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NJ Officials, Residents On Sandy Anniversary: Rebuilding Has Been Too Slow

UNION BEACH, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) -- The second anniversary of Superstorm Sandy arrived Wednesday in New Jersey, where recovery is happening unevenly, with many houses, boardwalks and businesses rebuilt, but many other people still unable to return to their homes.

U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro and federal officials toured a flood-ravaged neighborhood near Raritan Bay in Union Beach where many residents are still struggling to rebuild. Andrea Kassimatis held her 6-month-old daughter as she described living with four other relatives in a 37-foot trailer next to a partially built home.

"It's been a rough and grueling process," she said. "You feel like your government has forgotten you."

NJ Officials, Residents On Sandy Anniversary: Rebuilding Has Been Too Slow

Kassimatis has received a $150,000 rebuilding grant from New Jersey but only got a third of what her flood insurance policy was supposed to pay -- a common refrain up and down the coast.

"Don't believe what you have from a flood insurance policy," she warned. "Because what you're sold is not what you're going to get."

MORE: Superstorm Sandy: Two Years Later | Photo Galleries

She voiced her complaints to Castro, New Jersey's two U.S. senators -- Robert Menendez and Cory Booker -- and Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., all of whom said more "accountability and transparency" is needed in Sandy aid distribution.

Mendendez and Booker blamed the state government for the slow pace of claims being processed, 1010 WINS' Gary Baumgarten reported.

PHOTOS: Superstorm Sandy -- Two Years Later

"They chose a contractor that got three-quarters of his money and botched a billion-dollar program," Menendez said.

NJ Officials, Residents On Sandy Anniversary: Rebuilding Has Been Too Slow

Kassimatis, however, said she didn't want to listen to the political blame game.

"I don't think it should be a party issue; it should be a people issue," she said. "That's what it's about. It's about getting people back in their homes."

At an event in Perth Amboy, state Senate President Steve Sweeney said, "People still aren't getting the answers they deserve." Sweeney, a Democrat, criticized Gov. Chris Christie's administration over its handling of the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, saying just a fraction of the federal aid given to the state has been distributed.

The Oct. 29, 2012, storm devastated the oceanfront coastline and caused catastrophic flooding in cities in New Jersey, including Hoboken and Jersey City. It was blamed for at least 182 deaths and $65 billion in damage in the U.S.

The Fair Share Housing faulted the pace of aid distribution, saying only $220 million of the $1.1 billion New Jersey has received for its main rebuilding grant program is in the hands of homeowners.

Christie made an appearance in Little Ferry on Monday, where volunteers from Rebuilding Together mixed concrete in the driveway of Frank and Debbie Smith's home. Floodwater filled their 7-foot-high basement, destroying baby pictures, furniture and more.

"I can't imagine how long a two years it's been for the Smiths and for others like them," Christie told reporters, including WCBS 880's Levon Putney and CBS2's Christine Sloan.

Christie, however, noted it took eight years for some to rebuild their homes in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina.

"So I think we're doing very well here," the governor said.

Debi Smith and her husband Frank, a firefighter, are still rebuilding after Sandy ravaged their Little Ferry home. The money hasn't come fast enough, but the volunteers have.

"All the agony we went through over these two years of just, there was mold, not being able to use downstairs, we see a light at the end of the tunnel," Frank said.

Two years after the storm, there are some concrete signs of tougher protections. Enhanced preparedness has hardened backup power systems at hospitals, installed generators at dozens of gas stations to run pumps in a power outage and reshaped emergency plans for managing problems from debris to traffic.

But many planned projects are still years off and some ideas still under study. Thousands of homeowners await repair aid, some of it coupled with steps to make homes safer. Some efforts to buy out flood-prone homes haven't gotten takers in the worst-hit areas. And across the coast, a patchwork of protections leaves some areas more vulnerable than others.

Homes and businesses along the Jersey shore, however, have been or are being rebuilt, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is constructing protective sand dunes, Putney reported.

"We've really done great things, but I think there's some big challenges ahead of us, too, particularly if we get another big storm like Sandy," said Tony McDonald, director of the Urban Coast Institute at Monmouth University.

McDonald said he thinks more should be done to protect back bays, such as the Shrewsbury River, from flooding.

New Jersey's Department of Community Affairs says it has allocated $1.1 billion in the Reconstruct, Rehabilitate, Elevate and Mitigation program.

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(TM and © Copyright 2014 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2014 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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