Published October 29, 2013
By the morning of Oct. 29, 2012, it was clear the East Coast would not be spared by the 1,100-mile storm system churning north through the Atlantic Ocean. Residents of seaside towns in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut evacuated. Homes and stores were boarded up. Schools were closed and flights canceled. Those who didn't make it to high ground hunkered down and waited.
Like a boxer softening up an opponent with body blows before going for the knockout, Sandy lashed coastal states with torrential rains and heavy winds all day. At about 8 p.m. near Brigantine, N.J., it made landfall, downgraded to a tropical storm in a meteorological distinction that seemed to belie its 100-mile-per-hour ferocity. It worked its way in and up the coast, smashing beach homes, tossing telephone poles like match sticks and sending a surge of seawater over the New Jersey boardwalk, into the streets and subways of New York City and past the dunes of Long Island.
Sandy's fury was blamed for at least 181 deaths, including 71 in New Jersey and 68 in New York. It caused $68 billion in damage and was felt in 24 states, from Florida to Maine and as far west as Wisconsin. In the ensuing weeks and months, aid workers and utility crews from all over the nation descended on the stricken area, helping victims and slowly restoring power to some 6 million homes. Yet many who found themselves in the mighty storm's path are still waiting a year later - waiting on insurance payments or government aid. Waiting to get their lives back.
One year after Superstorm Sandy unleashed its fury on the East Coast, leaving a wake of destruction from New Jersey to New England, Michael Conacchio feels like a hostage in the bedroom of his ravaged home.
As Sandy pushed north along the New Jersey coastline, it sent seawater surging over dunes and boardwalks, and into the many inlets along the shoreline. Six feet of water rushed into the first floor of Conacchio's two-story home along Barnegat Bay estuary. When the waters receded, they left a wake of ruined furniture, soggy carpet and bulging sheetrock - and an uninhabitable first floor.
“For the past 12 months I’ve been living in my bedroom,” said Conacchio, 56, of Brick Township. "There's mold throughout the first floor.”
Conacchio has plenty of company. New Jersey officials estimate that some 346,000 homes were destroyed or damaged by Sandy. And as of last month, in Ocean County alone, 26,000 people were still displaced. People who spoke to FoxNews.com said their anger is reserved for low-balling insurance agents, FEMA workers who won't listen and a host of rules governing the aid they desperately need.
“The big problem is that no grant money has hit the streets,” said George Kasimos, a Toms River resident who started the advocacy group Stop FEMA Now. “They just give you a denial. Without any explanation.”
It's hard to imagine that anyone has it much worse than Conacchio. Already hampered by neck and back problems from a car accident, the self-employed audio technician was facing foreclosure when the storm hit. When the wind-driven rain came and the waters rose, he lost most of his possessions - including two cars, his work van and a boat.
Conacchio was awarded more than $115,000 through his homeowner’s policy, but the money has been held up because of the pending foreclosure. The check was made out to both him and his mortgage company, and he's been unable to get the loan servicer to free up the money to pay contractors.
Now, he sits upstairs in the Tunes Brook Drive home he's lived in since 1999, with nowhere to go and nothing to do except worry about his future, and the creeping threat that grows on the walls below.
"I’ve developed lung problems." Conacchio said. "I use two inhalers and have to carry around a bag of meds. I have constant migraines. About 80 percent of the time I’m home, I sit in the dark with a wet towel over my eyes.”
For Kasimos, the anger began to build when he saw people like Conacchio being ignored while businesses and attractions get priority. Much of the federal money allocated to help victims has not been spent, yet when a fire struck the Seaside Park boardwalk last month, Gov. Chris Christie almost immediately announced that Sandy recovery funds could be used to repair it. Kasimos doesn't buy the governor's reasoning that the fire was attributed to wiring that was degraded by the storm.
“The boardwalk should have fire insurance, right?" Kasimos said. "So why are we giving [them] federal money? My neighbor across the lagoon from where I live, his home caught fire. It was gutted. No one helped him.”
Bernie Neuhaus has been living in a rented trailer on his Brick Township property for six months as he continues to fight for the grant money he needs to rebuild his home. He said he's grown tired of getting the runaround from FEMA and other governmental agencies.
“There’s no straight answers,” Neuhaus said. “You could put 10 people in a room that all represent FEMA, if you ask all of them the same question, you’ll get five different answers at least, if not more.
“I’ve become a useful book of knowledge on something I had no desire to learn about,” he said. “It has gotten to the point where I’m looking for direction from people and I know more about it then they do.”
Neuhaus' home along a canal was flooded in the storm, causing extensive damage. He's been rebuilding at his own expense while wrangling with his flood insurance carrier. The problem: His claim was denied because the damage was deemed to have been caused by wind.
“I had to go out and get a second job just to cover all the expenses,” he said. “I’ve been working twice as hard plus trying to rebuild has been a full-time job.”
Bob and Pam Vasquez, of Union Beach, N.J., one of the hardest hit towns along the Jersey Shore, lost everything when their home flooded. They had a homeowner's policy, but no flood insurance.
“They denied us because it was water damage. We would have been covered if it was damaged from the wind,” Bob Vasquez told FoxNews.com near the empty lot where his home once stood along the Raritan Bay. “So we have nothing from insurance and now we are fighting for grants.”
The Vasquez’s home was condemned and was razed in December. They hope to receive a grant for a new home on their lot but the process has proved daunting.
For months after the storm, they stayed with friends and family until FEMA cam through with a temporary apartment at Fort Monmouth, where the federal agency has set up emergency housing. They can stay until April, and hope to have funds for rebuilding by then.
“You just want to be home,” Pam Vasquez said. “As much as [the temporary housing] has become a community, it’s still not home, and you never think that it would take as long as it has.”