Sandy Forum Offers Many Questions, Some Answers
State, local and federal officials bring FEMA, Small Business Administration and other sources of Sandy help to Bernards Township Library.
Residents left with large fallen trees on their property, including a man who said a massive tree fell into his family room —and a Morris County woman asking about self-employed business people whose income had suffered during Sandy —were among those attending a forum Sunday that was set up to bring together agencies and experts as a source for information after the Oct. 29 storm.
The forum, held at the Bernards Township Library, was arranged and led by elected officials from all levels of government.
State Assemblyman Jon Bramnick, (R-District 21) along with state Senator Tom Kean (R-District 21) and Assemblywoman Nancy Munoz (R-District 21) brought numerous representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the insurance industry to the library's community meeting room.
They were joined by U.S. Congressman Leonard Lance, (R-District 7) who said that the federal Congress is debating long-term relief for the area, spurred by a request for $30 billion in federal aid from N.Y. Governor Andrew Cuomo. Lance said that his sense is that the rest of the country may offer help for an area devastated by the late October storm, as had happened after natural disasters in other parts of the nation.
For those in need of assistance, Lance advised, "To everyone in the audience, please register with FEMA." The closest FEMA office is in the Somerset County Human Services Building, 27 Warren St., Somerville, FEMA officials said. Another office is at the Morris Plains Community Center, 51 Jim Fear Drive, Morris Plains.
Information is also at 1 (800) 621-FEMA (3362), or at FEMA's website, where residents also can apply for assistance. Residents were advised that even if rejected, they should apply again making sure they file sufficient information, since sometimes applications are rejected as incomplete.
Lance also had arranged for Sunday's inclusion of a Small Business Administration (SBA) representative, who said that agency not only may arrange low-interest loans for businesses recovering from a disaster, but also homeowners and renters.
"Anyone who is in the affected area is welcome to apply," said Louise Porter, an SBA representative. She said the deadline for an application office is Dec. 31, and an SBA representative will be at FEMA disaster offices.
Applying does not obligate someone to accept a loan, Porter said. But not receiving the loan also may make someone eligible for additional FEMA grants, she said.
Answering a question from the audience, Porter said that the SBA also can provide assistance for businesses and the self-employed during a period while they are trying to get their business back to normal.
Some of the questions that arose involved multiple issues and agencies. The legislators said that staff at their offices would assist individuals.
Debbie Forest of East Craig Street in Basking Ridge said she is again dealing with damage and debris from Sandy — she said a large and previously healthy oak fell and smashed a barn — while she barely is finishing up with claims and denials from FEMA and insurance company as a result of damage caused by the storm in 2011. At one point, she said a roofer from the last storm had to wait eight months for payment, and ended up suing her.
Bramnick said he is working with Lance's office on cases that are a "multi-layered situation."
Another Basking Ridge resident, Brian Nihill of Ash Street, said a 97-foot tree fell through the ceiling of his family room in an addition put on his 1940s home. He said he was wondering at what point the renovation would be considered new construction and he would need to bring the home up to current building codes. He was advised to work with municipal construction officials.
Michael Miller, of M. Miller & Son in Hillside, a public adjuster representing policy holders in insurance claims, said that some people may wish to hire a public adjuster to help them navigate the insurance and damage claim process.
But Miller cautioned that in no way should be a public adjuster charge more than 10 percent for services. He said that untrustworthy public adjusters sometimes visit areas hit by a natural disaster, and then try to collect 25 percent, or even up to 40 percent, of the amount received on the insurance claim. He said that people should check references before hiring a public adjuster.
Other residents, including Parag Dhagat of South Finley Avenue, wanted to know whether the township or FEMA would help with the cost of removing fallen trees.
Dhagat specifically asked about a tree that had been entangled with wires, and that had ended up on his property.
Township Committeeman John Carpenter said that the township still would not remove such a tree, and that responsibility for its removal still would remain with the property owner. He noted that the Pill Hill recycling facility on Pill Hill Road has expended hours for getting rid of storm debris.
No municipal assistance or aid planned for tree and storm debris removal
The township website says the Township Committee has expanded the use of our Pill Hill facility to be open on weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 pm until November 30, excluding November 22 & 23, which will be closed for Thanksgiving. Those hours are in addition to Saturday and Sunday hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Weekday use is limited to vegetative refuse only, and not bulky waste.
The website adds that open burning of debris from trees and bushes is not permitted in Bernards Township, in accordance with the Bernards Township Fire Official, N.J. Forest Fire Service and N.J. Department of Environmental Protection.
Carpenter said that clean-up following last year's storms cost the municipality about a half-million dollars. He said some people were abusing the township's curbside pickup of roadside storm debris by hauling yard wastes from their entire property and putting it at the curb.
But Mayor Mary Pavlini said that this year's storm potentially could cost the municipality millions of dollars for clean-up that the township doesn't have. She noted the entire capital improvements budget for the year is $1 million.
Carpenter said the municipality's initial understanding about participating in a program to potentially receive FEMA aid for cleaning up private properties is that the township could still could be on the hook for the cost of storm debris removal for entire properties. He said that also could add up to millions of dollars.
At his home alone, Nihill said he has recived an estimate of $2,700 for the removal of the stump of the large tree that fell on his property.
Jim Venezia, an insurance professional, said that typically, insurance policies cover 100 percent of the cost of removing the portion of a tree that has actually fallen on a house. However, insurance likely won't cover the part of the tree that hasn't fallen to damage property, such as a stump.
Venezia added that homeowners' policies are likely to have a set amount for the removal of other fallen trees, perhaps $250 or $500.
"There's no substitute for knowing your insurance policy," said Jim McGarry, a representative for the New Jersey Department of Banking and Insurance. However, he said the department could run an inquiry into complaints about provisions in those policies if property owners feel they are being treated unfairly.
Insurance companies will offer a settlement, but if there is a disagreement, the amount on a claim potentially could take months to settle, Miller said.
Kean said Sunday's forum was the second held by the legislators, with the first being hosted in Cranford. He said that residents also can contact state representatives' offices directly.