​The horror stories of New Jersey's Sandy relief program

NEW YORK - More than two years after Hurricane Sandy inflicted widespread damage in New Jersey, homeowners there still face a flood of trouble.

When we met Rob Buck at his former home he showed us the damage caused by his contractor's neglect -- a contractor assigned to him under a state-run Sandy recovery program. Buck's ceiling has started to bow, there's two feet of water in the basement, black mold has crept up walls, and the house -- which is now uninhabitable -- has started to sink.

Buck is among 8,300 homeowners in New Jersey's main Sandy recovery initiative: Rehabilitation, Reconstruction, Elevation and Mitigation Program (RREM). The program was touted by Governor Chris Christie two years ago.

"I will not let anyone get in between me and the completion of this mission to restore New Jersey, to help the citizens of our state recover," said Christie at the time.

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Clockwise from top left: Trudi Stawinski, Kris Pyzyna, Sue Elliott, Rob Buck
CBS News

But recently scores of homeowners have protested the slow pace of recovery. We sat down with a group of frustrated homeowners who say the state failed them. Among them was lawyer Kris Pyzyna.

"Honestly, the worst decision I made was going with this grant program," said Pyzyna.

Pyzyna discovered her contractor made potentially life-threatening errors with her boiler by taping it in with duct tape.

"I hired my own plumber to come in and he knew right away that the vent was improper," said Pyzyna. "I would've had a massive CO leak and it's very possible that it would've killed me."

More than two months after being told to vacate the house, Sue Elliott's assigned contractor had not started work on her home.

"They didn't have the proper bond, they didn't have the proper insurance," said Elliot. "The engineering company that they hired didn't ever come to New Jersey so the plans were incorrect. Actually on our plans there is a picture of someone else's house."

A CBS News review of the 32 state approved RREM builders found: nearly half are from outside New Jersey, mainly Texas and Louisiana; several faced lawsuits, bankruptcy or consumer complaints claiming shoddy work; and one builder allegedly left the program last summer but was still signing construction agreements months later.

Last fall, Trudi Stawinski was assigned to the builder who allegedly left the program. Since then she and her family have been living out of boxes waiting for construction to begin.

"It just takes a toll on you - mentally, physically, financially," said Stawinski.

Buck has been living in temporary housing, including a hotel. He worries that he and his family may end up in a shelter.

"You live with the guilt," he said. "Like maybe I shouldn't have did this. My kids, I have to look them in the eyes and (say) I'm sorry this is because I made this decision."

The New Jersey Sandy Recovery Division declined our request for an on-camera interview but in an email said that all RREM builders were fully vetted and selected based on their qualifications and financial capacity to complete the work. But late last year, an independent monitor found that there was not adequate due diligence in selecting pre-qualified RREM builders.

The state of New Jersey provided us with this statement:

"The NJ Department of Community Affairs (DCA) acknowledges that Sandy recovery has been a difficult road. Not just because we had to recover from the worst natural disaster in New Jersey's history, but because we had to practically start from scratch. The State had never had to do anything of this size and scope before. We speak with Sandy-impacted New Jerseyans every day and hear their personal stories. We fully recognize that many are still rebuilding, remain out of their homes, and are frustrated. We want to assure families affected by the storm that our singular focus at the Department is to get them back into their homes. We are making real progress on this front through the RREM Program, which is the State's largest Sandy recovery initiative. The program has approximately 8,300 active participants of which 6,900 have signed their RREM grant agreement, which is needed in order to start construction. Among those who have signed their agreement, 6,600 are in the construction phase with approximately 1,000 homeowners finished with their construction. With the warmer weather and the improvements we've made to the program, we are now finishing approximately 40 homes a week in RREM and disbursing over $5 million a week based on our previous five week average."

  • Elaine Quijano

    Elaine Quijano was named a CBS News correspondent in January 2010. Quijano reports for "CBS This Morning" and the "CBS Evening News," and contributes across all CBS News platforms. She is based in New York.