Five years after Superstorm Sandy, Mike Schwartz still sees people struggling.
Schwartz, the founder of the nonprofit and charity organization Hometown Heroes, which has worked with Sandy victims on various forms of recovery, said there have been “measured improvements” since the storm. But while much has been rebuilt, he hears stories about once a week of people just getting back into their homes, five years later.
“In speaking with people who had been through the process in [Hurricane] Katrina, we were told that it would take us 10 years to recover,” said Schwartz, a resident of Toms River, New Jersey.
“Their advice couldn't have been more spot on,” he said.
Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, marked five years since Sandy ravaged coastal areas of New Jersey and New York City, washing away roads and homes and shattering lives.
Ahead of the anniversary, New Jersey officials provided a snapshot of where the state has grown in recovery. Billions have been spent on housing, infrastructure, coastal restoration and protection and other storm-related expenses.
The state worked in unison with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to restore beaches and implement a massive coastal protection system. This includes new sea walls, dune construction and pumping systems.
About 60,000 owner-occupied primary residences and 21,900 renter-occupied primary residences sustained damage during Sandy in New Jersey, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) data.
Housing recovery initiatives like the Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation and Mitigation (RREM) Program and the Low-to-Moderate Income (LMI) Homeowner Rebuilding Program were established. To date, 85 percent of the 7,500 homeowners in the RREM program have completed construction and returned home.
In flood-prone areas, where rebuilding was not feasible, the state has purchased 1,000 homes to get families out of harm's way and will work to preserve these lands for public use.
State Route 35 was completely rebuilt with a new drainage system and pavement that will last for the next 50 years.
New York City’s program for housing recovery, Build It Back, is nearly complete. The program uses funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to provide assistance to homeowners after other types of disaster assistance have been exhausted.
According to a report from New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, the program received applications from 8,300 homeowners and 99 percent of the (8,207) have been served. Another 87 percent have completed the program which includes completed construction or acquisition of their home.
“As we near the end of the Build It Back program, we are continuing to make steady progress. We have succeeded in getting more than 10,000 families back in safe and resilient homes and stronger communities. We have more work to do, and this program will not be done until every family is home,” de Blasio said in a statement.
On the fifth anniversary of Sandy, de Blasio announced a $145 million investment for seven resilience projects in the Rockaways section of Queens to better protect the coastal communities from future impacts of climate change.
On the same day, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $354 million resiliency project to reduce nitrogen pollution in the western bays of Long Island. This will help rejuvenate vital marshlands which can protect communities against storm surge, according to a news release from the governor's office.
While substantial progress has been made, the solemn anniversary is a reminder that many lives will never be the same.
Schwartz said many people are struggling financially, and call his charity regularly looking for assistance.
"For the families still struggling, I can't imaging what they deal with on a daily basis," he said.
In Seaside Heights, New Jersey, Mayor Anthony Vaz said about 75 percent of the community has been rebuilt, but some problems still persist.
Due to certain factors, whether it be lack of funding, or the necessary insurance, some small businesses and homeowners are still struggling.
“We’ve got awhile yet to go,” Vaz told AccuWeather. "It’s taken some time, it’s already five years and some of these people you have to feel very bad for because they are not back in their homes.”
One of the most emotional images from Sandy’s devastation came from Seaside Heights when the Jet Star roller coaster washed away from the popular Casino Pier, which had also been torn apart, into the ocean.
This past May, a new roller coaster and ferris wheel were installed on the pier, which had been 70 percent rebuilt by 2014 before it was fully restored earlier this year.
For a tourism-dependent economy, being able to bring families back to town to enjoy the fun and excitement of summer is vital.
“It’s good to see our rides back, it’s good to see the the pier back in business, because that's the stronghold of the town is tourism,” Vaz said. “Without tourism we couldn’t survive.”
Overall, New Jersey has seen tourism flourish since Sandy, with the 2016 season bringing a record $44.1 billion to the state's economy.
Since Sandy, Vaz said the community and governing body is more conscious of potential natural disasters. Starting in January 2018, a federally-funded dune replenishment project will begin and should take about three months to complete.
“The purpose of the dunes is to give us some type of security in event of another storm such as Sandy,” Vaz said. “It’s not a foolproof system of relief, but it's one that we can bank on, it will help us in the near future.”
In addition to a strategic plan approved by FEMA, Seaside Heights officials also regularly hold bimonthly meetings with FEMA personnel to discuss evacuation strategy and other necessary storm preparations.
In a statement to his constituents, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie reflected on how Sandy changed their state.
"Only after the wind, rain, and floodwater receded were we able to fully grasp the magnitude of Sandy’s devastation. It became clear that full recovery from Sandy would take years," Christie said.
"I will not be satisfied until every family affected by Sandy is fully recovered," he said. "But, we have already made significant progress, we will keep moving forward, and we will get the job done."