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Should Taxpayers Rebuild Sandy-Stricken Northeast?

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

President Obama travels to New York today as it recovers from Hurricane Sandy. He arrives soon after New York officials asked for billions of dollars in federal aid. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: At his news conference yesterday, President Obama said the response to Sandy is a model of what he'd like the federal government to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The response hasn't been perfect, but it's been aggressive and strong and fast and robust, and a lot of people have been helped because of it. And that's a pretty good metaphor for how I want the federal government to operate generally. And I'm going to do everything I can to make sure it does.

NAYLOR: The response to Sandy has been led by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA. While many individual homeowners and residents of storm-hit areas are still waiting for help, state and local leaders have generally given the agency good marks. FEMA has some $7 billion available for disaster assistance, with another 5 billion to tap.

And while FEMA administrator Craig Fugate says the agency has enough on hand for immediate needs, the long-term picture is unclear. New York governor Andrew Cuomo says his state is seeking $30 billion in federal assistance. New Jersey hasn't outlined a request yet.

Democratic Congressman Joseph Crowley of New York says only the federal government can provide the scope of aid needed to get the region back on its feet.

REPRESENTATIVE JOSEPH CROWLEY: People are questioning: What role does government have in their lives? If government has a role, this is the role that it plays. In the Rockaways, people themselves cannot rebuild a boardwalk. People themselves can't remove four-and-a-half feet of sand in front of their homes. That's the role of government. And I think this type of response by FEMA, overall, has been praised. But will they be there for future disasters? And I think that's the question Americans have to ask themselves.

NAYLOR: And some are asking whether it should be on the back of taxpayers in, say, Oregon or Arizona to pay for rebuilding the Northeast's infrastructure. Richard Sylves, a professor at George Washington University, says one alternative is for states to pay for their own rebuilding, using financing from bonds, infrastructure banks and user fees, such as tolls.

RICHARD SYLVES: There can be better means at the state and local level for planning these things. They also work to the benefit of states and localities to have more control over what they plan in the way of their infrastructure, fewer federal strings attached and conditions and other things if it will take on some of this responsibility.

NAYLOR: Given the pressure being put on Congress by lawmakers and state officials from the region, it's likely the federal government will pick up the tab for most of the rebuilding from Sandy. Typically, the federal government pays for 75 percent of the costs, but New York officials are pushing for a 100 percent federal contribution.

Stephen Flynn of the George Kostas Research Institute at Northeastern University says what's important now is spending not only on infrastructure, but on the ways to protect that infrastructure from the likelihood of future damaging storms.

STEPHEN FLYNN: If we don't step back and say, what can we do to be better prepared for dealing with these kinds of contingencies going forward, you know, shame on us. The best thing we can do to honor those whose lives have been lost, whose homes have been lost is to draw some lessons from this disaster.

NAYLOR: Senate Democrats are, in fact, working on such legislation as they also prepare an emergency spending measure for Sandy-related damages. We don't know the bottom line yet, but it will be big, and it will be another obstacle in the road as Washington tries to steer its way clear of a fiscal cliff.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: We're also following the implementation of President Obama's health care law. Tomorrow is a deadline for states to set up insurance exchanges where people can buy insurance plans from a variety of private companies starting in 2014. Some Republican-run states have refused. To better understand the implications, you can join NPR health reporter Julie Rovner, who knows all about this stuff, for a Twitter discussion later today. It's at noon eastern time. The hash tag is #healthexchange. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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