streets you see moderate middle-income people and most of them don’t have money to come back. I don’t know how they are going to come back. Those with money are coming back. Those without are lost.
When people hear your story what do you want them to remember?
Unfortunately, I think I’m whistling in the wind. I felt that they should put in building standards. Not just the elevation of houses, but how do you elevate them? We shouldn’t have all of this concrete, we should have a system of building controls that won’t result in this kind of devastation in the future. With respect to the beach replenishment, this island, which is the most moderate-income island, doesn’t have replenishment. We must have beach replenishment. The third thing is, there has to be better coordination from government. They can’t leave people hanging as they did. They need to overcome their bureaucratic mindset and think about the people that they are supposed to be helping. The government has worked against itself. I think that they need to think about restoring the island as if people mattered. Recognize that there are people who do live here all year round. There are people who come in the summer…this is a very well loved area. To use an overused word, it’s iconic. The island’s whole framework has been so severely impacted by the series of disasters that they have experienced and the government should do more for it’s people than to let them experience a governmental disaster.
Interviewed by Jennifer Pagliaro
Assisted by Stephanie Kroeger
Edited by Jennifer Pagliaro
Lavallette, New Jersey
Recorded April 23, 2015
Interviewed by Jennifer Pagliaro