Christie, lawmakers strategize to get maximum federal disaster aid for N.J.

Posted: November 22, 2012

TRENTON - New Jersey's 14-member congressional delegation conferred with Gov. Christie in a closed-door meeting Tuesday to map out a plan to access maximum federal aid in the wake of Sandy.

But an official estimate of how much damage the storm inflicted, key to seeking federal funds, will not be released by the state Treasury until next week, according to a Christie spokesman.

"We're only going to get one shot at this," Democratic U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone, who represents coastal Monmouth and Middlesex Counties, said of the estimate. "We want to make sure those figures are accurate."

The Christie administration is calculating the federal aid needed not just for emergency shelter but also to rebuild storm barricades, fix parks, and help the storm-battered fisheries industry, Pallone said.

At their Statehouse meeting, Christie and the lawmakers "talked about how we're going to get emergency work to restore dunes, seawalls, beach replenishment . . . getting the funding for that and prioritizing the towns that need it most, because they're very vulnerable now," said the congressman, whose district includes hard-hit Asbury Park, Belmar, and Keansburg.

On Tuesday night, during his monthly Ask the Governor radio show on New Jersey 101.5, Christie said dune replenishment was his top priority.

"I told the president that's my number-one ask," he said.

Flood-control and beach-protection projects by the Army Corps of Engineers proved their worth during the storm, Republican Rep. Chris Smith, dean of the New Jersey delegation, said in a statement Tuesday evening. He estimated that rebuilding dunes and adding other shoreline protection could cost up to $1 billion.

'Remain realistic'

As for how much storm-affected residents might collect from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Smith said they needed to "remain realistic." Although the maximum federal assistance per person is $31,900, the average after Hurricane Irene last year was $8,000 per applicant, he said.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo estimated two weeks ago that storm damage in his state would cost $33 billion.

New Jersey's two Democratic U.S. senators have asked President Obama for federal aid to cover at least 90 percent of the state's total storm costs, as opposed to the typical 75 percent federal share.

The state's 12-member House delegation - split equally between Democrats and Republicans - has vowed to fight for federal dollars even if conservative members of the GOP-controlled Congress balk at the cost.

"This is a national emergency, and we have responded as such, and we demand and expect nothing less," Republican Rep. Frank LoBiondo, who represents Atlantic City and the southern Shore, said Tuesday.

"That's how the rest of the country has been treated" after natural disasters, he said. "Why should we be treated as second-class citizens?"

Christie hopes the federal government will pick up more than 75 percent of the tab in some hard-hit municipalities, Pallone told reporters after the 90-minute meeting.

"A lot of the towns can't afford the local match," Pallone said, referring to the requirement that a portion of the costs be paid with nonfederal funds.

Offset aid with cuts?

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R., Va.) suggested last year that federal disaster aid should be offset by proportional budget cuts. But he hasn't made similar remarks about assistance related to Sandy, which killed at least 34 people in New Jersey, members of the delegation said Tuesday.

There are indications that the question of how much federal disaster aid is available "will be dealt with before this session of Congress expires" at the end of the year, LoBiondo said.

"The leadership in the Congress is very supportive of passing additional funding bills," Pallone added. "We're not getting the kind of partisan bickering that existed in the past."

Pallone estimated that tens of thousands of residents in his district were displaced by Sandy. Christie is working with FEMA to secure trailers for those who cannot return to their homes.

Fort Monmouth, a Monmouth County military base that was shuttered in September 2011, also will serve as temporary living quarters for 200 to 600 people, Pallone said. The facility has been inspected, and utilities are being restored, he said, adding that it should be ready after Thanksgiving.

Smith, who represents Trenton as well as Shore areas in Monmouth and Ocean Counties, said there were about 300 people in New Jersey shelters, down from a high of about 7,000.

New Jersey Democratic Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Republican Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen sit on the Appropriations Committees of their respective chambers, making them key to securing federal money for the state.

Rep. Bill Pascrell (D., N.J), who sits on the Ways and Means Committee, wants to help with legislation aimed at tax relief. He's working on a measure modeled after a bill passed following Hurricane Katrina that would provide tax relief for individuals and businesses affected by Sandy.

Contact Joelle Farrell

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