On October 31st, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, a soon-to-be-reelected President Barack Obama joined New Jersey Governor Chris Christie for a survey of the devastation at the Jersey Shore. In Brigantine, Obama embraced distraught local business owner Donna Vanzant, whose North Point Marina sustained widespread damage during the storm.
Obama promised her “immediate” assistance, and the photo of their hug went viral days before the election. Now that months have passed since Sandy, I called Vanzant to find out if Obama made good on his promise.
I can’t imagine what you and others at the Shore have been through. How are you holding up?
[Pause] I am surviving. Just surviving. My biggest problem at this point is the insurance companies. Big time. I’ve heard of people that have gotten money from FEMA, but of course FEMA doesn’t help businesses. I’m waiting on my flood policy to come through and help rebuild. Without them sending the money, I can’t start.
Who is your insurer, and what are they telling you?
The insurer is RLI. They don’t even return calls. The insurance companies have also been dragging their feet with the owners of the boats who dock here. I’m losing customers left and right because the insurance company is totaling their boats, which they should not be totaling, because they did not go underwater. They floated and landed. And with each boat they total, I feel like I am being slapped in every direction possible.
Can you put a monetary value on the damage that you have sustained?
I have probably suffered $500,000 in losses. And we’ve lost all of our docks and our bulkhead, and the estimate for that is $200,000, and you can’t get insurance on your docks or bulkhead. And now I am hearing on the TV news that the insurance companies may be running out of money.
Realistically, what is your outlook for the next season?
We’re into January, and we should be starting business back up in March. We’re all worried. If we don’t get that money, the whole coast will be gone. There is devastation all over the coast. We’ve been paying these insurance premiums forever. If I didn’t pay, they would certainly cancel my policy, but now that I need the money, where are they? I feel like sometimes they try to make it too difficult so that people give up and walk away. But I’ve worked too hard for this. If it was the last job on Earth, I wouldn’t work for an insurance company. I couldn’t do what they do to people. I couldn’t sleep at night.
President Obama comforted you and offered you “immediate” assistance. Since your encounter with him months ago, what has been your interaction with the White House?
After his visit, I sent an email to President Obama. Many days later, I got a response back. It was disturbing.
It had nothing to do with what I was asking him. It was a form letter. It thanked me for supporting the troops. He made a promise to rebuild on national television, and I can’t even get this money. It’s heartbreaking, really. I did reach out to Senator Whelan, and I got a response that they were forwarding my email to the person that Governor Christie put in charge of Sandy relief. But from President Obama, I got a form letter.
What were you hoping for?
When you get a hug from the President of the United States, you feel like there’s something there. A promise was made. I have two grown kids. One is a U.S. Navy diver. The other one lives at the marina with his wife and new baby, and they lost everything. But I raised my kids to know that your word is your word. You promise something, you keep it, and that was a broken promise. I’ve never been a person to expect free handouts, but the President gave me hope. But now, I just don’t know.
[PHOTO: Rex Features via AP Images]