Rebuilding strong after a major natural disaster isn't easy. There's the red tape, the insurance snafus, the money, the learning curve about hiring contractors. But the biggest hurdle for many residents affected by superstorm Sandy is the frustration and the uncertainty of waiting on a claim that has not been paid.
As of Feb. 28, there were 73,917 flood insurance claims made in New Jersey in connection with Sandy. Four months after the storm, more than 20,000 claims have not been closed.
Chuck and Emily Appleby's claim on their storm-damaged two-story home in Seaside Park is one of them.
The annoyances faced by them are myriad. But they all stem primarily from that stalled claim.
Chuck Appleby submitted his flood insurance claim the first week of November when Sandy's destruction was fresh. An adjuster hired by his carrier, Selective Insurance Co., came to his house on Dec. 2 to do a walk-through.
Since then, "I've just been waiting," Appleby said. "There's a lot of people impacted -- that's the excuse."
The next step is for the adjuster to exam the house room by room and give a detailed account of the losses, Appleby said.
That delay is only the first in a series. The holdup in the flood insurance claim has triggered some other holdups, joined by yet others.
Wet and ruined
Appleby estimates his family suffered $100,000 in damage to their 3,000-square-foot home. He expects it will cost another $70,000 to elevate the home and build a new foundation made of concrete piers.
Selective cut the Applebys an initial check for $10,000 that allowed them to gut much of the first floor of their home. Selective followed up with a $50,000 check, but Appleby received only $16,666 -- a third of it.
The reason: the bank the money was released to, Citizens Bank, refuses to release the second payment until Selective finalizes the claim and until 80 percent of the work on the house is completed, according to a letter to Appleby from the bank.
That policy appears to stand at odds with the insurance company's aim.
"This ($50,000) check is in advance of the final claim settlement so that repairs can be made to their property as quickly as possible," read a letter to Citizens Bank.
A call to a bank spokeswoman left late Monday afternoon was not immediately returned.
The $26,666 covered the demolition and cleanup, repairs to the floor joists, appliances and cabinets wrecked in the storm and repairs to the front porch. Much of the first floor, however, remains gutted, waiting for contractors.
The Applebys have no choice, they believe, but to dip into savings to get the job rolling.
They expect to shell out $50,000 eventually above what they receive from the insurance company to repair their home and elevate it.
New Jersey ranks near the bottom when it comes to the completion of flood insurance claims from Sandy out of the 13 states in which residents made Sandy claims. Only Massachusetts, which saw 163 flood insurance claims, ranks lower, with a 72 percent completion rate.
New Jersey has a 73 percent completion rate, but it also has by far the most flood insurance claims. Second on the list of total claims is New York, which saw 57,149 claims and a completion rate of 78 percent.
The private insurers who handle claims for the National Flood Insurance Program, operated under the Federal Emergency Management Agency, have paid out $5.2 billion in Sandy claims so far, according to FEMA.
But among the insurers slowest to pay claims is Appleby's carrier, Selective Insurance Co. of America. It has completed 57 percent of its 16,616 claims as of last week.
Select spokeswoman Gail Petersen issued a general statement instead of answering questions.
According to the statement, the company coordinates with "16 major independent adjusting firms" to deal with claims.
"Many of their adjusters may have as many as 150 claims to handle and it may take an entire day to handle a single claim if the damage is extremely severe," according to a statement from Selective. "They are working during the day to assess damage and at night to complete paperwork required by the (flood insurance program). There is no incentive for either the adjuster or the insurance carrier to slow the payment of claims as neither are compensated until the claims are closed."
FEMA did not respond to a detailed list of questions about its authority over the insurers that handle flood insurance claims, but a spokesman said there is not incentive for companies not to complete claims.
According to FEMA literature on flood insurance claims, private insurance companies "are responsible for the adjustment of their policy holders' claims."
Without the completion of the flood insurance claim, Appleby cannot apply for up to $30,000 in mitigation money from the National Flood Insurance Program to elevate.
The program just denied the Applebys' portion of the flood insurance claim that deals with their foundation, saying the damage was due to settlement from saturated soil.
The Small Business Administration denied them a loan because Chuck Appleby has been out of work for 18 months. He was laid off as a Department of Defense environmental specialist when Fort Monmouth closed.
But the work the couple has put into grappling with how to move forward has nearly become a full-time job.
Chuck Appleby, 47, is committed to staying put. He grew up on 10th Avenue. His parents still live in the home he was raised in a few doors away.
He has served on and off for years on the Seaside Park Planning Board and is also a school board member.
Appleby, his wife and their two school-age children now live in nearby Island Heights.
Appleby said he has no qualms about his decision to remain in Seaside Park, despite the fact that the water from Barnegat Bay sloshes onto their street, turning it into a river, about eight times a year, according to his estimate. That's about twice as much as five years ago, he said.
"This is where we live," Appleby said during a telephone interview. "Actually there's an old saying, 'This is where we belong.' I grew up here. We've always loved it here."