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Superstorm Sandy victims deserve Bill of Rights

Senate President Steve Sweeney

Senator Steve Sweeney

In February, I began a tour of New Jersey to hear directly from victims of superstorm Sandy about their troubles getting critical state aid. The victims showed up in great numbers to vent their frustrations about a broken recovery process that has unfairly denied them aid or left them in the dark when asking the most basic of questions.

Ed Kelly of Keansburg listened to government officials who told him to quickly rebuild after his home was destroyed by the storm. He took out a loan, hired an architect and secured permits. Basically, he did what he was told to do. He followed the rules.

But he didn’t get the aid he expected and certainly needed. After paying out a significant amount of money, Kelly was told he was no longer eligible for certain grants because he had listened to state officials and started the work before damage and paperwork could be verified.

I heard from George Bonilla, a 45-year-old Perth Amboy resident and city employee who has not returned home since the storm struck. He’s tried to get financial assistance from state and federal programs, only to be bogged down in reams of red tape.

The sad truth is these stories are not isolated cases of bureaucratic mishaps that can be explained away by the enormity or complexity of the recovery efforts. Instead, they are evidence of a more pervasive, structural problem that has plagued the process from the start.

While the problems are complex, the solution should be simple. Treat victims with respect and establish common-sense rules and regulations that streamline the application process, boost transparency and provide victims with the resources and support necessary to navigate the red tape.

My Sandy Bill of Rights legislation does that and more.

If someone is denied aid, they must be told why. If they are put on a waiting list, tell them where they stand in line and how long before they get to the front.

Guidelines must be in plain language and the state must provide support staff to help applicants fill out the forms. Spanish-speaking residents need access to Spanish-speaking staff.

These are simple, but effective reforms. But we must not stop there. That is why I strengthened the Bill of Rights by incorporating companion legislation that would bring more fairness and reason to the distribution of aid. The enhanced plan would help make sure the help is given to those who need it, without prejudice or favor.

Media accounts, advocacy groups and victims have reported a litany of problems in the Sandy aid process. For example, some families were being told they would lose their aid for failure to provide certain documents, while others were given no such ultimatum. In other instances, numbers show that funding has been denied at higher rates for African-American and Latino residents despite being equally hard hit by the storm. And, a line of victims recently told a legislative committee that a state contractor responsible for getting people back in their homes had repeatedly lost their applications and often couldn’t answer the most basic of questions. It’s abundantly clear that the Sandy recovery has been riddled with mistakes and errors that have denied, delayed and frustrated those who most need our help.

As the state gets ready to distribute $1.46 billion in new federal aid, this has to change. We must make sure the state treats renters and owners equally, allocates the money proportionately among various racial and ethnic groups and doesn’t discriminate in any way.

If the Sandy Bill of Rights were in place, perhaps Moonachie resident Heidi Vojt would be enjoying life in her new home instead of asking a judge to overturn a denial of state aid because she didn’t fill out the application form properly.

For Vojt and the other victims of the storm, they can’t be part of an arbitrary and capricious award process that randomly picks winners and losers. We must inject the recovery process with some compassion and stability. We must make sure that the federal funds and all other aid intended to help the victims of what was the most devastating storm in the state’s history gets to those who need it quickly, fairly and effectively. Too many of the Sandy victims have become victims of the recovery process. That must change.

I hope that Gov. Christie has listened to the plights of these victims, and decides to stand with them and sign the Sandy Bill of Rights into law.

Read the Senate President’s editorial in the Asbury Park Press here.