LINCROFT, N.J. -- In the immediate aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, tens of thousands of New Jersey survivors suddenly faced a desperate need of a dry, safe place to stay. From the midst of this chaos emerged a massive housing effort involving local, state, federal, voluntary agencies, community and faith-based organizations, county social services and individuals working together.
“Housing has been one of the biggest challenges response and recovery workers and officials have faced,” FEMA’s Federal Coordinating Officer Gracia Szczech said.
FEMA launched its housing mission in cooperation with the New Jersey State-led Disaster Housing Task Force. Assistance included temporary housing, rental assistance, transitional lodging in hotels and motels, and grants to repair and replace storm-ravaged primary residences.
Various FEMA personnel – from Individual Assistance, Community Relations, National Call Centers, Access and Functional Needs personnel and Transitional Sheltering Assistance – personally contacted thousands of applicants about their housing needs. With coordination through the State Office of Emergency Management, New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs, Department of Human Services and other state organizations became involved in the effort to contact applicants through face-to-face meetings and multiple telephone conversations with survivors.
The outreach included a focus on people with disabilities and/or access and functional needs. Survivors had access to American Sign Language or signed English interpreters, Video Relay Services or Video Remote Interpreters. In addition, assistive listening devices, amplified phones and caption phones were available for survivors who were deaf or hard of hearing. Magnifying devices and printed information in Braille and large
print were provided for people who were visually impaired.
FEMA also translated disaster assistance fliers, brochures and pamphlets into 21 different languages. Teams of FEMA Community Relations specialists canvassed communities, going door-to-door
to deliver valuable recovery information in languages including: English, Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Urdu, and French to encourage residents with damaged property to register for assistance.
Housing mission personnel worked to provide displaced survivors whose homes were unlivable with immediate housing or funding for minor repairs. Because of the widespread damage, temporary housing was often unavailable in the days following the storm. At the request of the State of New Jersey, the Transitional Shelter Assistance Program was implemented to provide emergency shelter at a critical time until longer-term housing solutions could be found. Accommodations included hotels and motels, with an average stay of 45 days.
In New Jersey, 16 Hotel Outreach Strike Teams counseled applicants on their housing plans and assisted in the transition to a longer term housing solution. Initially, 5,500 residents were in the TSA program. In all, approximately 435 hotels/motels provided 253,425 room nights at a cost of more than $34 million.
Survivors whose homes were destroyed or suffered major damage became eligible for Direct Housing such as FEMA-provided apartments or manufactured homes. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers executed an extensive renovation project at Fort Monmouth to provide 114 furnished apartment units.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development increased the Fair Market Rent standard to 120 percent, creating more options for families with Section 8 vouchers. In addition, the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs set aside 1,000 “Special Admissions” vouchers from the state-administered Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher program. Vouchers provide subsidies directly to landlords, reducing costs to low-income households.
Senior housing complexes relaxed their rules to make vacant units available to Sandy survivors under the age of 55 without jeopardizing a community’s qualification for legal exemptions under the Fair Housing Act.
Housing assistance is available to survivors for up to 18 months from the date of a disaster declaration. Depending on the need, FEMA Housing Mission staff works with Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, such as the Red Cross, to identify additional housing solutions for survivors.
Superstorm Sandy affected tens of thousands of lives in New Jersey, making housing one of the greatest challenges of the recovery effort. The assistance of thousands of volunteers and the cooperation of local, state and federal agencies, including the FEMA Housing Mission, made those challenges surmountable, helping survivors achieve the milestone of returning home.