NJ storage facility is trashing people’s belongings, not letting them back in
SCOTCH PLAINS — Township resident Mary Jean Murphy can visualize her daughter's wedding dress atop a pile of belongings in one of her two units at a Public Storage facility on Route 22.
Murphy claims the dress, along with numerous other personal effects, was not among the possessions damaged when the floodwaters of what had been Hurricane Ida washed across the highway in early September.
But Murphy said everything in her units, and that of nearly 200 other Public Storage customers, is in danger of being unceremoniously tossed after the company declared all contents on the lower level of the facility a total loss.
That determination was made through remediation vendor Hillman Consulting, which along with Public Storage notified basement-level unitholders on Oct. 7 that all of their items would be thrown away.
According to Murphy, that process started Monday, but was halted Wednesday when a state Superior Court judge in Union County granted a temporary restraining order.
Still, Murphy said it remains an emergency situation, which is why she and others have been showing up almost daily at the Public Storage site to document what they can, despite being blocked from further access to their units, and police being called both Monday and Tuesday.
"Hurricane Ida was New Jersey's second-most devastating storm on record, and we deeply sympathize with our customers who lost belongings as a result of the damage it incurred," representatives for Public Storage wrote in a statement provided to New Jersey 101.5.
"We made every attempt to allow customers into the facility, but as we previously communicated to all affected customers, our certified environmental health and safety consultants at Hillman Consulting have determined that there is no safe way to access the affected area and the items stored there due to raw sewage, toxins, and hazardous mold caused by the storm."
'If they cared, they would be seeing us crying every day outside.'
Murphy bristled at the company's viewpoint that they've done all they can do.
"They don't care," she said. "They say they do. They don't care. If they cared, they would be seeing us crying every day outside. We just want our stuff. Just let us have it."
Murphy's contention is that Public Storage should not be taking the easy or cheap way out by issuing a blanket declaration that everything is unsalvageable.
She would like Public Storage to authorize each unitholder to bring in their own third-party remediator to take inventory of what can and can't be saved, then let the unitholder grant Public Storage permission to discard what's ruined.
"Stuff is dry," Murphy said, adding that because the facility also lost electricity for an extended period following the storm, it took 17 days from the first notification that units had been flooded until customers were allowed to come in and take pictures.
"Mind you, it's going to smell, or whatever, but I could bleach, I can salvage some things, or at least see for myself that things are damaged."
Murphy said earlier this week, she observed workers removing items without personal protective equipment before a manager rounded them up and had them don hard hats and ventilator masks.
She said the initial failure to wear PPE runs counter to Public Storage's claim that everything that is being thrown out is hazardous.
"We're talking about 10-foot-tall units, 10 feet by 10 feet in some instances or bigger, and floodwater that did not reach every part of the unit," Jacob Davidson, Murphy's attorney, said.
'The directive from Public Storage has been: We're destroying all your stuff, pursue it with your insurance carrier.'
Davidson and his client both believe that insurance is a complicating factor, but it is not the most pressing issue at hand.
In the statement it provided to New Jersey 101.5, Public Storage said it would "continue to work with customers to help address their needs and guide them through the insurance claims process."
But even that's a bit misleading, according to Davidson.
"The directive from Public Storage has been: We're destroying all your stuff, pursue it with your insurance carrier or policy — which is rendered nearly impossible or impractical by the fact that they're destroying all the contents that need to be inventoried to pursue that," he said.
'I just want my things, my memories.'
Murphy is even willing to sign a waiver, she said, absolving Public Storage from liability should she be exposed to any kind of hazard.
"I don't care about my insurance money necessarily, I just want my things, my memories. That's all I want," she said. "But to make matters worse, we no longer can get insurance on any of our units because they're not allowing us to take (further) photos."
Murphy said she has reached out to several lawmakers to explore whether they can intervene. The office of state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, whose 22nd Legislative District includes Scotch Plains, did not immediately respond to an interview request from New Jersey 101.5.
And while Wednesday's order addresses only Murphy's case, Davidson said his phone has been ringing off the hook with others who are making similar claims.
"I am doing what I can to pursue a broader injunction for all unit owners affected by Hurricane Ida," Davidson said. "I'm hoping that Public Storage will come to the table and consent to that."
Public Storage did say that it had refunded September's rent for the Scotch Plains facility, and is not charging affected customers for the month of October.