Criticism of “Stronger Than the Storm” Ads a Theme at Storm-Aid Hearing

Speakers at a Wednesday night hearing on the next round of Sandy aid were especially passionate on one front: Ditch the "Stronger Than The Storm" advertising campaign or at least pay for it some other way.

About 120 people attended the session, the second of three hearings in which state officials describe how they plan to spend the next $1.4 billion in federal storm recovery aid. The state received about $1.8 billion last year.

Several speakers at the session, held at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, thanked officials for their efforts and suggested improvements, including easing requirements that prevent people from tearing down their homes and rebuilding rather than elevating them; making it easier for owners of mobile homes to get aid; and focusing more on renters and low- and moderate-income residents, particularly in the shore counties.

But the plan to use $5 million out of the next round of funding for advertising became a pinata for several speakers, who called it unnecessary and wasteful, particularly since, as Economic Development Authority head Michelle Brown said in her opening comments, preliminary numbers show last summer surpassed expectations at the shore when hotel occupancy, seasonal hiring and beach badge purchases were counted.

After the hearing, Brown defended the ad campaign, saying that residents of shore areas have told her it was important to the recovery last year from the storm, which was spawned when Hurricane Sandy merged with two other weather systems and became the state's worst natural disaster.

The inspector general at the Department of Housing and Urban Development is auditing a $25 million ad campaign that promoted the Jersey Shore and featured commercials during the gubernatorial campaign showing Republican Gov. Chris Christie and his family.

"The second disbursement shouldn't spend any money on it," said Deb Ellis, of the New Jersey Coalition to End Homelessness. "It is wasteful and it is not needed. And $5 million may not sound like a lot compared to $1.4 billion, but $5 million can buy a lot of rental vouchers."

Several speakers also noted that mobile-home owners originally were told they weren't eligible for aid, though they were eligible. One speaker suggested taking the $5 million earmarked for the ad campaign and using it for aid to mobile-home owners. Two mobile-home neighborhoods in the Moonachie-Little Ferry area were heavily damaged when a creek flooded.

Mark Garruto, of Lavallette, asked the panel to make it easier for homeowners to tear down and rebuild their houses rather than elevate them. He said he has been locked in a fight with the state and the federal government for more than a year over his house, which was half-destroyed in the October 2012 storm.

"It's like taking an old Chevy and rebuilding the engine, but you still have the same rusted-out body when you're done," he said. "How are you going to pick up any girls?"

Tuesday night's meeting in Galloway Township was marked by angry outbursts. Wednesday's hearing was mostly civil, though local firebrand Donna Jackson harangued the panel about a perceived insensitivity to urban needs.

"People lived without lights for three weeks in Newark," she shouted. "There's a different need here."

The third hearing was scheduled for Thursday at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft but was postponed to next week because of weather concerns.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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