The Record: NJ's Storm Bill: $37B
Melissa Hayes and Herb Jackson | The Record
Governor Christie boosted the cost of New Jersey's recovery from superstorm Sandy to $36.9 billion Wednesday and hired a former assistant U.S. attorney to oversee the state's rebuilding effort.
A parade of escalating numbers detailed Sandy's toll: More than 30,000 businesses and homes destroyed or structurally damaged, an additional 42,000 homes with problems, 100 miles of beach severely eroded. Already, Christie said, 233,000 people in the state have registered for assistance.
The revised cost estimate which represents a $7.4 billion jump from the initial figures last week now includes money to help the state forestall similar devastation in any future natural disasters. They were submitted to the White House on Wednesday as one of the first steps in a campaign to secure an unprecedented infusion of federal aid for the region.
"We think we've been very responsible with the numbers we put forward," Christie said. "We haven't padded the numbers, we're not playing games, we're not negotiating. These are numbers that we need and we hope that members of Congress go down and get it for us."
The numbers submitted so far offer a broad-brush assessment of the havoc wreaked by Sandy in late October. Coupled with New York's latest request for about $42 billion, they clearly put Sandy in rare company, giving it the potential to exceed Hurricane Katrina as the most costly storm ever in the United States.
Christie announced the latest damage assessment and pledged bipartisan cooperation with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo in seeking relief during a State House news conference at which he introduced Marc Ferzan as New Jersey's new overseer of the storm recovery. Ferzan worked under Christie at the U.S. attorney's office for nearly a decade while the governor led the agency.
Christie said he made the decision to put one person in charge of the overall effort rather than spread out the responsibility, as Cuomo has done after consulting with various governors who steered their states through Katrina. Christie also announced Wednesday that the state has retained Witt Associates, a Washington, D.C.-based crisis management firm that was heavily involved in Katrina, to work with Ferzan.
"What I wanted was someone who was smart enough and tough enough and aggressive enough to do this," the governor said of Ferzan. "I've watched Marc over the last 10 years in a variety of different positions, and every time he's performed and exceeded my expectations, and I expect this is going to be the biggest challenge he'll ever face, but I expect he's going to perform in the same way."
Ferzan, 45, of Lawrenceville, managed a staff of 8,000 when he was the state's executive assistant attorney general for two years until he left earlier this year to become managing director of PricewaterhouseCooper's investigative consulting practice.
"I am truly humbled and honored to take on this role," Ferzan said. "New Jersey is my home. It is where I grew up. My family is here, my friends are here and the destruction I recognize has and will continue to touch all of us in the weeks and months to come."
Team effort vowed
Christie, a Republican, and Cuomo, a Democrat, reiterated their commitment to avoid any competition for federal funding and instead lobby Congress together to secure up to $78 billion in assistance in a joint statement Wednesday afternoon.
"Governor Cuomo and I have been around for a long time, we know the old game of divide and conquer," Christie said at the news conference. "We're not going to let any political forces in Washington, D.C., divide and conquer us. We're going to go down there as a team. We're going to work together and we're going to advocate for the numbers that we put forward. These are realistic numbers that we need."
A damage assessment such as the one submitted Wednesday by New Jersey usually starts a process that leads to a disaster declaration. But since President Obama made that declaration the night Sandy hit, the assessments by Christie and Cuomo are likely to have more of a political impact as members of Congress push for more aid.
There are political decisions aplenty to make, since the Federal Emergency Management Agency itself does not have adequate funding to meet the recovery demands of the states.
"They could be significant to support the efforts in the lame-duck session to obtain an additional supplemental appropriation for the Disaster Relief Fund because it clearly will be drained by Sandy," said Ernie Abbott, founder of FEMA's law consulting firm.
New Jersey's entire congressional delegation signed a letter this week urging Obama to send a special funding request to Capitol Hill.
Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, said the delegation has been working since the election recess to build support among colleagues for a spending bill to cover full disaster relief.
"Sandy was an unprecedented disaster for our state and the rebuilding is going to be a massive challenge," Pascrell said.
The bottom line in any such funding bill will be shaped by the amount the Obama administration requests after reviewing submissions from all of the states affected by Sandy. The time frame for that request is unclear, but state lawmakers were hoping it comes soon because the congressional term is nearing an end and other major issues, including the looming fiscal cliff, will require their time.
Leading New Jersey's assessment of damages were the state's businesses, which were pegged at suffering $8.3 billion in losses, followed by parks and the environment, including beaches, at $5.5 billion. Other big ticket items included $4.9 billion for housing; $3 billion for water, waste and sewage; $1.8 billion for utilities, and $1.35 billion for transit, roads and bridges.
The Government Accountability Office reported this year that from 2004 through 2011, there were 539 federal disaster declarations that, together, cost $90 billion. About $40 billion of that was from Katrina alone. Payments for New Jersey disasters over those years totaled $535 million.
Ferzan will be paid $141,000 to coordinate the state's long-term recovery, while working with local governments and public and private partners, including Witt Associates. Christie said he has sought guidance from former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, both of whom were serving when Katrina hit, as well as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has been leading his state through the rebuilding stage.
James Lee Witt, the founder and chairman of Witt Associates, advised Louisiana in the aftermath of Katrina and also served as director of FEMA under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2000. The state is in the process of negotiating a contract with Witt.
A 2007 investigation by NBC News accused Witt Associates of paying subcontractors half of what it was billing the state, which was reimbursed by FEMA. But the firm responded that its costs were all reviewed by the agency, and were less than what it would have cost the state to do the job itself. A spokeswoman said it was significant that the story went no further.
A state 2008 audit concluded Witt Associates "performed an admirable job" in helping with the response, and had been paid $66 million from recovery funds, according to The Associated Press.
Jindal's homeland security director said he agreed with the findings, which also said the state could save money in the future by maintaining contracts with local agencies to quickly respond to emergencies.
Witt also consulted with Jindal after BP's Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf and was hired last year by Vermont after Hurricane Irene.
Sue Minter, Vermont's Irene recovery officer, praised the company for helping the state and towns fill out the crucial "project work sheets" that FEMA uses to determine whether to reimburse costs.
"It's critical to have an expert there assisting the applicant to make sure all their costs are on this project work sheet," Minter said. "And when you're dealing with an emergency, it's hard to utilize personnel to try figure out what should go on that project work sheet."
For example, she said, Witt is helping the town of Bennington appeal FEMA's denial of reimbursement for $4 million spent removing debris from a river and shoring up banks to prevent damage in future storms.
Local aid requests
FEMA spokesman Scott Sanders said one form of aid is public assistance to help state and local governments and non-profit entities recover damages to the public infrastructure. There were 109 applications from Bergen County and 30 from Passaic County for public assistance as of Nov. 23, according to the state's website. That includes municipal and county governments, school boards, public safety and water and the Bergen County Utilities Authority, Passaic Valley Water Commission and North Jersey District Water Supply Commission.
The program generally reimburses 75 percent of eligible costs, with the applicant paying 25 percent, although the New Jersey delegation has asked Obama to lower the local obligation. It covers things like overtime for police and firefighters, debris removal, replacement or repairs to damaged infrastructure, including parks, roads and bridges.
FEMA does not provide any funding up-front but reimburses entities once the work is performed and payment is documented. Sanders said FEMA sends money to the state, which is then responsible for reimbursing county and municipal government.