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White House set to ask Congress for added $60 billion in Sandy relief for New Jersey

By Herb Jackson and Melissa Hayes, The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) –

HACKENSACK, N.J.—The White House is preparing to ask Congress for an extra $60 billion in disaster aid after Superstorm Sandy, the Senate’s top leader said Tuesday.

But that’s less than the estimated damage cost — New Jersey and New York alone said Sandy cost nearly $79 billion combined — and that money would also have to fund relief for any disasters that may still come later in the federal fiscal year.

And it is unclear what might not be covered by that $60 billion because state estimates include losses covered by insurance, which federal relief won’t match, and there are requests for billions more in funding to start new projects to make states safer from future disasters.

Gov. Chris Christie, who may be going to Washington on Thursday to lobby for relief, and his office did not respond to requests for comment on the $60 billion figure. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid first revealed that amount Tuesday, according to published reports.

With Washington preparing to write a big check to deal with the damage, it may also rewrite the rules about how disaster aid is spent, and members of Congress from New Jersey are introducing their own bills to cover pieces of the recovery effort.

The goal is to get money where it’s needed, and avoid having projects stuck in red tape for years.

Veterans of past catastrophic disasters on the Gulf Coast told a House committee Tuesday that there are limits to what the Federal Emergency Management Agency can do.

“Managing expectations is absolutely critical,” said Mississippi’s top emergency manager, Robert Latham Jr. “Applicants cannot expect FEMA to pay for everything.”

One storm victim whose expectations were raised, however, also demonstrates the gaps in aid programs some in Congress say they want to address.

Donna Vanzant, the owner of North Point Marina in Brigantine, got a well-publicized hug from President Barack Obama when he visited the Jersey Shore two days after the Sandy struck.

She now feels she was used as a “photo op” and wished the whole thing never happened.

With boats from the marina piled like children’s blocks, Obama promised Vanzant immediate help, and personally introduced her to Craig Fugate, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“I thought I was going to get help until I went to see FEMA and FEMA said we don’t deal with businesses,” she said in an interview. “It made me feel like Obama didn’t know what FEMA did.”

Vanzant said she was referred to the Small Business Administration for a “low-cost” loan, but found she could get a better interest rate from a local bank.

Multiple congressional hearings are scheduled to highlight the need for funding, including a Senate appropriations subcommittee today that will hear from officials of FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Officials from NJ Transit and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will also testify Thursday at a subcommittee hearing led by Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.

In addition to providing more funding, senators and congressmen were looking to use the disaster bill to address gaps in existing federal programs, and were working behind the scenes to get their proposals included.

Sen. Bob Menendez, for example, called last week for crafting a disaster-related block grant program that could help businesses that can’t afford loans, and meet housing needs that other disaster programs don’t address.

Menendez, D-N.J., said that without help for businesses, unemployment would skyrocket. Lautenberg introduced a bill Tuesday to extend unemployment benefits for Sandy victims.

House members from New Jersey are also asking that the bill include funding for Army Corps of Engineers projects that have been studied but not funded, a list that includes both beach protection and buyouts and studies along the Passaic River.

“While residents of the Passaic River valley avoided the worst flooding from Sandy, we know that next time we might not be so lucky,” Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., said.

In a major change, lawmakers are also talking about allowing federal “public assistance” funds, which go to rebuild transportation, sewers, schools, hospitals and parks, to be awarded based on a damage estimate.

Normally, the government or property owner has to rebuild the project, then get reimbursement.

“The current recovery process is too cumbersome, and too bureaucratic,” Mark Riley, Louisiana’s deputy emergency preparedness director, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. He described one New Orleans building destroyed by Hurricane Katrina seven years ago that followed a tortured path of denials and appeals before being approved for less money than local officials expect it to cost. Lawmakers from New York and New Jersey also questioned the federal requirement that limits funding to restoring projects to the functionality they had previously.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., said it made no sense to expect New York’s subway system to replace 70-year-old switches with similar equipment.

Fugate, the FEMA director, said he is prepared to work with Congress to put new rules in place to get money flowing more quickly. But he said lawmakers need to remember the red tape is there because Congress wanted to make sure federal dollars were well-spent, and key issues need to be decided.

Among them is what to do when a local entity wants more than FEMA estimates a project will cost. Likewise, if projects cost less than estimated, can the recipient use the money for something else?

Fugate said the federal disaster relief fund has about $4.9 billion left, enough to keep paying claims from Sandy and past disasters until the spring, but that more will be needed to get through the rest of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

Rep. John Mica, R-Fla., said the Republican-dominated House has already passed a bill calling for a pilot project on delivering aid based on estimates.

“Ten years from now, we don’t want to be having hearings asking FEMA why it’s taking so long to rebuild from Hurricane Sandy,” Mica said.

The Democratic chairwoman of a Senate appropriations subcommittee that will hold its own hearing on Sandy relief today has also urged Obama to include funding based on estimates in the budget request he sends to Congress.

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