The Jersey Shore is still feeling the pain of Superstorm Sandy, five years later.
Many homeowners lost everything. Thousands are still not back in their homes.
Too many were victimized a second time when unsavory contractors stole repair money without doing the jobs they promised.
We keep seeing the headlines.
But the headlines only tell part of the story. All these homeowners want is for life to go back to normal. For some, it will never be the same.
Senior citizens Gail and Don Seckler didn’t lose everything when the storm hit.
They’re finally back in their home, but it was anything but easy.
After their contractor allegedly stole the money that was supposed to repair and lift their home, they say they’ve been wronged a second time — this time by a government program that was supposed to help.
The couple’s story came to Bamboozled from someone who volunteers with the Secklers at the The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Ocean County.
The friend recounted how the couple has given their time over and over again, even after Don Seckler, 82, a Navy veteran, had multiple surgeries for his gallbladder and back, plus three operations for his knee. Even though Seckler mostly relies on his wheelchair or a walker, the friend said, Seckler and his wife haven’t slowed down.
But what’s happening to them now is having a big impact on their ability to stay in their home of 32 years.
The home is on Pelican Island, at the base of the bridge linking Toms River to Seaside Heights and Seaside Park.
When Sandy came through, the Secklers’ home was left standing. They lost their air conditioning, heating and hot water units, plus personal belongings, when the waters from Barnegat Bay poured in, climbing four feet high.
As they planned to make their home livable again, they looked for ways to lower their flood insurance bill, which was already $3,300 a year. They decided to use funding from the Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation program, or RREM, to elevate the home, which dropped their flood insurance premiums to less than $800 a year.
In December 2014, approved for RREM help, they chose a contractor — Price Home Group of Manahawkin — and they rented a first-floor apartment while they waited for the rebuilding to start.
At the same time, they applied to a program called the “Sandy Relief Home Access Program.” Through RREM and the Department of Human Services’ (DHS) Division of Disability Services, the program would pay for a lift to be installed at the couple’s home to accommodate Don Seckler’s wheelchair.
Without it, living in a raised home — with 10 steps to climb to get in or out — wouldn’t be reasonable for the retired couple.
They were approved for the lift, documents show.
But before any lift could be installed, the rest of the construction had to be completed.
There was delay after delay. The contractor wasn’t responsive. Someone stole the copper piping and wiring in the home, which stood empty as they waited for the contractor to start working.
By June 2015, the couple knew that something was wrong with the contractor.
They filed a complaint with Consumer Affairs, the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office and the Attorney General, said Gail Seckler, 77.
It turns out the couple was one of nine homeowners who had trouble with Price Home Group.
In July 2016, Consumer Affairs filed suit against the company, alleging it took more $1.1 million from Sandy victims.
The complaint said company “took significant initial payments to elevate or replace Sandy-damaged homes then failed to begin work, performed the work in a substandard manner and/or abandoned unfinished projects without returning for weeks, months, or at all.”
The company’s principals have since filed for bankruptcy, and Consumer Affairs has asked the court that the restitution the state is seeking not be discharged in the bankruptcy proceedings.
Consumer Affairs said the cases are still pending.
While the state was preparing its case, the raising of the Seckler’s home was at a standstill.
But there was hope. They would be reimbursed for the RREM money the contractor allegedly stole, but not until the case against the company was official.
“In order to help homeowners in the RREM Program withstand instances of contractor fraud, DCA created and instituted a policy that permits additional assistance to defrauded homeowners,” said DCA spokeswoman Lisa Ryan. “As soon as a charging document is filed against a contractor by a law enforcement agency, a RREM homeowner can access the grant funds they’ve been defrauded of; they don’t have to wait for the courts to adjudicate the case.”
And that’s what happened for the Secklers. Once Consumer Affairs filed its case, they were able to get the construction money back from RREM.
So finally, the couple was able to hire a new contractor, and they were back in their home on April 22, 2017.
They now needed the lift to be installed.
“Don called Disability about May 5, 2017 to say we were back in the house and they could come any time to get started,” Gail Seckler said.
But the program manager said no. The program was out of money.
The DHS’ Ramp/Lift Replacement Sandy Recovery Program was a budget-firm, first come, first served, federally funded initiative, said DHS spokeswoman Pam Ronan.
“Individuals may have been deemed eligible, but slots were not ‘saved,'” she said of the program that paid for 291 projects. “The funding was dispersed by project, until exhausted.”
So even though the couple had been approved, and even though the raising of their home was delayed because of an allegedly fraudulent contractor and by no fault of their own, the couple didn’t have a place in line for the lift.
Now, they’re without.
They can’t afford to pay to install a lift — estimated to cost $15,000 several years ago — without help.
Don Seckler’s mobility isn’t getting any better, and he usually needs to take the 10 steps on his bottom because his knee is unreliable and he doesn’t want to risk a fall.
Gail Seckler has developed a bad back from lugging the wheelchair around, pushing her husband in it and helping her husband up and down the stairs.
We asked several government agencies if there were other programs to help the couple, and while they recommended some non-profits, there was no clear path for them to get the lift they desperately need but cannot afford.
“Don is angry and feels as if he’s been screwed,” Gail Seckler said. “There was no communication from Disability to say we were in danger of losing the opportunity to get the lift.”
“I don’t know if I’m depressed but I truly do not feel anything,” she said.
Dear readers, perhaps you have ideas or resources to help this couple. If you do, please contact us at Bamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com.