April 12, 2012 at 6:00 AM ET
Giselle and Zenayda Sedano of Cranford, N.J., never had a chance of keeping the rampaging waters of the Rahway River out of their home when Hurricane Irene roared through northern New Jersey in August. Now they are wondering if they ever had a chance to get any of the $21 million that the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent to help New Jersey’s flood victims.
We first met the Sedano sisters a day after the hurricane hit on Aug. 28, causing the Rahway River to breach containment and wreak havoc in their suburb of Cranford, where about one in five homes were damaged. They were picking through all of their worldly belongings and looking for something, anything, that wasn’t completely waterlogged.
Now, more than eight months later, they are wondering why they didn’t receive any federal disaster aid to flood-proof their home, which is only about 100 feet from the river, while some of their neighbors who live farther from the water are getting nearly $200,000. Other Cranford residents are asking similar questions.
“There are homes in plain sight of mine that were selected which I will have to witness get elevated. But I'm right next to the river. I just don't understand," Giselle Sedano said. "It’s so hard waking up every day not knowing what’s going on."
The controversy highlights the challenges that FEMA and local officials face as they try to plan ahead and minimize future flood disasters.
Msnbc.com profiled the Sedano sisters in August when writing about the towns hit hardest by Irene. Giselle is a hedge-fund analyst and Cornell graduate; Zenayda works in the pharmaceutical business and is a Rutgers graduate. The two successful 20-somethings pooled their resources to buy a home in 2009, soon after they graduated from college, so they could move with their parents to Cranford.
Their parents came from Peru in the 1980s with nothing other than the clothes in their suitcase. Irene left the entire family in a similar fate; mom, dad, and the two sisters had little left outside the clothes they took when fleeing to a nearby hotel right before the Irene hit.
Nearly six months to the day after the storm, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie announced that FEMA had awarded the state $21.6 million through its Hazard Mitigation Grant program. The money was promised to seven municipalities hit hard by the storm; Cranford received $3.1 million for "the elevation of select dwellings." At around the same time, some Cranford residents began receiving phone calls saying they'd been selected for elevation grants. Others, including the Sedanos, heard nothing.
Like dozens of other Cranford residents, the Sedanos had responded to a notice last fall from the township indicating they'd like to participate in the elevation grant program. It's not cheap; even with the grant money, residents have to pay 25 percent of the cost.
Neighbor Kristen Wolansky also requested elevation aid, but she said the township never even acknowledged receipt of the request.
"There was no confirmation that your name was received. The information was just submitted into a void," she said.
The list of lucky homeowners isn't public -- "winners" were notified only by phone call, said Wolansky. But she and another frustrated Cranford resident, Steve Gorski, have pieced together a map based on conversations with neighbors. While unofficial, it shows several homes around the Sedanos' house receiving aid.
It makes sense for FEMA to flood-proof homes that are subject to repeated disasters. Like most flood victims, the Sedanos paid to participate in the National Flood Insurance program – in their case, the premiums were $2,015 annually. Elevating homes -- or purchasing them outright and making them into parkland -- is cheaper in the long run than continuing to pay pricey settlements every 10 or 20 years.
But there's not nearly enough money to buy out or elevate every home in danger -- only about 1 in 10 homes statewide in risky areas will receive funds from the $21 million FEMA grant, New Jersey state officials say. That means there's always a lot of disappointment when flood relief grants are doled out.
But the process for picking winners and losers raises questions. Ultimately, local officials decide which residents get the aid. There are complex considerations, such as preserving the character of neighborhoods, which are best left to local officials. But that also leaves them open to criticism and accusations of political patronage.
Compounding the problem are privacy requirements surrounding the process. Because participation is optional, and residents can decline the aid, the list of selected homeowners remains a secret until contracts are signed to begin work. That also means families like the Sedanos have no real avenue for appeal.
FEMA’s Hazard Mitigation Program has benefitted communities around the country. The state of Vermont received post-Irene buyout and elevation grants of $19.8 million, for example. But the program also has a spotty history. More than $1 billion was set aside for land acquisitions and home elevations after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana, but arguments over how to implement the program delayed the awarding of any grants for two years – and by 2008 – three years after the monster storm -- only 14 grants were paid out. Claims of contractor fraud also complicated that awards process.
By that measure, the post-Irene grant process is moving swiftly in New Jersey. Still, the Cranford secret has been kept for a while -- the homes picked by Cranford officials had to be included in the town's initial application for aid, which was filed sometime in the fall, according to state officials.
FEMA directed questions about the New Jersey grant process to state officials; the governor's office directed questions to the state’s Office of Emergency Management.
Mary Goepfert, spokeswoman for that agency, explained the process to msnbc.com.
"The homeowners have to stay private because if they don't participate, and their name is on a list … their home would be severely devalued," she said.
Goepfert said local officials must show that the choice of winners is "financially advantageous" -- that is, a buyout or elevation project must be cheaper than expected future insurance payouts. But otherwise, home selection is entirely up to municipalities, she said.
"For instance, it might make more sense to buy out three, four, five or six houses in the same neighborhood than it would to buy a house here and a house there,” she said.
But what if a resident who wasn't selected feels the process was unfair?
"That's a question for the municipality," she said.
Cranford Mayor David Robinson said he understands why some residents might be frustrated, but said the municipality initially tried to get enough money to elevate about 50 homes and was told by federal and state authorities to tone down its application. Right now, 18 homes are slated to get elevation aid, and another five are selected as alternates in case others back out.
"We're going to go neighborhood by neighborhood and try to get all of them elevated," he said. "It's just a matter of which homes get first priority. That's what we really focused on." The town plans to apply for additional elevation grants in the future, he said.
This time, municipal officials looked at prior loss history, past flood claims and other data when picking the homes, he said, admitting that some of that data is incomplete.
"We've also found instances where people may have had private flood insurance, and we discover that's a blind spot not included in (our) loss data," he said. "We're working hard to fix that. ... (This time) we focused on homes closest to the river and going neighborhood by neighborhood with the loss data that we had."
While the 18 "winning" homeowners and 5 alternates have been informed, he said there is no process to tell disappointed homeowners that they weren't picked, or why.
And how should a homeowner like Sedano feel if they feel left out, while neighbors benefit?
"If it's a next-door neighbor, maybe the explanation was that their loss data didn't fit into the cost-benefit analysis that was being worked on at that point," he said.
The "losers" must simply trust that the selection was fair. The data -- and the reason for the selections -- remains private.
There is one public curiosity about Cranford's aid grant. The other six cities that were promised post-Irene grants all elected property buyouts; Cranford was the only municipality to pick home elevation. That can be far less disruptive for homeowners, of course, because they don’t have to move. Elevation benefits the town's tax coffers, too, Goepfert said.
"With a buyout, those properties are written off from the tax ratable base," she said. "But why Cranford chose elevation, you'd have to ask them."
Mayor Robinson said no one in the town expressed interest in a buyout.
All this mystery might be over soon. Goepfert said post-Irene aid was fast-tracked, and she hoped contracts for construction and buyouts would be signed within a month. Then, the list of winners and losers will be made public, she said.
For now, the Sedanos are slowing putting their lives, and their home, back in order. Most of the basic reconstruction of their home has been completed, and the family has moved back in, albeit with sparse furniture. They celebrated Easter Sunday at home this past weekend, their first meal in their rebuilt dining room since the flood.
"There were a few tears during dinner," Giselle said.
But the view of the river out their window, which once brought a sense of tranquility, now only brings trepidation. And until the list of to-be-elevated homes is published, the Sedanos are forced to wait and wonder why they weren't chosen.
"We find it totally unfair. Our home is directly in front of the river," Zedayna said.