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Months after the tornadoes hit, Ida’s South Jersey victims enter a new phase of recovery

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P. Kenneth Burns
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WBGO
One of several homes damaged by a tornado formed as remnants of Hurricane Ida moved through Mullica Hill, N.J. in September 2021.

Christmas this year was different for Melody Randle and her family.

“We started anew, and it was really nice,” she said.

The reason for the fresh start was that the family lost everything, including their home in Mullica Hill after it was struck by one of seven tornadoes that formed as the remnants of Hurricane Ida swept through the region in September.

Among the items destroyed was Randle’s big collection of Christmas ornaments, which had taken three decades to build.

“That's my thing, I collect ethnic ornaments,” she said. “Santas, angels; I'm a big person on angels.” She also lost the ones her kids made her. “Their handprints or just those very special ornaments that we got over the years.”

Despite a slow rebuilding process, Randle said she feels grateful. She and her husband were able to buy a new townhouse within 30 days of the tornado. It’s temporary until their single-family home is rebuilt.

While she and many of her neighbors had insurance to cover the damage, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is encouraging people hit hard by the storm in counties like Gloucester to apply for federal assistance — and fast. The deadline is coming up on Jan. 5.

Michael Gower, executive director of the United Way of Gloucester County, said his organization has been working with people placed in temporary housing while applications for aid are still being processed and insurance companies are returning with their assessments.

He said the recovery has shifted from providing for storm victims’ most basic needs to helping them with mental health services, food and clothing, and transitional housing.

“We’re kind of in that situation where we’re trying to help people move forward, but actually understanding how they transition from that immediate basic relief to that kind of long-term recovery that they’re going to need to move forward,” he said.

Still time to apply for FEMA aid

Federal assistance was made available to 12 New Jersey counties where President Joe Biden signed major disaster declarations: Bergen, Essex, Gloucester, Hudson, Hunterdon, Mercer, Middlesex, Morris, Passaic, Somerset, Union, and Warren.

As parts of South Jersey dealt with tornadoes, North and Central Jersey saw flooding that killed 30 people.

Residents in those counties whose homes were directly damaged by Ida’s remnants now have until Jan. 5 to apply for assistance. FEMA spokeswoman Nikki Gaskins Campbell said those who have not yet applied for assistance should not delay.

“There’s a tendency to wait until the last minute,” she said, adding that many people assume that the deadline “is probably going to be extended,” which is not guaranteed. “You don’t want to be one of those individuals scrambling around at the last minute trying to apply for disaster assistance if you need it.”

So far, most of the disaster assistance registrations have come from Essex County, with more than 17,000 requests for aid. “A close second” is Bergen County, with more than 13,000 registrations, Gaskins Campbell said.

As of Thursday, more than $210 million had been paid out for the more than 42,000 individual assistance applications that had been approved.

Gaskins Campbell said people with insurance should file claims with those companies first before applying for FEMA assistance, calling it “their first line of defense.” She added that, by law, the agency cannot duplicate insurance payments.

“Essentially, you cannot double dip,” she explained. “For example, if someone receives damage to their roof as a result of Ida, if your insurance agrees to pay for that, you can’t then turn to FEMA and say, ‘OK, FEMA, I got this from my insurance, what are you going to give me?’”

The average grant the agency will give out is between $5,000 and $8,000. “We really want to get a roof over your head,” she said.

For longer-term assistance, people are referred to the Small Business Administration.

“A lot of people really get confused when we say Small Business Administration,” Gaskins Campbell said. “[People] say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not a business owner.’ But during the disaster … the SBA actually provides small business loans to survivors to help in their road to recovery.”

Plowing ahead

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While FEMA and the Small Business Administration can help in most cases after a tornado, there is a different route for farmers and other agriculture businesses.

Most of the demolition is complete at Wellacrest Farm, New Jersey’s largest dairy farm, which found itself right in the path of one of the tornadoes in September.

“We have one more building we have to tear down,” said Eric Eachus, the farm’s vice president. “We were going to try to salvage it, but it’ll cost too much for them to repair it, so we’re just going to tear it down and start over.”

Five new buildings have been built so far, along with a new grain system.

Financial help for the farm has been coming from everywhere, including $1,000 from the South Chapter of the New Jersey Association of Health Underwriters. But, Eachus said, no money has come from FEMA, which provides aid only to individuals, or the SBA.

“They can’t do anything because we’re agriculture,” he said. “If we were a bowling alley, sure, no problem.”

The SBA does not handle disaster assistance for farm businesses, according to agency spokesman Jack Walsh. He urged farmers to get in contact with the U.S. Agriculture Department if they need recovery assistance.

Eachus said insurance covered a percentage of the cost of the damage, which totaled close to $1 million, He added that a third-party adjuster has been hired to represent the farm.

“We’re waiting to see what happens there,” he said.

Meanwhile, a GoFundMe campaign was established by the farm shortly after the tornado struck, raising more than $120,000. Eachus said his mother has been overseeing donations, which have come from across the country.

“She’s gotten letters from people from, like, out West — ‘Oh, my dad had a dairy farm. Now, all I can afford is $50, but here it is. We want to help.’”