Aerial photo of damage caused by superstorm Sandy north of Seaside Heights, N.J. (Photo: Office of the Governor of New Jersey)
By KEN SERRANO
and TODD B. BATES
The Asbury Park (N.J.) Press
ASBURY PARK, N.J. -- Survivors of superstorm Sandy have a new catchphrase: The 2820.
The number is the dollar amount -- $2,820 -- that the Federal Emergency Management Agency sent to many of the thousands of residents of destroyed or damaged homes along the coast since the Oct. 29 storm. The green government check comes in a white envelope with no explanation and, perhaps more surprisingly, no government forms to fill out. Others received direct deposit to their bank accounts.
Residents in Ocean County netted more rental assistance money -- $108 million -- than people in any other county in the state.
FEMA said the $2,820 reflects the fair market value for two months of rental housing for a two-bedroom dwelling in Monmouth and Ocean counties. Other rental assistance amounts are $1,135 a month for a one-bedroom rental, $1,955 for three bedrooms and $2,299 for four bedrooms, according to Chris McKniff, a FEMA spokesman.
People must register with FEMA to get housing assistance. But the check has surprised some people, including those who registered but never asked for rental assistance of any kind.
One couple is Raymond and Mary Saunderson. They evacuated their Surf City home along with thousands of others along New Jersey's barrier islands before Sandy hit Oct. 29.
The couple stayed with Mary's sister in Manchester for several days until it was safe to return to Long Beach Island. The couple registered with FEMA, but they found their home losses were minimal: a refrigerator and some tools stored in their garage. They were sent a check for $2,820 in rental assistance money.
Raymond Saunderson, 77, said the money should go to those who truly need it.
"You know, there are a lot of people who are without food, without lodging. I don't think it's right for me to keep it," he said. He said he plans to try to return the check to a local FEMA center.
In an email, McKniff said in most cases he refers people with questions about returning unused or unneeded FEMA grants to Disaster Recovery Centers for instructions.
FEMA's main job is to provide financial aid to disaster victims.
As of Friday morning, FEMA had given $243 million to New Jerseyans for housing assistance, which includes rental aid and essential home repairs, to 47,000 eligible applicants in New Jersey, according to McKniff. That comes out to an average of about $5,170 per applicant, which is one household.
The $108 million in Ocean County -- about 45 percent of all the state housing aid so far -- went to 18,500 applicants, according to McKniff.
Monmouth County ranked second, with $52 million distributed to 9,300 applicants, according to McKniff.
Aside from public reimbursements, FEMA provides money to individuals for two things: home repair and rental assistance. The maximum payout is $31,900 for any single housing disaster event. The maximum is usually sent to those whose houses were destroyed.
Most of the early money to individuals has come in the form of rental assistance, which can last 18 months, McKniff said.
Disaster aid grants are not taxable income and will not affect eligibility for Social Security, Medicaid and other public assistance programs, he said.