Help for Sandy victims when all other options run out

Long-Term Recovery Group taps Monmouth County’s unique volunteer resources

BY KEITH HEUMILLER
Staff Writer

 More than 150 professionals, activists and volunteers listen to a FEMA presentation during the March 6 meeting of the Monmouth County Long-Term Recovery Group at the Monmouth County Library headquarters in Manalapan.  ERIC SUCAR staff More than 150 professionals, activists and volunteers listen to a FEMA presentation during the March 6 meeting of the Monmouth County Long-Term Recovery Group at the Monmouth County Library headquarters in Manalapan. ERIC SUCAR staff Dozens of area nonprofit groups, charities and faith-based organizations have banded together to form a last line of defense against superstorm Sandyrelated hardships.

“After everybody’s other resources are spent, we are the agency or group of last resort,” said Timothy Hearne, treasurer of the Monmouth County Long-Term Recovery Group (LTRG), which met on March 6. “The term is really ‘unmet needs.’ Whether they are personal, financial, FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], insurance, flood damage — many of these needs are still there.”

More than 150 professionals, activists and volunteers gathered at the county library in Manalapan for the fifth meeting of the LTRG, a sprawling network of diverse aid agencies established in the wake of the storm to act as a one-stop shop for impacted residents.

Hearne, also president and CEO of the United Way of Monmouth County, said the group’s mission is to help homeowners, renters and their families connect with vital social services and much-needed aid when all other options run out.

“They come to us and we try to meet those needs through volunteerism, donations and other means.”

Traditionally, FEMA reaches out to aid organizations like the United Way in the wake of a disaster to form cooperative groups that can provide comprehensive assistance and coordinate volunteer efforts for months, and sometimes years, afterward.

The LTRG, like its counterparts in Ocean, Middlesex and other counties, draws support from churches, case managers, mental health specialists, construction professionals, grant writers and many others who volunteer their time and services to the effort. These volunteers are split among nine committees — construction, donations, communication, emotional and spiritual care, immediate housing, case management, unmet needs, volunteers and executive — that meet independently of the whole to hammer out issues, work toward independent goals and collect information. The committees then report back to the LTRG during monthly and sometimes bimonthly meetings.

According to Hearne, residents who need assistance from the group must first contact a case manager and fill out an intake form describing their issues.

While the LTRG is still finalizing a list of available case managers and working to establish a centralized website, Hearne said interested county residents can reach out to organizations like Family Promise, Catholic Charities and the American Red Cross, which will plug them “into the pipeline.” Impacted residents can also sign up to receive information from the case management subcommittee by sending an email to CMLTRC-subscribe@uwmclistserv.org.

Once under the guidance of an LTRG case manager, impacted residents can be directed to the organization, individual or service that provides the specific kind of aid they require.

“A lot of the needs will be met not by dollars but by volunteers, housing, donations and the like,” Hearne said.

One such service was offered at the meeting by Ted Gooding, CEO of the Toms River-based community outreach group OCEAN Inc. and chairman of the Ocean County LTRG.

“OCEAN Inc. has $1.2 million to spend for heaters, hot water heaters, gutters and installation to be distributed between Ocean and Monmouth County,” he announced to the group. “If you know of anyone who is income-eligible and in need, please have them call us.”

The LTRG’s immediate housing subcommittee is currently working on finding open rooms or rental properties in Monmouth and Ocean counties and matching them up with displaced residents still in need of better or more permanent housing.

Committee member George Levine said the group may also recruit some college students who are home for spring break to canvas areas like Keansburg and the Highlands and gather as much up-to-date housing information as possible. Such data, he said, has not yet been provided by the federal government.

“It is a continuing source of frustration for us that we cannot get that information systematically from FEMA or any other source,” he said.

Donna Blaze, CEO of the Affordable Housing Alliance in Eatontown, said the committee is also soliciting donations to help renters pay for housing deposits and to prepare “welcome home” kits containing linens, towels and other household necessities for those returning to flood-damaged households.

“We know that there are hundreds of people that still need decent, safe places to live, either temporarily or permanently, who would like to remain in Monmouth County,” she said.

While working to bring the group’s website online, the communication subcommittee is also seeking to collect and disseminate information from all involved organizations and subject-matter experts, ensuring that the collective knowledge of the group is available to the residents who need it.

On March 6, professionals from FEMA and the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office informed the group of ongoing projects and initiatives designed to ease the rebuilding process for those affected by the storm.

FEMA liaison Lori Ross discussed the cost-sharing arrangement between towns and the federal government for Sandy-related cleanup and repair projects. Though municipalities are generally required to fund 25 percent of such projects, Ross said it does not necessarily have to be in cash.

Volunteer time and labor, for example, also count toward the cost-share, meaning that every agency involved in the Sandy response should be recording and submitting a record of their donated hours, Ross said.

“To date, there are at least 800,000 hours that have been reported in New Jersey by 46 agencies. [But] there are at least 400 agencies and organizations that have been active,” she said. “We need those hours because, as of a month ago, that equates to over $18 million. That’s a significant amount of funds.”

“What you’re doing absolutely supports the overall goal of the state to rebuild and recover,” Ross added.

So far, according to Hearne, the LTRG has received $250,000 from Mary Pat Christie’s Hurricane Sandy New Jersey Relief Fund.

The Robin Hood Foundation, which staged the 12/12/12 concert for Sandy Relief at Madison Square Garden, has also committed $1.5 million to the group. The first disbursement of $700,000, to be used on unmet needs and administration, was received earlier this month, Hearne said.

That money must be used by the end of the year.

Other groups, including the United Way of Monmouth County, the Union for Reform Judaism and World Renew, have donated a total of $235,000.

The LTRG’s next meeting is scheduled for March 27.