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For Sandy survivors, a desire to help Texans avoid their mistakes

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Ahead of the five-year anniversary of superstorm Sandy Sunday, New Jersey volunteers were in Texas helping with disaster recovery. One nonprofit leader says, 'New Jersey wants Texas’s recovery to be better than ours.'

Federal Emergency Management Agency worker Marilyn Torres hugs Greyson Wittwer, 3, as his mom Lacci Wittwer and FEMA worker John Conti look on in Kirbyville, Texas, on Sept. 25, 2017.
Rod Nickel/Reuters
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As Sue Marticek travels around Texas, she tells people she is from the town “that had the rollercoaster in the water” after superstorm Sandy roared through five years ago Sunday.

She is in southeast Texas now because there are still hundreds of people in her native Ocean County in New Jersey who haven’t been able to return home. The iconic rollercoaster was replaced this year, but recovery from the storm is still not complete.

The problems, which range from contractor fraud to fights over insurance claims, she says, stem from mistakes homeowners made in the confusing, emotionally charged months right after the storm. And with hurricane Harvey – which hit Texas and Louisiana in late August – estimated to have caused three times the damage Sandy did, she wants Texans to avoid those problems.

“New Jersey wants Texas’s recovery to be better than ours,” Marticek says. “For the people who are not getting home [in New Jersey] we have to share [our] lessons, because we shouldn’t have them, and their heartache, go in vain.”

And those lessons are not just needed in Texas. A spate of natural disasters this fall has left tens of thousands of Americans in need of disaster relief, from northern California, where wildfires destroyed at least 8,400 homes and buildings, to Florida, where hurricane Irma caused roughly $100 billion in damages, to Puerto Rico, where 75 percent of the island still did not have electricity more than a month after hurricane Maria swept through.

To help survivors avoid financial disaster and get the emotional help they need, a growing number of nonprofits are stepping in to provide help – particularly in the first months after a disaster as government financial assistance is still being organized. Some, like Marticek’s Compass 82, have sprung up out of firsthand experience in how long it can take for a community to recover from a disaster.

“Coordination among nonprofit organizations around immediate relief has improved quite a bit over the last decade or so,” says Bob Ottenhoff, president and chief executive officer of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy (CDP). “There’s a more formal recognition from government about the roles the nonprofit community plays.”

Short and spunky, with messy blonde hair, Marticek’s no-frills demeanor and Jersey accent stands out in a room full of Texas drawls. She has 17 years of experience in disaster recovery, dating back to 9/11.

“While I understand you can’t blink your eyes and get everyone back home in 30 days, it shouldn’t be 10 years,” she says in an interview. “I think we can do a better job in this country.”

'I hope she comes again'

Monica Cantrell’s family lost everything to hurricane Betsy when she was a child. She and her husband lost everything as a young married couple to hurricane Alicia. Harvey, she writes in an email, “has been the worst thing that I ever experienced.”

Previous storms “just removed everything. You did not physically have to hold it in your hand and feel the personal loss,” she adds. “The emotional experience of having to look at wet keepsakes and try to restore them has been very difficult for my family and friends.”

Ms. Cantrell – a city commissioner in Hitchcock, Texas, and executive director of the school district’s Education Foundation – was in the town’s First Baptist Church this month to hear Marticek’s advice.

“I’m not here to tell you what to do,” Marticek told the crowd of about 50 people. “I’m here to put my heart on my sleeve and share with you the experiences and the hard lessons-learned that my community has gone through, and are still going through.”

The message resonated with Cantrell.

“I knew that she understood what our community as a whole was experiencing, as well as the individual emotional impact this was having on both those that were flooded and the others trying to offer support,” she says. “She has been to Hitchcock twice. I hope she comes again.”

A car that was propelled into a home near the ocean in Toms River,N.J. during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. On Oct. 23, 2017, New Jersey added another $75 million to its program to buy and demolish homes in flood-prone areas. Survivors of Sandy have been helping Texans hit by hurricane Harvey in hopes that Texas's recovery will go faster than New Jersey's.
Wayne Parry/AP/File
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Nonprofits: indispensible, but stretched too thin?

Compass 82 – named after Marticek’s hometown exit on the New Jersey Turnpike – is an example of the growing importance of nonprofit groups in disaster recovery.

“Over the last decades they’ve built up the skill set in disaster relief and disaster recovery, so I would say they’re indispensable,” says Mr. Ottenhoff. “They’re quicker, more agile. There’s less paperwork, less bureaucracy.”

Federal agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA), on the other hand, are often limited by regulations and bureaucracy, particularly in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.

FEMA needs to be officially invited into a state, for example. Once there, agents rely on the state to give them direction, and there’s a limit to how long it can stay. The most the agency can provide through its Individual Assistance Grant is $33,300, and it’s still working on 2016 disasters.

But agencies are increasingly cognizant of their limitations. In its post-disaster “Sequence of Delivery,” for example, FEMA identifies voluntary organizations as being key at the very beginning and very end of the disaster recovery process.

Communities in New Jersey suffered from a “lack of clarity” in the months after Sandy, Marticek says, with people not knowing where aid would be coming from. Her group is in Texas to ensure that doesn’t happen here.

But Ottenhoff is concerned that Americans may be becoming too reliant on nonprofits for disaster recovery.

“They almost all rely on voluntary contributions from the American public to provide these services, so it’s a fragile way of doing our long-term recovery work in this country,” he says.

When you account for the fact that about 80 percent of donations come in the days immediately after a disaster, according to the CDP’s research, and the recent spate of natural disasters around the country, it’s easy for a nonprofit to become overstretched.

“A lot of organizations have jumped in to help without having sufficient resources. Sometimes they’ll jump in to help not knowing if the contributions they’ll receive will fill the gap,” Ottenhoff adds.

Money, paperwork, and emotions

Tedious bureaucratic minutiae dominates the early stages of disaster recovery. But it is in those first few months – when emotions are still raw, money is slow to arrive, and mounds of legal documents have to be navigated – that mistakes can snowball into more serious issues.

Marticek talks about not only the post-traumatic stress disorder that disasters can cause, but also what she calls “disaster fog.”

“The most severe change besides losing a loved one just happened to you,” she tells the audience in Hitchcock. “It’s not that you’re weak ... or stupid, or anything else.”

Disaster survivors can be easy to exploit, she warns. A desperation to make their homes habitable again can lead to deals with shady contractors (fraud payments in New Jersey related to Sandy reconstruction topped $5 million this year); not properly documenting the damage in their home can mean lower payouts on insurance claims; rebuilding with money they don’t have can lead to ruined credit ratings.

And there is often a personal toll. Ocean County, among other Sandy-impacted communities, has seen an increase in depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicide since the storm.

To avoid these cascading problems, Marticek and her team try to guide individuals through the first stages of recovery by keeping things as simple as possible. One example involves using a one-page cartoon with bullet points to describe filing a flood insurance claim.

“Even though I am having a difficult time recording and itemizing everything, my friends and family have lost so much more that I cannot complain,” says Cantrell. “I see the day-to-day struggle of trying to keep two or three small children content in a hotel room. It breaks my heart for these young parents that are trying to work, rebuild their house, and raise their children.”

This is why Marticek says the first few months after a disaster should be focused on one overarching goal: getting every resident back in their homes.

Restoring the normalcy that comes with being home can not only help head off some of the potential financial and behavioral health issues, but could also prevent long term economic woes for communities.

Taxable property in Seaside Heights, home of the flooded rollercoaster, is still worth $200 million less than it was before Sandy. The neighboring town of Toms River approved a property tax increase this year, the first year the town didn’t receive Sandy-related financial aid.

“Now everybody in Toms River is being impacted by Sandy,” she says. “That’s why everybody, even if you didn’t get hit, you have to be part of the solution to get your community back.”

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