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Billions in damages and not enough in the bank account — that's where federal officials find themselves in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
The White House says it will send an emergency funding request to Capitol Hill this week — expected to be $50 billion to $60 billion. Top administrators told Congress on Wednesday that they want at least some of that money to go toward preventing the kind of devastation caused by Sandy and other recent storms.
The damage from what was dubbed Superstorm Sandy was enormous and widespread. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., testified before some of her Senate colleagues on the tally from her state alone.
"What we know so far: We have over 300,000 homes seriously damaged; more than 265,000 businesses impacted; about 238,000 have filed their FEMA claims to date; and thousands of New Yorkers are still homeless," she said. "We've estimated our damages are upwards of $32.8 billion — and this was a conservative estimate."
New Jersey has a similar tally; Connecticut, a bit less. Combined, the Northeastern states are asking for about $80 billion in federal aid for storm-related damage.
An Eye To The Future
Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan — the Obama administration's point man on Sandy — would not say Wednesday exactly how much the administration wants from Congress. But Donovan said at least a portion of the money will go to build up the region's defenses against future superstorms.
"We want to ensure that homes that were damaged or lost are rebuilt, businesses are restored and communities made whole, but we also want to build back stronger, smarter, safer and more resiliently — a 21st century response," he said.
Donovan told members of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that building up such resilience involves making decisions now, before rebuilding gets under way — "from the kinds of design and materials we should use to rebuild boardwalks to whether gas stations should be generator-capable to how or whether to rebuild in certain areas."
Several senators on the panel talked about the power grid, and whether it would make sense to pay to bury power lines underground, to protect them from falling trees.
That's a good idea in some areas, but Craig Fugate, head of FEMA, warned that in New York City, placing things underground led to other problems.
'A Down Payment'?
Fugate says the administration has some $4.8 billion left in its disaster relief fund — money used to pay for immediate assistance. And while the White House and lawmakers have their hands full with the impending year-end tax increases and spending cuts, some in Congress want to provide the states just a small amount of the rebuilding money now, and a bigger chunk later.
But Donovan says such a down payment would cause hardships.
"Families, small businesses, entire communities are waiting for a decision about what resources are available to help them rebuild," he said. "A down payment simply means that those families, those communities, are going to be waiting for months or longer to be able to get on with their lives."
Nor does Donovan believe the disaster aid should be offset by cuts elsewhere in the budget. Most Democrats seem to agree, but it's unclear whether Republicans will go along.