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FEMA: We Offer Aid, Information for Sandy Victims

As residents remain anxious in the aftermath of Sandy, the agency says it is offering tips and information about mitigation.

Navigating her way through the piles of paperwork, through meetings with contractors and the near never-ending stream of advice coming at her from every direction is a new experience for Jacqueline Capestro. Then again, so was watching ocean water surge down the street and into her home.

For the 22 years she’s lived there, Capestro had never once seen her Bradley Beach home flood. When she returned following Hurricane Sandy to assess the damage she found her floorboards buckled, the furniture destroyed, and a flood line on the wall three feet from the floor.

After initial shock slowly shifted to resolve, Capestro was left without an answer to one very important question: What now?

In Capestro’s case, and in the case of many New Jersey’s residents severely impacted by Sandy, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been the go-to resource for not only aid in getting back on her feet, but information and advice for everything after the initial.

Part of FEMA’s responsibility in its disaster response is mitigation. While immediate needs like personal safety and security are rightfully attended to before all other concerns, dedicated crews of FEMA personnel are dispatched to disaster areas to offer advice and provide information on everything that comes after finding your home underwater.

“It’s a lot of work to navigate through the process and you’re finding a lot of people who don’t know what resources are available to them,” FEMA responder Chris Herman said, standing next to a folding table covered from edge to edge with pamphlets and signup sheets.

Through the months of FEMA’s occupation of the Jersey Shore, information booths like the one manned by Herman and his partner Sharon Lavant recently at the Home Depot in West Long Branch have been set up to assist victims of Sandy in finding the correct information they need.     

A number of residents have complained about FEMA, the agency's lack of quickness in providing assistance and the confusion some have had about the application process. The complaints are not new; even after the agency underwent a number of reforms following criticism for the way FEMA handled Hurricane Katrina, the agency remains a target for many victimized by natural disasters.

With pressure being applied by municipalities to get debris removed from homes, contractors who want to start working as soon as they can, and families who just want to get back to normal, Herman said there's a need to slow down and take your time.

One of the first things residents need to do is find out where the money they need to rebuild is coming from. Still, he said, more than a month after Hurricane Sandy hit, some residents are still mired with their insurance companies, trying to find out if they coverage they have covers what just happened.

Residents need to pressure their insurance companies to commit to an answer, he said. If your plan includes insurance in case of flooding, get it in writing. If it doesn’t, get it in writing. The only way FEMA can begin to consider your application for assistance is if they know it’s not coming from somewhere else, too.

Resident impacted by Sandy have until Dec. 29 to apply for emergency aid. Visit www.disasterassistance.gov to apply online or call 1-800-621-3362 to apply over the phone.

In Capestro’s case, living in an area that had never previously flooded meant she never considered carrying flood insurance. Her letter of denial from her insurance carrier led her to getting $31,900 in aid from FEMA, the maximum amount the federal agency can offer.

When it comes to rebuilding, Herman said residents should ensure that every contractor, electrician, and plumber they use is certified. Though unlicensed handymen may promise the same work for less, the certifications carried by licensed professionals ensures that you don’t run into any issues when either FEMA or your insurance company come looking or receipts.

Being thorough in picking a contractor might seem like it’s making an arduous process even more difficult, especially for displaced residents like Capestro and her daughter Missy, but it’s the best way to ensure that you’re going about your home restoration in the right way.

"It’s been a slow process meeting contractors and getting estimates,” Missy Capestro said. “Part of you feels like you’re stuck in that movie “The Money Pit.” But we were lucky. Some days you forget that, but you need to remember. You have moments where you get stuck in that woe-is-me phase, but you’ve got to look at the bigger picture and see what you still have.”

When residents take stock of their flood-damaged homes, it’s critical they assess where the water damage occurred and promptly remove it. Reports have come from officials in many storm-ravaged areas that homes have been abandoned following Sandy, with property owners unable or unwilling to return and begin the difficult process of restoration. It’s a problem, Herman said, for one simple reason: mold.

It’s not enough to tear out the drywall and insulation and rip up the carpet, either, Herman said. Walls need to be tested with a water meter before they’re closed up to ensure that they’re not a breeding ground for mold.

“Mold is probably the biggest hazard after a flood,” he said. “Each spore is a tiny seed waiting to grow.

“I’m always careful not to scare people. Everyone has heard about that killer mold, but that’s one in millions. Mold isn’t something to be feared but it needs to be gotten rid of.”

People react differently to mold, he said, but unexplained headaches, watery eyes, and coughing are some signs that there’s a significant mold population in your home. Even a musty smell is an indication that something’s lurking behind your walls.

Luckily, though Herman reluctant to use the word considering Sandy’s impact, much of the flooding along the Jersey Shore was from salt water. It’s also been cold recently, though Tuesday and Wednesday featured some unseasonably warm weather. It’s more difficult for mold to grow in those conditions, though it’s still a threat.

And whatever you do to dry your house out, don’t turn on the heat. Mold loves warm temperatures. If you’ve got a dehumidifier, use that. Turning the air conditioning on would help. A fan will due in a pinch as well, but, unless it’s necessary to have on, homeowners should keep the heat off as they’re drying out their houses.

Ultimately, Herman said those impacted by Sandy need to look out for their own peace of mind. Through the early stages of this restoration process, he said, FEMA will be there to help.

“The goal is to get people back to safe, sanity, and security,” he said. “Until you’re there, FEMA’s not done. But it takes patience and persistence.”

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