Superstorm Sandy's sting still felt by homeowners a decade later

In Superstorm Sandy's aftermath, some homeowners now face clawbacks of crucial grants they received

Ten years later, BJ Dowlen still recalls the night the surge from Superstorm Sandy breached the brackish Barnegat Bay and flooded her neighborhood.

"When Mantoloking Bridge breached, we received a one-minute warning," Dowlen recalled during a recent interview with Fox News. "One of our neighbors was the head of the Coast Guard flotilla. She started yelling outside to everyone, ‘A wave is coming! A wave is coming!’ We had about one minute. We went inside our homes, and we braced for impact."

Dowlen rescued her neighbors, whose home was instantly flooded, and gave them shelter in her split-level home in the Baywood section of Brick Township, New Jersey. She recalls how they took refuge on the top floor of her split-level house.


"We talked about survival that night," she said. "We thought about what kind of circle we could make with each other. To lock arms and not get washed away."

Dowlen and her neighbors survived the worst of the storm, but her efforts to rebuild her home after proved to be the true test.

Superstorm Sandy storm surge aftermath

BJ Dowlen explaining how her property was flooded by a storm surge during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. (Fox News)

"I strongly recommend anyone going through this in Florida after Hurricane Ian or any other disaster. Don't do what I did because you are not going to get your insurance money," she cautioned. "You're not getting help from FEMA. All these promises of ‘don't worry. It'll be settled.’" 

"No, you're not. It's a marathon. It is not a sprint."

Dowlen says that the process to get her home back in livable condition was a long process with repairs still needed on the property a decade later. Like many others in the Garden State, Dowlen believes she had received a vital lifeline when she was approved to receive $90,000 from the state’s Reconstruction, Rehabilitation, Elevation, and Mitigation (RREM) Program. But now, the state is demanding that Dowlen return the grant money that was issued to her.


"We've been paying into insurance. We've been doing the right thing our whole lives. Fantastic. Now we're going to get some help in doing what we need to do," she says. "The RREM program ended up being way, way worse than being wiped out by the storm."

It was Oct. 29, 2012, when Superstorm Sandy, which was a post-tropical cyclone with hurricane-force winds, made landfall along the Garden State coastline. The resulting storm surge wreaked havoc across the eastern seaboard causing over 70 deaths across nine states and $65 billion in damages. Many homeowners were left with unlivable dwellings and forced to rebuild, which quickly proved to be costly in the aftermath of the storm. Programs like RREM seemed to be a godsend at a time when many were forced to rebuild and raise their homes to prevent future flooding and keep insurance costs down. 

Now, many of those who applied for the program are being footed the bill with threats of liens being placed on their homes if they do not return the grants. The practice is referred to as a clawback.

Superstorm Sandy home damage

Repairs are still needed on BJ Dowlen's split-level home a decade after Superstorm Sandy. (Fox News)

"It’s basically robbery. They are putting a lien on even after you have elevated your home and got a certificate of occupancy." George Kasimos, a real estate agent and the founder of the advocacy group Stop FEMA Now, told Fox News. Kasimos became an advocate for homeowners across New Jersey after he began the process to rebuild his own home in Toms River during the aftermath of Sandy.

"They're not letting us off this thing. So, if we sell our home or if we die or do whatever, the government is just going to take the money, even though you did everything right. The government has done nothing but put roadblocks to not help us," he went on.

In a statement provided to Fox News, an official for New Jersey’s Department of Community Affairs (DCA) confirmed that the state has been making efforts to recover the RREM grant awards and added that they are required to do so under federal law.

"A homeowner’s grant award must be recalculated to reflect the additional assistance they received," reads the statement." Upon the grant award recalculation, if it is determined that grant funds already disbursed to the homeowner exceed the funding necessary or allowable to complete construction, it is DCA’s obligation under the Stafford Act to recover the excess funding."

The state has put a freeze on the collection of the grant awards, but those who originally received notice of the clawbacks still have a lien on their home. If they sell their property, the amount owed would be deducted at the time of sale. 

Some homeowners are dealing with clawbacks and liens even though their homes have not been rebuilt.


During the reporting of this story, Fox News was in contact with a total of four people still trying to rebuild while facing liens on their property. Each declined interview requests out of fear of reprisal from the state.

In response to their claims, the New Jersey DCA claimed it's worked tirelessly to keep lines of communication open with homeowners and advocates.

"DCA never waivers in our mission to help people as best we can recover from disasters, and we continue to invite critical feedback without consequence for those who provide it," read the statement from a department official.

Joe Mangino, the co-founder of the New Jersey Organizing Project, who just had his clawback fully forgiven by the state, says his group has been lobbying for two bills from the state legislature. Both would grant forgiveness for nearly 1,500 families currently facing clawbacks.

"When the storm happened, right away, everybody told you to fill out the application for the SBA loans," Mangino tells Fox News. "They didn't say that that would affect any grants that would come down the road. They never said it would count as a duplication of benefits or anything like that." 

"So a lot of people filled it out. They got that money with the intention that they were going to use that along with the SBA loan to rebuild."

Superstorm Sandy homeowner in New Jersey

Like many others in the state of New Jersey, BJ Dowlen is being forced to return her RREM grant or face a $90,000 lien on her home. (Fox News)

Dowlen, like many others who have dealt with countless issues over the past ten years while rebuilding, said that she will be able to move forward.


"On the surface, it looks like everything's fine. But my only hope of recovering from this and being made whole is to be able to buy my house outright and pay back the RREM grant. I don't know what the right answer is, whether I regret that I stayed and fought. I think that what I've gone through might help other people," she said. 

 "I'm banking on myself. I'm not expecting anyone else to come save me."