NJ residents say they are expecting help from Ida 9 months later

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TRENTON, NJ – New Jersey resident Shashuna Atwater still lives with the horrible sewage smell that flooded her basement when the remnants of Hurricane Ida hit New Jersey nine months ago, destroying photographs, diplomas and other irreplaceable possessions.

Atwater, of Newark, was one of two dozen people who spoke Wednesday at an event in Trenton calling on federal officials to speed up and improve disaster relief. Atwater said she gave all her information to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, but still hasn’t gotten the financial help she needs to rebuild. She’s also unlucky with her landlord, who told her the insurance wouldn’t cover the damage.

“The aftermath was worse than what you saw when you first watched, because here’s the cleanup part, and you’re on your own,” Atwater said. “We have to do better.”

Wednesday’s event comes nine months to the day since the Ida rains hit New Jersey, killing 30 in the state, turning roads into waterways, flooding basements and leaving a path of destruction across the state. It also comes at the start of the new hurricane season which experts say could include another round of deadly and costly storms.

FEMA has allocated about $250 million in assistance and approved assistance for some 45,000 applications, the agency said in an email. In addition, the Small Business Administration has earmarked $248 million for Ida recovery and the Department of Housing and Urban Development has earmarked $228 million in Ida relief assistance.

Some of the money is stuck at the state level as New Jersey officials scramble to distribute it, said Meghan Mertyris, a community organizer with the New Jersey Organizing Project, who identifies herself as a grassroots organization representing the coastal region of the state and an advocate for improved disaster financing after Super Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

The state is required to submit a plan for spending the funds, according to the organization’s project executive director, Amanda Devecka-Rinear. There will also be scheduled hearings where people can comment publicly, she said.

“Ida survivors can attend these hearings and comment on the programs and whether or not they will meet the needs of their communities,” she said in an email, adding, “It shouldn’t not take so long”.

The group held Wednesday’s event in front of the Statehouse annex building.

Democratic Representatives Andy Kim and Tom Malinowski – both seeking re-election this year after winning the first congressional election in 2018 – appeared alongside concerned residents and organizers. Kim said he was sorry for the federal government’s response and that people whose homes were destroyed by the storm should have gotten help quickly.

“When they turned to those they needed help with, they didn’t get it,” Kim said. “For that, I apologize on behalf of our country. This is not how we treat Americans. This is not how we treat the people who are here. The people here who stand with me — they’re not asking for the moon. They’re asking for fairness.”

Malinowski echoed a refrain President Joe Biden uttered in September when he visited Ida-ravaged parts of the northeast, pointing to climate change as the culprit.

“Climate change is here. There’s 5, 10 feet of water in your basement. This is your home in the state of New Jersey left in complete disrepair,” Malinowski said.

Speeding up disbursements would require better communication between the federal government and the public, Kim said. He added that congressional oversight could help.

Shirley Eosso’s basement and garage in Basking Ridge flooded during Ida. She said she received $249.99 from FEMA as well as assistance through a flood insurance policy she held. She said she attended the event on Wednesday to speak on behalf of people who could not afford time off from work.

“The process is broken. The money is there. How can we get it to the people who need it? ” she says.