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Hurricane Sandy anniversary brings reflection, volunteerism, calls for action, Oct. 29, 2014

By Rob Spahr

The second anniversary of Hurricane Sandy brought crowds of officials, media and volunteers to the Jersey Shore on Wednesday.

Something else that was present throughout the day was the understanding that two-years later, more needs to be done to help the victims of the historic storm, many of whom still have no idea when they will be able to return home.

Gov. Chris Christie and members of his administration visited several shore communities throughout the day, where there were rebuilding projects ongoing and where some angry Sandy victims voiced their frustrations.

"I’m still homeless thanks to you. Two years later," a woman shouted at Christie during his visit to East Dover Marina in Toms River.

Without addressing them directly, Christie said he sympathized with them and was doing the best he could to make victims whole as soon as possible.

"For anybody who’s not back in their home yet, they’re going to be incredibly frustrated. I understand that but we can only go as fast as we can go," Christie told reporters at the marina. "We’re doing the best that we can."

However, state Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester) slammed Christie’s conditional veto of his “Sandy Bill of Rights” in May and Senate Republicans’ refusal to override him.

"The buck stops at the desk of the governor… this is the state’s failure, not the federal government’s failure," Sweeney said while speaking in Perth Amboy on Wednesday. "The money is here. We can’t get the money in the hands of the people who need it."

At a private meeting at the Union Beach home of Maria McQuarrie on Wednesday morning, a group of residents and advocates told U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and federal lawmakers about the ongoing struggle to recover from the 2012 storm. The obstacles keeping families displaced varied but included problems with flood insurance and the state’s largest rebuilding grant program, which is funded with $1.1 billion in HUD grants

"We should have been home by now but we’re not," said McQuarrie, who moved into the trailer from a hotel with her husband, Scott, and 10-year-old daughter, Brianna, 21 months ago. "They don’t want to pay the insurance money so now we’re just waiting on the grants."

At a news conference Wednesday, U.S. Sens. Robert Menendez said more accountability, transparency and efficiency is need in the state’s relief effort.

"Two years later, we find a myriad of what is nothing less than horror stories of conflicting information, of lack of transparency, of an inability to get an answer and, most importantly, the inability to get back into home," Menendez said. "We must do better."

While those debates and calls for action were taking place, hundreds of volunteers flocked to shore communities to mark the anniversary of Sandy by helping storm victims return home.

Gateway Church of Christ – which has been at the forefront of the Bayshore region’s post-Sandy recovery since the storm hit – organized a group of dozens of volunteers, including groups from the Starbucks corporation and the United Way, to tackle projects in Union Beach, Belford and Keansburg. Meanwhile, Habitat for Humanity and St. Bernard Project were completing projects in Union Beach and Keansburg, respectively.

Carl Williamson, the Gateway Church’s lead evangelist, said that the church and its affiliated volunteer groups have completed more than 500 home renovation projects in the last two years, attempting to average between 10 to 20 homes per month. But the need for assistance is still growing, he said.

"To date, we continue to grow in the number of projects that are needing to be done. Right now, in queue, there are 258 projects that still need to be completed," Williamson said. "I’m not sure where the blame is supposed to go, but it definitely is taking a long time for people to get back home and it’s tiring for them. Imagine being out of your home for two years and you’re still not on the road to knowing when you’re going to finish. No one wants to take a hand out, but I think people who are in this situation now are being forced to get help."

For many of the people who volunteered their time and talents, the lack of progress in some areas was surprising.

"It’s incredible how much work remains to be done," said Ken Garrison, 67, of Little Silver, a volunteer with First Presbyterian Church in Red Bank, which has deployed volunteers every week to help area Sandy victims fix their homes.

"There was one man we helped who was still washing all of his dishes in the sink of his second-floor bathroom," Garrison said. "It’s hard to imagine that someone would still be living like that after two years, but it’s happening."

The anniversary of Hurricane Sandy was not only recognized in shore communities.

A ceremony outside of Hoboken City Hall, was dedicated to the city’s first responders, who were faced with city-wide blackouts, massive flooding and thousands of stranded residents due to the storm.

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer said that the city has mostly recovered from the storm, but that the city is working to implement a four-part water management strategy, which will create infrastructure and soft landscape to guard against future flooding.

"The reality is, we’re still very much at risk," Zimmer said.

–NJ Advance Media’s MaryAnn Spoto, Erin O’Neill, Matt Friedman and Kathryn Brenzel contributed to this report.

Rob Spahr may be reached at Follow him on Twitter @TheRobSpahr. Find on Facebook.

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